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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Books: Autobiographies of Dancers

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(This thread inspired by the reference to Allegra Kent's autobiorgraphy in the "Ballerinas You've Never Seen" thread.)


I've read as many dancer autobiographies as I could find, and find it fascinating how each reveals something of the dancer's personality.


As I recall, Allegra Kent had a wry view on any number of topics, including her mother and her marriage. I remember being struck by how important it was for her to have children (she had three, I believe), and what a (negative) impact this had on her dancing career.


Edward Villela, in his autobiography, talks about how hard Balanchine's compnay classes were on his body. He had to go elsewhere to take class, and felt that Balanchine always resented it.


This was in striking contrast to Merrill Ashley, who absolutely adored Balanchine's classes and tells of taking class even when others took the day off. (Perhaps tellingly, Ashley did not really write an autobiography, but more of a technique book with autobiographical bits thrown in.)


Peter Martins also found Balanchine's classes hard on the body, and preferred to take class with Stanley Williams. He feels that Balanchine initially misunderstood his ability to be something other than a classical Bournonville dancer, and seems to have been the most successful in terms of speaking frankly to Balanchine and seeing his relationship with Balanchine change.


One of my favorites was Maria Tallchief, who seems to have developed a striking maturity as a person as well as a dancer. (Some autobiographies leave you with the impression that the person never thought about anything other than the next dance class or performance.)

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I really enjoyed reading these summaries. It would be great if you could include the book title references - or are they all from the book you mentioned? I would like to read them and will look the books up at the internet - our library is void on this topic.

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Here's the list.


Since most of these are out of print, you'll probably have the best luck tracking them down through interlibrary loan.




Merrill Ashley: Dancing for Balanchine


Suzanne Farrell: Holding on to the Air


Margot Fonteyn: Autobiography: Margot Fonteyn


Allegra Kent: Once a Dancer


Gelsey Kirkland: Dancing on my Grave

(she also wrote a sequel which goes into excruciating detail about performing -- I think Romeo & Juliet -- with the Royal Ballet)


Peter Martins: Far from Denmark

(this was writting at a fairly young age -- about 20 years ago -- so it doesn't provide as much of an overview of his life as I would like.)


Maria Tallchief: Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina


Edward Villella: Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic

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Guest piccolo

A lot of these are out of print, but I got a copy of both Ashley's and Villela's book through Amazon.com's out-of-print service. It takes a while for them to track these used books down, but it is a great service! Otherwise, if you have a good university library near you, that may be a good bet.

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Another excellent autobiography is Valery Panov's "To Dance". He danced in the USSR during the same period of time in history as described in Maya Plisetskaya's autobiography.


Panov's is MUCH easier to read since he wisely wrote it with a professional. Plisetskaya's book is an unwieldy volume filled with too many names and no index.


That said, I read one book right after the other and, taken together, both gave me a really good idea of life for dancers in the Soviet Union.


Fendrock, I've read all but one of the books you listed (Merrill Ashley's). After reading Tallchief's book, I'd say that my impression of her was entirely different from yours. I found it to be a gossipy book from start to finish - yes, I admit it, the gossip was interesting. I much preferred Farrell's and Fonteyn's, both of which left an awful lot unsaid.


Agens DeMille wrote several interesting books chronicling her life.

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This is my cue to put in a plug for Suzanne's "Holding on to the Air," which is in print in a nice paperback edition from the University Press of Florida, who also published Alexandra's great biography of Henning Kronstam in hardcover.


I too thought Panov's "To Dance" an excellent book. Of the memoirs by Balanchine's wives, I thought "Split Seconds" by the first one, Tamara Geva, was the best. But that too has long been out of print.

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My favorite dancer autobiography is 'Dancing in Petersburg' by Kschessinska.


Life at the Maryinsky, a close relationship with the Romanovs, and the revolution. Who could ask for anything more?

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Guest Allegro

I found the autobiography of Alexandra Danilova to be quite interesting. The name of it is "Choura," and although the first half of the book goes into detail about the Maryinsky, Balanchine figures an importaing part in the rest of the book. Intersting are her insights to the early times of American ballet. (Not the American Ballet, but American ballet in general).

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I think Tamara Karsavina wrote an autobiography, but I can't remember its title. Also, the memoirs of Marius Petipa are interesting, although practically impossible to find. His book is really irritating, though, because when he gets to describing the ballets he created with Tchaikovsky, he merely lists them and goes into no detail, even as he acknowledges that it was his creative high point!

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Alida Belair, the first Australian dancer to study with the Bolshoi Ballet, wrote "Out of Step, A Dancer Refects". Eventually she became a principal with Ballet Rambert and then on to ABT among other companies.


At this point I don't remember many details except that I enjoyed her account of a career with a complicated path to success. Many Australians leave to train and dance abroad and like Belair have

varying degrees of success. The most famous of these dancers is with out a doubt the late Robert Helpmann.

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Guest Bayadere

I've read many of the books that have been mentioned, and while they are all interesting, I think the ones that I particularly loved were Valery Panov's "To Dance" and Alexandra Danilova's "Choura". Just talking about them makes me want to go find them and read them again..

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Guest Lovebird

Red Curtain Up by Beryl Grey,about her guest performances in various Russian theatres is also very interesting.She was,I think the first western dancer to be invited by the Kirov and Bolshoi.

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