Thinking of a ballet-world novel, there are certain things that might come to mind: an illicit relationship between a young female dancer and a (usually significantly) older male choreographer, a backstabbing betrayal between dancers who compete for said choreographer’s attention, glass in pointe shoes as revenge . . . You know the drill. All these tropes—and more—are thrown out the window in Chloe Angyal’s debut novel, Pas de Don’t.
Set in New York City and Angyal’s native Sydney, Australia, Pas de Don’t (published on May 2, 2023) follows the story of Heather Hayes, a principal dancer at the fictional New York Ballet, who discovers her fiancé (and dance partner) Jack Andersen cheating with a junior company member. Heartbroken and desperate to get away from it all, Hayes accepts a guest position at the Australian National Ballet and finds herself falling for fellow dancer Marcus Campbell—despite the company’s no-dating policy.
As the book progresses, Marcus and Heather’s feelings for one another grow, even in the face of potentially losing their jobs if their relationship is discovered. And while Heather builds her connection with Marcus, she also becomes increasingly connected to herself, coming to terms with the psychological abuse she suffered in her relationship with Jack—and with the powerlessness she felt in the relationship and in her career at NYB. Filled with vivid descriptions of Australia’s landscapes, more than a few steamy scenes, and a heavy focus on the realities of the ballet world, Pas de Don’t is not only the perfect summer read, it has something deeper to say about ballet’s culture.
For those who know Angyal’s work, this should come as no surprise. Although Pas de Don’t is her first novel, it builds upon the author’s past writings in many ways. In 2021, Angyal published Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself, a deeply reported nonfiction title in which she investigates issues of power, diversity, abuse, injury, and more in the ballet world. Angyal has also written about dance for New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, The Washington Post and more, and her work has played a large role in the current ballet world self-reckoning.
The research that has made up Angyal’s career shines through consistently in Pas de Don’t. In particular, the arc of her characters becomes a way to discuss some of the same themes she addresses in Turning Pointe and her other journalistic work.
At the beginning of the novel, we see a lack of agency in Heather, despite the underlying feeling that she wants to speak out about the injustices she sees and experiences. Like many dancers, though, Heather is afraid of the fallout that might come from this—even if breaking the rules and rocking the boat are justified. But, over the course of the book, we see Heather transform, ultimately taking Jack and his abusive treatment during their relationship to task, while also speaking out about workplace violence and the ways well-intentioned policies (like ANB’s no-dating rule) can actually perpetuate the problem. Directly defying a common trope, Heather even joins forces with Melissa, the junior dancer with whom she found her fiancé cheating, recognizing that Melissa, too, had been victimized.
The characters of Marcus and Jack also have roots in the real ballet world and—in the case of Marcus—defy hackneyed tropes. While creating these characters, Angyal seems to draw heavily on her Turning Pointe research, ultimately addressing the dichotomy that exists for men in ballet—being bullied outside the studio and extremely favored inside—and how this contributes to gender power imbalances in the professional world.
Jack, star male principal at NYB and an international dance celebrity, is the proverbial golden child. He’s been told of his importance in ballet all his life, and thus, he becomes a cold-hearted, abusive, and power hungry partner, both inside and outside the studio. Marcus, on the other hand, despite being bullied for his love of ballet during his youth, is a compassionate, humble, and respectful danseur. He understands the importance of consent and treats Heather and his other colleagues with esteem and appreciation. With Marcus’s character, Angyal moves past the all-powerful, domineering love interest more typically afforded to ballerinas, giving both Heather and Marcus agency in their relationship.
Through a story that is outwardly lighthearted—and ultimately, quite fun—Angyal challenges ballet’s status quo and asks readers to consider some difficult questions. And because she weaves her intimate knowledge of the ballet world throughout, while also leaving room for imagination and enjoyment, this title will speak to dance audiences on multiple levels. Pas de Don’t is simultaneously the perfect beach read and a deeper, very timely, commentary about the ballet world.