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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Books: Autobiographies of Dancers

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  • dirac


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One of the best ever autobiographies is "Winter Season" by Toni Bentley. I think it was first published in the early 1980's while Balanchine was still alive. She was a corps dancer and goes over her experience during a season with NYCB. She is a wonderful writer and subsequently helped with a number of other ballet autobiographies. I believe she ultimately became a writer rather than a ballet dancer. But the book contains a number of insights into what it was like dancing for Balanchine. This was during a period when there was strike threats and how Balanchine dealt with them. Basically as I recall he told them to go and strike, he would fold the company and start again.

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I'm in the middle of Tallchief's book. It IS gossipy, but that's quite fascinating to me. I don't really know my ballet history, and I find it quite useful to hear about all these people whose names I have heard, but I don't quite know who they are.

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I read that Gelsey Kirkland book and I distinctly dislike it. I firmly feel that she was writing it from an unhealthy mental state. I found that, from start to finish, the book screamed, "Victim, victim, victim!" even while she was admitting her own faults. I came away with the impression that, yes it's admirable she broke the drug problems, but she still had a LONG way to go towards real mental health. I guess it bothered me because it's a book that's read by teenage dancers everywhere and I don't really think she, at that stage in her life, was a good role model.


I also thought that the way she wrote about Balanchine was cruel -not only WHAT she said but HOW she quoted him, syllable by syllable of broken English in quotes.

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One of the saddest series of posts we ever had here was a little girl who was 12 (before we had an age requirement of 13 to post here) who began that book and was so excited. She told us several times how much she liked it -- she'd report every few chapters or so. Then there was a long silence. And then she came on and said she'd finished it and she wished she hadn't read it, and she didn't like Kirkland any more.


If I were a parent, I wouldn't let anyone under 15 or 16 read that book, and I'd make sure the child knew that Kirkland was a great artist, but the book might be disturbing.

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Guest Patricia

Paul Taylor's PRIVATE DOMAIN is my favorite dancer autobiography (and it's in-print). He comes across as a thoughtful, humerous, nonpretentious person and artist. Just like his choreography.


The worst? Paul Szilard's UNDER MY WINGS. Ego tripping, name dropping trash talk. A waste of my time and money.


While this isn't strictly autobiographical, Francis Mason's I REMEMBER BALANCHINE is a priceless collection of interviews and "first person sketches" from dancers, artists, and writers. The last entry is from his last doctor describing his last terrible illness. I doubt if the book is still in print - dance books disappear so quickly - but it's worth taking the trouble searching for.

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Guest atm711

Patricia, I can't agree with you more about Paul Szilard's book. Dreadful! When I saw a photo of him, I thought I knew him. Shortly before he became an "impressario" I came in contact with him while I was taking a few classes with a Russian teacher (I think it was Orest Sergievsky). He was Mr. Bragodoccio in those days, too and a decidedly oily character. What really amazed me though, was that a few years later he was partnering Nora Kaye in 'Giselle'---in Japan! He was not too impressive in the technique department--he was already about 40 when I knew him.

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Guest Angel2Be

I have only read Suzanne Farrell's Holding on to the Air, but immediately liked it and her. She was very honest with a "no regrets" attitude and you could tell how much she cherished dancing ballet (especially for Balanchine.) Also, she went into a lot of detail about her relationship with him, which of course I found fascinating. I believe Toni Bentley wrote it with her. It is very well written. :D

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Guest Angel2Be

Scratch that, I have also read Allegra Kent's Once a Dancer. But it didn't make such a great impression on me. (Obviously - since I forgot about it!) As I now recall, she seemed to have had a difficult time in the ballet world and was a tad self-pitying about it all. The parts that stick out to me the most are actually semi-unrelated to dance: her belief in Christian Science and getting cosmetic surgery. "Wry" is actually the perfect word to describe her book!

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i don't know if anyone has ead a book called "An Unmaking of a Dancer" but i loved it. i don't really know why either, as it is not by a famous dancer, just a dancer who was almost good enough but found she didn't want it that much. she later went and danced in France. Fascinating.


I loved Kirkland's books, both of them. i know she gets a lot of heat about what she wrote, but i think she was writing how she felt, right or wrong, good or bad. i don't agree with much of what she says, but i don't thnk that was the point. i figure that by writing what she did, it helped her heal a little more. she is an incredible artist whom i respect for her efforts

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  • 2 weeks later...

A good autobiography is hard to find - so many slip into self indulgent whining/bitchery/*insert word of choice*.


And yet I read them with an insatiable appetite - my dad is a rampant second hand book collector and so I end up with a lot of out of print books (like I remember balanchine).


I read Joan Brady's The Unmaking of Dancer (now titled 'Prologue') and for all her bitterness about the dance world, I found it closer to the experience that a lot of dancers have than a rose glasses view Suzanne Farrell had in Holding Onto the Air and quite enjoyed the strangeness of it all, despite my usual frustration with anyone who holds onto the victim attitude. More one to read when you're feeling jaded because its sure to ruin the best of moods...


Gelsey Kirklands book was, I think, her exorcising a few demons, and I allow her that luxury only because she was such a talented dancer. Her second book, The Shape of Love was a much more fulfilling as it delved into the issues i was more interested in - ie how a dancer prepares for a performance.


Allegra Kents book was - well, largely forgettable apparently as I can't think of much to say.


Robert La Fosse's book "Nothing to Hide" was somewhat interesting, a bit wide eyed as I remember it, though he would probably not appreciate that description. its the typical 'battle against mr b' thats a familiar story from NYCB dancers!


Edward Villellas book "prodigal son" was a bit more worthwhile and though I would never see him dance, I wished I could... he seems like such a lovely guy and passionate about dance.


Darcey Bussell also wrote a book, "Life As Dance" and I was thoroughly disappointed in this wholesome bit of fluff. A documentary about her was released around the same time, and they largely mirror each other - only in the documentary you get to appreciate what a lovely dancer she is.


Twyla Tharp has quite a lively book - I should give that one a read again I think - its called push comes to shove...


Thankyou all for reigniting my interest, i'm off to read them all again..

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lil_dancer: i guess your teacher knows you far better than we do, but my advice re 'dancing on my grave' would be to NOT be in any hurry to read it - certainly not for under-17's, in my view. :)

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