'Contoocook native draws ballet, love in free verse'

Last modified: 11/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
Truly gifted writers can feel the written word, can hear the music in a phrase, can sense the weight and cadence and warmth within a group of letters and the way they're strung together. Beyond mastering the mechanics of their craft and summoning the powers of imagination to create plot, character and setting, they are physically attuned to - quite in love with - language itself.

In her debut novel, Audition, Contoocook native and former ballet dancer Stasia Ward Kehoe shows herself to be among this class of exceptional wordsmiths. The book, just published by Penguin, tells the story of a teenager who leaves her cozy Vermont community for a scholarship with the prestigious Jersey Ballet. Written entirely in free verse, it is startlingly, achingly beautiful and utterly different from the typical young adult fare on offer. That it mirrors the grace and discipline of its subject matter makes it all the more satisfying.

The young dancer, 16-year-old Sara, is deeply conflicted about leaving home, about pursuing a dream she can't really claim as her own, and eventually, about falling in love with a much older choreographer at the school.

Her experiences, and the feelings attached to them, ribbon out gracefully and demurely or quicken to a cabriole depending on the moment and the mood.

At the fancy studio, Sara feels like an outlier and misses her old self:

'My slick hair crackles

As I try to smooth away

The shellac

That coats my locks,

Clouds my mind.'

She marvels at the apparent ease with which her family shipped her off to another state, another world:

'My parents always buy Volvos,

Safe, sturdy, crash-protected cars.

They have plenty of life insurance,

A generator in case the power goes out . . .

And their only daughter . . .

Her they drop

Three hundred miles away

On the doorstep of a stranger

To chase a dream . . .'

And she wonders just how much she will have to sacrifice to be like the other dancers:

'I am so grateful for her friendly conversation

I do not mention what I see.

The way she counts out raisins - only six -

To eat between afternoon technique class

And a grueling evening of variations.

The myriad trips she takes

To the dressing-room scale . . .'

This economy of words and elegance of syntax allows Kehoe to expound on familiar themes - class distinctions, the universal struggle to fit in, the price of pursuing a dream - in a way that's entirely fresh and at once both playful and profound.

Kehoe is also careful, gentle with Sara as she involves her with the passionate, 22-year-old Rem.

Their love scenes are subtle, muffled. The angst they instill in her is an edgier, darker thing:

'I call him Rem

Because everyone else does.

In my head he is always Remington.

Large, expansive, smiling

Fine-haired

Fatherly

Kind

Cruel.'

The book also offers readers a glimpse into the grueling, glamorous world of ballet, a world Kehoe knows well as a former dancer and choreographer in Washington, D.C., and New York. Now living in the Pacific Northwest, she'll visit her home state later this month as part of a 'Stages on Pages' tour with middle reader author Rosanne Parry.

Kehoe will be at Gibson's Bookstore in Concord on Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. to read from and sign her book as well as to talk about her own teen years and how her experiences as a performer found their way into her book.

In addition, she and Parry will talk with teens about how to tell their own stories.




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