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Books: Favorite books by dancers

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Farrell Fan

This is my personal Top Ten list:


Toni Bentley, Winter Season

Auguste Bournonville, My Theatre Life

Alexandra Danilova, Choura

Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley,

Holding on to the Air

Tamara Geva, Split Seconds

Tamara Karsavina, Theatre Street

Allegra Kent, Once a Dancer...

Robert Maiorano, Worlds Apart

Bronislava Nijinska, Early Memoirs

Paul Taylor, Private Domain


These books vary greatly in length, ambition, and literary quality. They're just those I like best. What are your favorites?

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Paul Parish

I love your list -- they'd all be on mine, too; I especially like "Private Domain," it's such a mess, but it is just intoxicating....


I REALLY like "I Remember Balanchine" -- It's not BY a dancer, but by MANY dancers, interviewed by Francis MAson, and it gives a fascinating mosaic of impressions of him in action with them -- nearly 50 of them, from Russian days all the way though to the end -- also a few telling interviews with non-dancers......

(DON'T MISS the little chapter by WIlliam Weslow; my God , that''s lively)


Sorry, I jumped RIGHT AWAY off topic..... but it was the first that came to mind.....


I really admire Margot Fonteyn's autobiography -- what's it called? "Out in hte limelight, home in hte rain" is the phrase that comes to mind..... like Karsavina, she was a wonderful person...

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Nice topic, FF

I like almost everything on your list -- I'm not a big fan of Private Domain. I know what he was aiming for, but I don't think the half-fantasy half-memoir structure works. (But it must be awful to have to write an autobiography.)


I'd add Kschessinska's Memoires. Karsavina was a much better person, I'm sure, but Kschessinska's memoirs have an undercurrent of viciousness and EGO that I love.


One of the most interesting and well-written, for me, is Sona Osato's "Distant Dances" -- great title, too. If MOrris Neighbor is reading this, Osato's description of a youth spent dancing with the Ballets Russes will give you a good idea of what your mother was spared by not running away and joining them!


Shame Tudor didn't write an autobiography. He would have been a perfect candidate for it.

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Guest Morris Neighbor

First off, let me second FF's choices (though I will confess he has has a strong influence on my book-buying habits).


And thank you, AT, for the tip about the Osato book; I will look it up. I would also respectfully differ from your reaction to the Taylor book. I really liked his efforts to explain how and why he became so obsessed with movement and its meanings. True, the book gets dull when it lapses into "and then I choreographed..." and it does not paint a very engaging portrait of its author. But as the brilliant documentary Dancemaker suggests, Taylor is more appealing as a dancer and dancemaker than as a person.


Meanwhile, let me add one suggested title, mostly for those who have not spent much time in a dance classroom or rehearsal hall: Merrill Ashley's Dancing for Mr. B.. Its exemplary stop-action photos clarify basic steps and help explain how technique becomes dance. The text (as one critic wrote) tells us more than we ever wanted to know, but reading just a few pages helps us enter the mind of a dancer.


For readers without access to major bookstores or libraries, I can suggest that www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com include not only books in print but books out of print as well.

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Farrell Fan

I agree with Paul Parish about I Remember Balanchine generally and the William Weslow chapter in particular. The ending of that chapter packs a tremenous wallop. I remember wanting to read it aloud to anyone who'd sit still for it.

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Paul Parish

Here is the first paragraph of the William Weslow chapter………


“My first real contact with Balanchine was at Ballet Theatre in 1950, in Chicago, where his wife, the great Maria Tallchief, was dancing with the company for a time. I was in the corps de ballet. In the finale of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, the Polonaise, the boys had to cross the stage in big leaps to the sound of crashing cymbals. We cleared a path for Maria to come down to the footlights, or we were supposed to. Balanchine was watching a rehearsal. I had never danced the ballet before.


Balanchine suddenly said, “Stop. Stop. You, boy.”


Me, he meant. He was doing his nose mannerisms and he spoke to me, sniffing away. I was quick to pick up any sort of mannerism.


“Boy – you. You must go up. And you go tremendously up. I know you have good elevation, but you have to go up and get our of the way fast, you see.”


Watching his nose, I began imitating him unconsciously.


He said, “And don’t do this nose. I do this nose. You DANCE.” He pushed me about 8 feet, and I did what he wanted. Or so I thought.


He said, “Come here. You, I want to tell you. You have to jump in and out and AWAY. You can’t be in the way, principal come in, and you’re IN THE WAY.”


There I was, going up in the air. And by the time I came down I was blocking Maria, who was coming down to the front. You don’t block Maria’s way. If you do, you’ve got a tomahawk in the middle of your forehead. I say that with admiration, because Maria was the greatest Balanchine dancer. I adored her.



and it just gets better -- don't miss hte sections on Lifar, on Allegra....


or how they used to throw him around the studio because if they threw Allegra and the boys didn't catch her, properly, she could get hurt... (in fact, she was already bruised all over). ...it's' just fabulous......

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Guest Nanatchka
Originally posted by Morris Neighbor

But as the brilliant documentary Dancemaker suggests, Taylor is more appealing as a dancer and dancemaker than as a person.



I happen to disagree with this for any number of reasons. (Just for instance: 1.You cannot separate the dancer and dancemaker from the person. 2.All that whining about him in the movie didn't make him less appealing to me. Etc.What could be more appealing than Esplanade? Diggity? Et.al.? Or Taylor at curtain? )The book--Private Domain-- is just as much a made up thing as the dances--maybe that's why it seems so truthful. Well, there you have it. I really do love Paul Taylor.


I read a whole stack of dancer books, several years ago. Most fell into the category of Too Much Information. But Moira Shearer was a real sleeper.

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Weslow's great. As noted, his chapter has a boffo ending, too.


I also enjoyed Edward Warburg's reminiscences about Balanchine's early years in America, and Lucia Davidova had interesting things to say. Not everyone represented in the volume is so enlightening, unfortunately.


I would also put in a good word for Distant Dances in addition to those already given above. Very interesting and intelligent book.

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"Distant Dances" is the title of Sono Osato's autobiography. Alexandra mentioned the book in a post toward the beginning of this thread. Osato was a dancer with the Ballets Russes in the 1930s, with Ballet Theatre in its early years, and then went on to dance on Broadway. Count me in among those who read this book with much interest and enjoyment!

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Paul Parish

oops -- sorry, guys, that was pretty stupid of me.... Osato was a beautiful dancer, it's good to think I'll enjoy reading her book.....


and it's true, Weslow is by far the most fun, and the ballerinas are as usual sweetly diplomatic and awfully circumspect...though Mary Ellen Moylan, who's very VERY sweet, does say that Balanchine wanted her in developpe to offer the foot as if it were her hand.......

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Guest Becky

What do you all think of Gelsey Kirkland's 'dancing on my grave'?


I couldn't help but read it because it was really sex drugs and rock n roll..... no sex drugs and ballet! Although it did make an impact on me, looking at the mistakes she made.



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Guest Manhattnik

While we're talking about purchasing books online, I feel the need to remind everyone that if you purchase books from Amazon via the link at the top of this (and every) page, a small pittance from your purchase goes to Ballet Alert. So if you do have the urge to obtain any of these books, please go through the above link?


Thanks in advance!


I wonder what happened to my copy of Christopher d'Amboise's book about his first year or so with NYCB. The passage where he's taking NYCB class, suddenly realizes he's surrounded by scores of gorgeous women, and then trades a silent, knowing glance with his father, is really priceless.

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Farrell Fan

I'm glad Manhattnik mentioned Chris d'Amboise's book. It's called Leap Year and has a foreword by none other than Lincoln Kirstein.

The book is a very lively account of a year in the life of an NYCB dancer -- at the State Theater, Saratoga, Copenhagen, and on a mini-tour of New York State. It's very enjoyable, except perhaps to residents of Buffalo. "Buffalo must be the armpit of New York," writes Chris. It was published by Doubleday in 1982 and I'm sure has long been out-of-print. There must be copies around though, possibly including Manhattnik's.


As for Dancing on my Grave, Gelsey Kirkland did put ballet on the bestseller lists, and I don't think anyone else ever managed to do that. But the main reason I hated the book was that she blamed everyone for her problems except herself. Most astonishingly, she seemed to blame Balanchine for turning her on to drugs. I remember her account of her relationship with Patrick Bissell, a dancer I'd admired since his SAB days, as being both nasty and heartbreaking. I went to my bookshelves just now to refresh my recollection about the book, but couldn't find it. I must have gotten rid of it because it was so depressing. Gelsey was a beautiful, uniquely talented dancer. Let's hope she'll be remembered for that rather than this book.


Incidentally, there was a sequel, also written with Dancing on my Grave's co-author Greg Lawrence (her husband at one point, I believe), which was all sweetness and light. Probably because of that, I've forgotten the title. The book told about Gelsey's teaching at the Royal Ballet. Mr. Lawrence went on to write Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins, which emphasizes the nasty aspects of its subject.

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Paul Parish

Although of course I agree with Farrell Fan about Gelsey's first book, -- that husband of hers just seems to have gotten off on getting her revved up and self-pitying -- i have to say, she DID go to extraordinary lengths and take extraordinary pains to perfect her art.... Th section where she went to the MAryinskly Theater to watch the Kiorv take class seems like a pretty lucidf interval for her..... and the loneliness she felt, to diascover that she was pretty much the only dancer who wanted to go check out hte fountainhead.... well, I hve a lot of sympathy with her in that...... Yes, I think she projected a great deal onto her teachers and colleagues -- when they asked her to lighten up -- "dance like Fred Astaire" - she didn't believe they could mean that, and if I remember right, implied that they were trying to sabotage her........


I haven't read it for a long time..... wonder how I'd feel now. It certanly has to be taken "with a grain of salt" -- but the clues are all there; child of alcoholics, the perfectionism, the competition with her sister, the acute sense of her physical limitations, her head was too big as a child and he insteps weren't high enough and she didn't grow up to have the proportions she wanted, or rather, the proportions she admired..... but she was a tremendlusly severe critic of HERSELF....... The saddest thing about he book was that it sounded like she never enjoyed dancing until she started doing drugs.... Maybe she needed that release......

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