The first thing you’ll notice about Kyeren Regehr’s chapbook, Disassembling A Dancer, is how aesthetically stunning the book is in its design. The image of a disassembled female dancer—toe shoes splayed out at impossible angles, and head so far away from graceful arms and hands—is unsettling. Pair that with the pale pink ribbon that laces itself down the spine of the book, reminiscent of the ribbons that lace up a dancer’s shoe, and there is a bit of beauty to the side of that main cover image. The effect, the juxtaposition, really does reflect the content of the collection. The poems ask the reader to imagine how a ballet dancer’s world would shatter if they were injured, given how the art of dance is so dependent upon the health of the dancer’s physical body. Questions of identity, too, are at the core of the work here, in that the ballet dancer must redefine herself in her own life after being injured. How do we separate our art from our bodies—from our beings—when we are creatives in a world that doesn’t always value the arts?
Here is a grouping of poems that speaks to the physicality of ballet, and of how it affects young girls as they develop and grow up. In the first poem, “Inventory After Showering,” Regehr writes of “blisters blooming like bubbled seaweed burst,” and of how “ballet wants/Clara, Juliet, Giselle, cowry/tush, and a hollowed middle.” She writes of the disassociation that occurs within the ballet world. Here is a sort of sub-culture that those of us who don’t dance professionally couldn’t fathom as being even close to realistic. In “Disassembled Ballerina,” the young woman who dances in the ballet is reduced to “a bone-sacked marionette.” Still, that dancer knows she must “Zip it tight, latch/the hooks, fasten the strings.” She must be ready to dance at a moment’s notice, and the music heralds the switch that must flip—between broken and supposedly whole, and between backstage reality and on-stage illusion.
So much of what happens on a stage, in theatre or dance, is about creating an illusion for the audience. Writers speak of being able to create work that “suspends disbelief” in the mind of a reader, but dancers and actors must also be doing this when they are on stage. Off stage, they are themselves, but still not. In public, performers walk the red carpet “ready for consumption” and “faked and photographed.” In the public consumption of the illusion—of the Instagram-ed, social media façade—there is a disconnect, a sort of schizophrenia. What version of self is real, is true, and which is meant to impress others, “craving acceptance”? Funny, how the dance world so vividly and disturbingly described in the poems, is just a mirror of how our society is torn between its longing for “likes” and “follows” in an online cult of popularity.
This hunger, this desire for acceptance and praise to prove self-worth, is also tied to eating disorders in the ballet world. In “dedication to hunger,” Regehr creates a food journal that lists what the ballet dancer eats in a day. Here, the reader learns of how intently this particular dancer documents caloric intake, to remain a necessary and desired part of her dance company: “coin-sized pretzel popped/flirtatiously on the tongue/4 peanuts shelled/(for protein).” To gain a bit of weight would be detrimental to the dancer’s success, would ruin the illusion of physical perfection, and of beauty in the way that the dance world perceives it to be. Regehr critiques this illusory world in her poems by building layers of stunningly detailed imagery that is both visceral and unsettling in its honest depiction of what it’s like to be a ballerina. It’s not—the reader knows after having finished reading the poems—as pretty as the world created in the Ballet Shoes series that some of us may remember from the late 1970s.
Disassembling A Dancer will make you think about how you are in your own body, but will also open your eyes to the complexly shadowed and illusory world of ballet. Too, it will make you think of how women view their bodies from the time they are girls, and how they are influenced by society’s expectations of what they ought to look like—especially within the world of ballet, but also beyond that sphere. What is beauty, and how is it defined, and—perhaps even more importantly—who defines it? Kyeren Regehr’s award-winning chapbook is unique in its poetic focus, and her poems are vivid and alive. Here is a collection that pulls back the curtain that might normally hide the truth about the ballet world, and that revelation is both intriguing and sobering at the same time.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She was poet laureate in Sudbury from 2016-18, and was the first woman appointed to the role. Kim's latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She's a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario representative of The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim can be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com