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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Fictional career question, 1970-1990 (long post)

Michael Forscythe

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Michael Forscythe

Dear dancers, teachers, and balletomanes, 

I am an academic whose speciality is modernist literature, though have a serious interest in Balanchine in particular and what comes after him. I addition to my scholarly work on literature, I am also at work on a piece of fiction that engages my interest in dance, centring on the life of a character who, as the story starts, is a former dancer -- a woman. But I am not a dancer, and have knowledge of this world really only from books -- biographies, mainly. So forgive me as my question does not concern a 'real' career but the possibilities for someone of a certain talent during the period 1970 -- 1990 or so. I am rather isolated at present and so am floating my queries here -- so again, my apologies if this is 'off topic.' I would like to ask how my fictional scenario about this ballet dancer’s career can improve: if anything is unrealistic or I am missing steps in her progression/decline.

My question regards the career path of a fictional protagonist who has a liftetime fascination with Balanchine, and indeed begins as a promising dancer. After an promising start, by the time she is thirty she is plagued by crippling bouts of depression, stress fractures in her feet, and a snapping hip; regretfully, she decides she cannot continue. She retires from dance and after a period of unemployment, begins teaching; the schools where she has her posts are (to her mind) less elevated than she would have liked. In sum, this is an individual with the highest standards; her career never achieves what she felt was its initial promise: once seen as a rising star, she was never promoted to soloist, and by 1987 she has become a teacher in what she feels are the provinces rather than a principal dancer in an excellent company .

So much for the general outline. While there may be problems with even that general scenario (as in: there are elements that strike any of you as unrealistic – and please do let me know if you feel that is the case), I am mainly unsure how to flesh out this basic dramatic situation. I have tried to research the process for becoming a Balanchine dancer during the period in question, but my knowledge of specifics is still thin.

The protagonist, born in 1957, studies dance from a young age and is picked up by a community program near Reno, NV; she auditions for and ends up attending a summer course where she studies Balanchine technique. Now, my initial idea is that this character makes it to SAB for 2-3 summers, though she is not invited to stay for the winter seasons. She is also one of the older girls there: 15, then 16. Obviously, she is talented, and her body is ‘correctly’ proportioned and developing well. But though talented and lucky, she will not be invited to join NYCB: she ultimately feels she is passed over because she holds something back; she is technically proficient, but there is not much which makes her stand out from the other talents.

My notion is that by 1972 this young woman wants to stay in NY but has no contract or employment in sight; through a former teacher at SAB she manages to secure a contract to join the corps at American Repertory Ballet; she joins the corps at 17 or so. Soon she is offered a place at a company on the West coast, where her family lives: SFB (?). She moves. She partakes in numerous productions and rises to demi-soloist, but by this point her body is failing her, and she is plagued by the problems noted above. She retires and begins teaching.

At this point I am not sure at all what types of places a dancer with such a pedigree would teach. The dancer in question manages to alienate most of the people around her, nor is she a natural teacher; the places she ends up teaching are not necessarily Balanchine. As I say, she feels her teaching career to be a ‘comedown,’ and she feels, with her background, an outsider in the school(s). Eventually, in the story I am imagining, after numerous personal setbacks, she finds herself teaching ballet in the Central Valley of California – hardly the epicenter of the classical dance world.

Again, I apologize for the very long email, which I realize is also a first post. But for the outsider it is very difficult to understand exactly how the transitions in ballet careers work, and while I realize that there are as many careers as there are individuals, I am struggling to position my dancer, especially after her career at SFB: ie, her teaching career. I am also not sure if the above sounds plausible, even in its general outlines.

Any comments, no matter how harsh, are very welcome.

I thank you for your time and consideration!

Very best,


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Welcome to Ballet Talk for Dancers Michael, and also welcome to another EngLit academic (I work on the 19th century but studied Modernism in my early graduate studies work).

We don't tend to discuss fictional careers here - this part of Ballet Talk is very practically oriented. So you might enjoy reading through some of the threads on actual dancing careers.

For the historical background you're interested in, you might find our sister board, Ballet Alert! really useful. That board is dedicated to discussion of the art of ballet, mostly from the point of view of spectators, as well as historically. You might also want to look at the biographies & autobiography of a dancer such as Suzanne Farrell, for example.

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American Repertory Ballet would have been called Princeton Ballet at that time.

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