BOOK REVIEW / A lot of fancy footwork: 'Prologue: An Unconventional Life' - Joan Brady: Deutsch, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IN THE acknowledgements to her autobiography, Joan Brady includes the following sentence: 'I am deeply indebted to Margot Blake for the title of this book (as well as for the best scones in Devon).'

The arch, inflationary style reflects the tone of Brady's autobiography which, like her prize-

winning novel Theory of War, cannot resist making grandiose claims for itself. The plot of the novel was dramatic enough, the true story of a white boy sold into slavery, yet Brady erected around it a quite unnecessary framework purporting to draw parallels with Clausewitz's dicta on successful military campaigns.

Prologue, the blurb informs us, tells the story of 'an unconventional life, which began not in literature but in the cloistered world of professional ballet'. There is an immediate problem here in that the training of a professional ballet dancer hardly makes riveting reading; Brady's teenage years, according to her own account, were not so much unconventional as obsessional.

Born in San Francisco in 1939, Brady was the daughter of a blacklisted professor of economics and a woman who became, towards the end of her life, a leading campaigner for consumer rights. Brady deals with the episode of her father's blacklisting, the result of his refusal to take a loyalty oath required by the University of California, at a spanking pace so she can get on to the real stuff of the book, which consists of endless repetitions of plies, 'the all-important fifth position' and other ballet exercises. In an attempt to lift this material from the pedestrian, two devices are used. One is a series of chapter headings, each providing a technical description of glisses or grands battements and suggesting that they have a wider significance: ballet as a metaphor for life, no less.

The other is the inclusion, intertwined with the ballet lessons, of a novelettish love story. Andre Deutsch's fevered press release successfuly captures the flavour of this sub-plot: 'Dance had taught (Brady) discipline, technique and elegance. Now she needed courage: the courage to battle with her mother over the writer Dexter Masters, the man she had loved since childhood, and who had been her mother's lover.'

Falling in love with your mother's ex-boyfriend is certainly bad luck, but it could equally be interpreted as an extreme manifestation of mother- daughter rivalry. Mrs Brady gets a rough ride from this book, blamed, among other things, for her daughter's loss of nerve on the crucial first night of her performance with the New York City Ballet of Balanchine's Stars and Stripes. The humiliation led to Brady's decision to throw up her dancing career, go to Columbia University and marry Dexter Masters - the latter to her mother's huge annoyance.

Prologue is a true story, Brady writes, but 'with the exception of my family and certain prominent individuals, I have changed the names of and details about persons described in the book to protect their identity'. She thus appropriates to herself a freedom which is more usually that of a novelist without giving any indication of where she has exercised it, aside from the improbability that she is gifted with verbatim recollection of conversations which happened 20 or 30 yaars ago.

'Mr Wright's ever so good,' a friend tells her, recommending a physiotherapist in Devon (where Brady now lives). 'He's the official physio for Torquay United. The football team. You see him out on the field whenever a player gets hurt. He treats Sue Barker too. She's Devon's hope for Wimbledon this year.' This is not how real people speak, confirming the impression created by Theory of War that Brady depends on a series of technical tricks, allegorical flights and philosophical ramblings to disguise her shortcomings.

Although Prologue and Theory of War are presented as belonging to different genres, one fiction and the other autobiography, they are in fact both hybrids. Neither is quite what it seems, even in the relatively straightforward matter of order of publication. Prologue is actually a revised version of a book first published in the United States in 1982 as The Unmaking of a Dancer, and its appearance in Britain follows Brady's success in winning last year's Whitbread Prize for Theory of War. The autobiography ends with her attempt, almost 20 years after giving up ballet, to re-train as a dancer. A punishing schedule at the Torbay School of Dancing secured her an audition in Paris with the Grand Ballet Classique de France and a place in the company.

The book describes how, having proved she could do it, Brady crumpled up her invitation to join the company and returned to England. If there is a larger scheme at work here, perhaps it goes like this: that Brady the writer, like Brady the dancer, has mastered everything that can he taught about technique but still lacks the flair required to give a great and original performance.

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