1062 Pepper’s ballet and dance
Falling into Flight: A Memoir of Life and Dance
by Kaija Pepper
Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2020
$19.95 / 9781773240831
Reviewed by Maria Tippett
In the early 1930s two dancers from British Columbia were invited to join the corps de ballet of Basil’s famous Ballets Russes. The offer came with one condition: Patricia Meyers from Vancouver would have to become Alexandra Denisova and Nanaimo’s fifteen-year-old Jean Hunt would also take the Russian sobriquet Kira Bounina. Times have certainly changed since the 1930s. Canadian dancers no longer have to go abroad to make their careers — in Vancouver alone there are more than five professional dance companies — and if dancers do leave the country they can perform under their own names. Nor are Canada’s dancers and choreographers dependent on appraisal from abroad because critics like Vancouver’s Kaija Pepper are fulfilling the challenge of seeing “a choreographic work as objectively as humanly possible in order to develop accurate and fair-minded description.” (p. 48). Even so, as Kaija Pepper makes clear in Falling into Flight, A Memoir of Life and Dance, this art form “It isn’t taken seriously, even by other artists” (p. 29).
If the reader expects this award-winning author and dance critic to tell us why this is so they will be disappointed.
The connective thread running through Falling into Flight charts Pepper’s year-long therapy sessions with Dr. B. The therapist helps her to overcome her severe claustrophobia — elevators, public washrooms and crowded restaurants were no-go areas. He also enables Pepper come to grips with her unpredictable Russian-born mother Zina. “‘I’m at the end of my tether!!’ my pretty dark-haired mother would scream, coughing in spasms of fury as her throat seized up” (p. 35). “Your mother didn’t make room for you to be seen and heard, she didn’t know how,” was Dr. B’s observation (p. 40). Andy Kaija, Pepper’s father, was raised in the Finnish community of Thunder Bay, Ontario, before settling in Vancouver’s East Side where he drove a truck for Lafarge Cement Company. Andy was easier on his four children: he was silent and mild-mannered and had a taste for the Romantic poets.
Though ballet is largely off stage in this memoir, Pepper, who began ballet lessons at the age of six, vividly recalls her first performance; pasting images of ballerinas in her Micky Mouse Club scrapbook; watching Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn perform on the Ed Sullivan show; and attending her first ballet — it was Coppélia.
And while Pepper had what can only be described as a tortured relationship with her mother, it was Zina Kaija who laboured over her Singer sewing machine to make her daughter’s ballet costumes; Zina who accompanied her daughter to her ballet lessons; and Zina who took her daughter to her first ballet, Coppélia.
Pepper stopped taking ballet lessons when she turned fifteen. Three years later she studied the dance technique of Martha Graham and a few years after that, while enrolled in communication arts at Concordia University, she turned to jazz ballet.
It was in Montreal where “Writing turned out to be a good fit.” Where, Pepper’s “relationship with the art form [of Ballet] could develop without the intense public scrutiny of performing life in front of an audience, or even in front of other dancers in a studio” (p. 115). And also where she “came to value critical writing for the way it extended the short-lived theatrical existence of most productions of putting dance onto the page, corralling the ephemeral moments of performance into words and sentences that supposedly live forever” (p. 115). When Pepper returned to Vancouver, following a stint in the U.K., she became a leading critic and the author of three books on dance.
When I finished Falling into Flight I wanted to read more about Pepper’s observations on dance, about which she writes so splendidly. I wanted more quotations from her journals, which would have enlivened her text. And I wanted more dates that would have told me when the events she discusses happened.
Even so, Kaija Pepper’s memoir brought back my own memories of attending ballet lessons, of wearing my first tutu and of negotiating my teenage years around a difficult mother who also made my ballet costumes. But it is Pepper’s passionate and knowledgeable writing on the critic’s role in relation to what she calls “the underdog in the art world” that convinced me that dance is worth taking seriously (p. 29).
Maria Tippett spent the formative years of her academic career as sessional lecturer at Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, and the Emily Carr College of Art and Design. Following her year as Robarts professor of Canadian studies at York University (1986–7), she lectured in South America, Europe, and Asia and curated exhibitions. In 1991, she returned to academe, becoming a member of the Faculty of History at Cambridge University and a senior research fellow and tutor at Churchill College, also at Cambridge. Since her formal retirement in 2004, she has written four books, including Sculpture in Canada: A History (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017), reviewed here by Catherine Nutting. Among many awards, in 1980 she won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for her path-breaking Emily Carr: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1979), which also won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. Editor’s note: Maria Tippett has also reviewed books by Mary Fox, Ruth Abernethy, and Roger Boulet for The Ormsby Review.
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