Merilyn Jackson’s Book Review of The Art of Falling

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by Merilyn Jackson for The Dance Journal

The Art of Falling, A novel by Kathryn Craft, Pub Date, January, 2014 Sourcebooks, Inc., 353 pp, $14.99

Have you heard the one about the anorexic dancer who fell off a balcony and landed 14 stories below onto a squooshy flat of doughnuts loaded on top of a car? The fat, cream, sugar and flour she never ate saved her life. What was killing her on the inside was what saved her from the outside. I loved the irony Kathryn Craft set-up in her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by this improbable circumstance.

But the Art of Falling unfolds more like a good mystery novel than a bad joke. And Craft carries irony through in several mother-daughter situations. Penny Sparrow is the young dancer who hails from Allentown about 50 miles north of Philadelphia where she’s a member of a small modern dance company. She’s in a love-hate relationship with her overweight mother, and is ever watchful of every morsel she eats so that she doesn’t become her mother. Like the mother in Black Swan (and countless other examples,) who substitutes her daughter’s career for the one she couldn’t have, Penny’s mother, lives to see her dreams fulfilled through her daughter.

She receives her “nutrition” training from her early dance teacher, Bebe Browning, a bulimic, who later reveals her resulting bone-dissolving condition in middle age. But as a teen who has just been dismissed from a ballet school, when Penny is granted a private audition with Browning at Muhlenberg College, she

“fell hopelessly in love with my new teacher and with modern dance. Fall and recovery, contraction and release – this language spoke of the effort it takes to create meaning in life … modern dance claimed my imagination.”

Dance DeLaval is run by (what else?) an egocentric Russian named Dmitri. Dmitri woos the young naïf and she moves in with him. He appropriated her considerable choreographic skills as his own for the company. But when it comes time to tour their now famous piece Puma to Russia, Dmitri picks another dancer in Penny’s place. Thus the “Fall,” which is never clearly explained as intentional, is precipitated.

Doylestown-based author Kathryn Craft was a former dance teacher and for nearly 20 years was a dance critic for Allentown, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Morning Call. She writes very lovely descriptive écriture corporelle, like this:

“Dmitri stalks onstage. I sense him and turn. Our eyes lock. We crouch – slow. Low. Wary. Mirror images, we raise our arms to the side, the downward arc from each shoulder creating powerful wings that hover on an imagined breeze. One: Our blood surges in rhythm. Two: A barely perceptible plié. Three: We soar.”

The character that is least likeable is (and why not) the dance critic for the Philadelphia Sentinel, Margaret MacArthur. She’s out to get her story whatever it takes, but she has a hidden and personal agenda that fits well with the plot and who turns out to be on Penny’s side.

This is Craft’s first novel and perhaps it’s hard to sidestep the clichés about the dance world: the stage mother, the romantic entanglement between dancer and artistic director (and his Russian artistic temperament,) the eating disorders, the invidious critic. The slight injuries from the fall – a broken shoulder and bruises — and Penny’s too quick recovery are just plain fantastical. And she could have lightened up a bit on the ideal dancers’ body meme, for instance. The mysteries of whether or not the fall was deliberate or how, finally, the eating disorder is resolved, though well wrought, are not brought to satisfactory conclusions.

Nonetheless, the new dance company Penny starts makes a good yarn with an uplifting ending for the Young Adult reader or for anyone who knows a dancer in eating disorder distress or who suffers from it themselves. The fact that it’s set in Philly, with many references to the University of the Arts and other familiar institutions and landmarks ought to give it an appreciative local readership.

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