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A Dance Against Time: The Brief, Brilliant Life of a Joffrey Dancer.

Canadian-born journalist Diane Solway has brought an unflappable thoroughness to bear on A Dance Against Time, her biography of Edward Stierle, the Joffrey Ballet dancer and choreographer who died of AIDS in 1991 at age twenty-three. Some writers would have yielded to the temptation to overheat the already surefire combination of sex and death, of great gifts lost at an early age. Some writers would also have had more fun at the expense of Stierle's innocent, blue-collar parents, Rose and Bill. Rose was such an avid backer of her son's career that she saw nothing odd about mailing his colleagues at the Joffrey copies of his press clippings. The news that her beloved baby boy could be a homosexual came as a shock. "I probably should have known," she explained, "but I wasn't watching the talk shows." (Bill thought homosexuality was something Eddie had caught at ballet class, like the flu.) A more partisan biographer would have soft-pedaled Stierle's voracious desire for the spotlight, which was as infuriating around the family dinner table as it was among the senior Joffrey males, whose roles he sought (and got). A more sentimental one would have editorialized, damply, over the loss of so talented a young man.

Solway avoids all such extremes by sticking to the facts and presenting them in straightforward style. The Stierle family plainly trusted her, for they recall Eddie, youngest of eight children, with refreshingly unsentimental candor. They also shared with her his many letters and his journals. (Eddie was the kind of kid who would keep a journal, just as he would decide, once he joined Joffrey, to pronounce his last name "Stir-lee," instead of the family way, "Sturl.") As a result, A Dance Against Time is a rare mixture of frankness that isn't offensive and intimacy that isn't embarrassing, as well as a vivid recreation of life in a leading ballet company during the plague years that are far from over.

The many photographs that accompany the text testify to Eddie's unfitness for classical ballet. At five feet six inches, with chunky legs, a less-than-noble face, and a knock-'em-dead style, he seemed best suited to Razz Ma Jazz, the Florida troupe he danced with at age eleven. Ballet was first a challenge, then a need, once he enrolled at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Whatever it was that drove him at age sixteen to ask Alexander Grant point-blank why his fellow judges at the 1984 International Ballet Competition in Helsinki had voted against him (Grant had voted for him) also drove him to perfect his technique. The next year he was in goldmedal form at the Lausanne competition and at the Jackson IBC in 1986. One of the Jackson judges was Robert Joffrey, who invited Eddie to join his company.

One practice Solway follows does leave her open to the charge of sensationalism: She begins inserting accounts of the spreading AIDS epidemic (many of them drawn from Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On) as Eddie comes of age. Unfortunately, the disease was very much a force in the world of dance at the time, as well as in the world at large. Stierle's struggle with the virus (he tested HIV-positive at nineteen) transforms him from a pushy prodigy to a gallant warrior. No vignette of his brattish youth is as haunting as Solway's description of him toward the end, doing his stretching exercises on the floor with an IV attached to his arm, or almost at the very end, summoning up from somewhere the strength to take a solo bow unassisted at the premiere of his second (and last) ballet, Empyrean Dances.

Occasionally Solway betrays less-than-perfect knowledge of music and dance. Mozart's Requiem has no "overture," for example, nor was Melissa Hayden, for all her invaluable service at New York City Ballet, ever "the company's prima ballerina." At the journalist's trade of getting the facts and presenting them in a coherent, often moving manner, she never disappoints. She does not betray the Stierle family's trust, nor does she leave any loose ends. Her closing vignette is of Bill in his new duties as a volunteer lecturer on AIDS at high school assemblies; "I just want you to live past the age of twenty-three," he tells his audiences.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Green, Harris
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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