Moving, visceral and beautiful: Leila Lois reviews ‘Disassembling A Dancer’ by Kyeren Regehr.

Disassembling A Dancer by Kyeren Regehr. Raven Chapbooks, Canada, 2021.

Disassembling A Dancer is a moving, visceral and beautiful chapbook collection from Canadian Australian writer Kyeren Regehr. It paints the tragic landscape of a dancer’s body, the pain, torment and passion and draws us into the sublime drama of ballet. The artwork by Monica Piloni and Lindsay Beal, as well as the woven ballet ribbon for binding, make this book an exquisite visual as well as literary work of art.

Several of the poems detail anatomy and ballet injuries with mathematical precision, echoing the obsessiveness of being a full time ballet dancer. This collection made me think back to the sullen beauty of my full-time dance days, going hungry, constantly agitated by the ever receding, longed for goal of perfection. The opening poem, ‘Inventory After Showering’, is hauntingly exhaustive, listing the scrutinisation of each body part as the voice of the poem takes a bone-weary shower. Regehr is a master of the list poem, as she writes:

…Begin
again
with your hair: a platinum tutu of satin straw,
dripping. Down your swan of sylph-skin, your symphony
of visible bones, vibrating. Vertebrae. Scapula. Clavicle.
Sternum. Whip

……………………………………………………the towel around your
neck, cup each breast (with carpal claws, phalanges) a shade
innocent for the sought after champagne glass, but not too
far gone.

As with several of the poems, intoxicating substances (champagne, hexagonal anxiety pills, pain injections, brandy) hint at the dangerous seduction of the ballet world itself, where a ‘dedication to hunger’ and ‘craving acceptance’ to borrow two if Regehr’s lines are the doctrine. Yet this collection dances circles around the tired narrative of the starving, self- tormented ballerina and exposes the power abuses at play, with a sexist choreographer who harasses the dancers in one poem, abusive lover in another and the theatre world’s obsession with uninjured, nubile bodies. The poem ‘Tonight she is the red carpet’ is perhaps the pivotal poem of the collection as it reads:

…Craving the warm
darkness of the wings,
or the brilliant shield of footlights,
of gels overhead, craving
acceptance— when she dances
there is no I.

This is a bold book that documents the ‘secret history’ of a professional dancer, as Regehr once was, with pathos and documentary style insight. In doing so, it gives voice and power back, fighting against the erasure of these extraordinary athletes, while capturing the sheer beauty we see that can only come from adversity. It comes at a time where several dancers/writers (Misty Copeland, Georgina Pazcoguin, Phil Chan to name a few) are deeply questioning the trauma inherited by ballet dancers in an industry that chews up and spits out too many wonderful artists. These poems get to the complex heart of the matter with bravery and grace.

 – Leila Lois

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Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada by Southerly Journal, LA review of Books, Honey Literary Journal, Right Now, Delving Into Dance and more.

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Disassembling A Dancer is available from http://dianahayes.ca/chapbooks-published/

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