Two Ballet Memoirs

I think I may be turning into a balletomane.

It always just sneaks right up on you, doesn’t it?

Well, alright, it isn’t just that. I’ve been taking ballet, and I’ve been trying to think through what makes adult ballet so pleasurable, while childhood ballet was so dispiriting. And in the process, some fellow dancers and dance-lovers have been giving me book recommendations.

I am eating these books up like there’s no tomorrow. Seriously, last night I sat on the steps beside my bedroom at 1:30 am, hall light still on, because I wanted to finish one of the books I was reading.

This week’s obsessions were Toni Bentley’s Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal and Joan Brady’s The unmaking of a dancer: An unconventional life.

Winter Season is Bentley’s journal over one season in which she was a member of the corps du ballet of the New York City Ballet. Bentley is at a low point in her career. She has an inkling that she isn’t going to be one of the ballet’s stars. Still, she is obsessed with beauty, and most of all, the beauty of dance. What this means for her is that she is happiest when sitting behind the side curtain, watching one of the principals dance.

Bentley is also torn between life and dance. Life, in this case, means everything outside of dance: friends, parties, food, love. There are some dancers who treat dance as a job, she says, but many are completely wrapped up in the world of the theatre, and she is one of them. How much harder, then, to see women younger than her moving into the top roles.

Still, she is generous towards the young ones, still in love with the sheer beauty of it all. I looked her up and she wound up spending about a decade with the NYCB, so she must have reached her peace with it.

The unmaking of a dancer is a very different kind of beast. First, it’s really the story of a very eventful life, one that happened to a woman who just happened to be a ballerina. Joan Brady had two brilliant parents, brilliant but impossible. Her father was an economist at Berkeley who attempted suicide and later had a debilitating stroke. Her mother was an overbearing and jealous woman, though as brilliant as her husband. She twice sabotaged her daughter’s career (at least in Brady’s telling of the story). What did Brady do? Marry her mother’s former lover of course.

Brady was also a budding ballerina, competing at the San Francisco Ballet School with her friend Suki Schorer, who turned out to have a successful career in ballet and became a noted teacher of Balanchine’s style. After missing out on a company job in San Francisco, Brady went to New York and studied — where else? — at the School of American Ballet, which feeds into the NYCB.

The difference between Brady and Bentley is that Brady doesn’t seem to like dancing much at all. While Bentley is still in love with the ballet, if not with herself or her own dancing, Brady seems not to enjoy the art at all. Ballet seems to have been an escape from home for her, one she was reasonably good at and kept going on with, despite not having a real passion for it. She seems more wrapped up in jealousy and criticism of other dancers than in the dance.

And yet it is so important to her to know that she could have excelled at the dance, if her mother had not intervened. The book ends with her in her late thirties, auditioning for European companies, having dyed her hair and lied about her age. She gets into one, or so it seems. And she tears up the acceptance. I kept thinking that this wasn’t a woman who wanted to dance — it was a woman who wanted to be good enough.

The major presence hovering over both memoirs is B — George Balanchine, of course, the utterly charismatic choreographer and co-founder of the NYCB. Bentley’s memoir is suffused with an intense feeling of admiration for and obedience to Balanchine. She’s not sure if she’s good enough for the religion, but she certainly still believes in its god. Brady is taught less by Balanchine, and so has less experience of him, but her memoir does include some fascinating reflections on the development of Balanchine’s style, which became associated with American dancers.

I tend to expect memoirs, especially art memoirs, to be written by the winners — those who were passionate enough, dedicated and disciplined enough, to excel beyond anyone else. But it’s almost more interesting to read the stories of the almost-theres: women who would have been exceptional in most places in the North America, but were only so-so in the context of the New York City Ballet. I’m fascinated by the stories of women who realised their best would simply not be good enough, or, worse, that they were not capable of giving their best at all.

Photo from www.morguefile.de.

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