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Jacques D'Amboise: Memoirs"I Was a Dancer"


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#61 SandyMcKean

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 12:16 PM

Quiggin,

Are you perhaps an editor yourself, or work in that field somehow? I can see on a technical level what you say makes sense in terms of editing. BTW, D'Amboise was very complimentary about Knopf and his editor (one can see that on the acknowledgment page of his book too).

There is also some ambivalence about what d'Amboise really wanted in his career, regarding making movies for example, and whether he really wanted to be head of City Ballet after Balanchine.

On Tuesday night these subjects were touched upon. He was quite definite that he was not very interested in his movie career. He implied he could have done more of it, but consciously choose not to. He said he strongly disliked the "culture" found in movie making -- he even told a story of how he went to a 9am call at 7am in order to "warm up" and be ready to "go on stage" as it were, but that it was 9:15am before anyone else even showed up and that was some stage hand casually drinking coffee and eating a donut!. He made it quite clear this lack of discipline was not his cup of tea. He touched on the "head of City Ballet after Balanchine" issue too. He was less definite about that. But he clearly indicated that he didn't think he was the "right" person to do that job, that he had no regrets (he strongly said that), and that his true inspiration at that time came from envisioning a future teaching children to dance and to love the arts. Judging from how he relished his role that night as a sort of "teacher" to we, the audience in the room, I think it was clear to all of us, just how much he indeed loves teaching.

#62 Helene

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 02:28 PM

It's very clear from the book how much he regarded Melissa Hayden. One of the last chapters is called "Death of Milly".

Regarding the purpose of the book, the source materials, and why it's different from the memoirs/autobiographies of Villella, Tallchief, etc. are explained in the prologue:

In my early twenties, I was approached to write a book about my life as a dancer. I thought "Ridiculous! I haven't lived yet." However, over the next fifty years, I kept diaries, collected materials, and occasionally dabbled, writing little essays of an autombiographicsal nature. Ingredients were being stored for future use.


Anecdotal and episodic, this book is a buffet of stories about the experiences and relationships that shaped me as a person, dancer, and teacher. Seasoned with tales of friendships and collaboriations with great artists, celebrities, and individuals, these stories weave a tapestry.


While reading it, I could hear him telling the stories, not reading them aloud, and I could see him smiling and gesturing while he did. The other autobiographies and memoirs were more strictly chronological. His book has holes all over the place, and I think that was deliberate. For example, the copyright was 2011. Even if publication was delayed after the reference to his son Christopher's marriage in 2008, his wife, Carolyn George, to whom the book was dedicated along with his mother, died in February 2009 at 81 of primary lateral sclerosis, which is normally progresses slowly. There is not an inkling in the book that his wife was ill at all, or a postscript that she died before the book was published, although the death of his brother John at age 80 is included in the chapter "Denouement". In that chapter, he wrote, "My memoirs are not not filled with angst. There hasn't been horror." The last line of the book is, "As Milly said to me, and I often say to Carrie, 'We did a good job. Goodbye.'"

His collection of narratives makes sense both of his assertion that he understood why he wasn't chosen to lead NYCB -- he had too many other interests, a lot like Allegra Kent with her babies -- wasn't 110% dedicated to a single thing, which I would guess is the main reason why he disappointed Kirstein. He wasn't a monk in a hairshirt, suffering and sacrificing the way Kirstein envisioned that he would had he had the talent of a d'Amboise.

#63 dirac

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 05:15 PM

There's a "deckled" quality to the whole book that a different editor might have cleaned up. One whole chapter named after an incidental person is really about the trips to Germany and Russia, and . Toning down some of the colorful dialect - restoring simple words like full for plethora, many for bevy, seated for sequested - would have distracted less from the content of the stories.

The Villella, Kent, Tallchief and Farrell memoirs seemed stronger and more focused around particular themes or structures. Part of the project seemed to be about making an earthy character of Balanchine and at some point you wonder just how important were the ballets. There is also some ambivalence about what d'Amboise really wanted in his career, regarding making movies for example, and whether he really wanted to be head of City Ballet after Balanchine.


I agree. As Eileen also noted earlier in the thread, the book is disorganized and an editor should have come to his aid. The chapter headings can be distinctly misleading. There are many footnotes, also a bad sign, and not all of them are terribly helpful (although there are nuggets, like the bit about the dying Nora Kaye banning Robbins from the sickroom because he had named names). It also leads to repetition - d'Amboise tells us more than once why he cared for Kirstein more than Balanchine. There's good stuff, but you have to root around for it. Pages spent on recounting the history of Balanchine and Kirstein might have been cut back a bit so d'Amboise could spend more time on the ballets -if, as Quiggin notes, he'd wanted to do so.

I was struck by his treatment of Farrell. She had nothing but glowing things to report of their partnership in her book, and I thought his interpretations of her actions and motives were often uncharitable and without context. Candor is always welcome in autobiographies, of course, but gee whiz.

five chapters have the word death in the title


Yes. I was reminded of an old crack about the oeuvre of Willa Cather, "Death comes for the archbishop and everybody else." I almost thought Balanchine died twice.

whether he really wanted to be head of City Ballet after Balanchine


I think he did - rather more than he lets on, although I'm sure that when he says he has no regrets it's perfectly true.

Much more to say about this book, of course.

#64 dirac

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 05:25 PM

Quiggin writes: About Balanchine there’s lots of interesting stuff, but what d’Amboise presents and interprets as pettiness - in order to bring Balanchine down to earth and make him more human and “less perfect” - is not pure pettiness. Yes, Balanchine is upset that "Minkus Pas de Trois" becomes a star vehicle for Eglevsky (Balanchine doesn’t even put his own name on the programs except as ballet master) but he’s right that Minkus’ music is not especially first class. And the primary reason Balanchine ignored “The Cage” may not have been so much that he was jealous of Jerome Robbins, but because the theme of the man-devouring woman was already a cliche in the fifties – it was the sort of myth that appealed to painters and writers like Wilhelm deKooning and Jackson Pollock and Norman Mailer. (Stravinsky himself did not approve of “The Cage” according to Robert Garis, citing its "plastic incompatibility" with the music.)


I had a similar reaction -- I suppose Balanchine's attitude could have been partly envy of Robbins' success, but there are plenty of other reasons why Balanchine wouldn't regard "The Cage" very highly.

D'Amboise is also interesting on the subject of Ashton's unhappy stint at NYCB and the making of 'Picnic at Tintagel.' In that instance yes, you can see that Balanchine's behavior is jealous and petty but you can also see why he wouldn't have thought much of Ashton's approach.

#65 Helene

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 06:07 PM

whether he really wanted to be head of City Ballet after Balanchine


I think he did - rather more than he lets on, although I'm sure that when he says he has no regrets it's perfectly true.

By the time there was a succession, I'm not sure d'Amboise wanted to be head of NYCB, but I'd bet more than I could afford to lose that he wanted to be asked (privately) if he wanted the job, or at least seriously considered.

#66 bart

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 07:49 PM

Thank you, all for these intelligent and insightful readings of what d'Amboise has to say. One small comment:

It's very clear from the book how much he regarded Melissa Hayden.

Yes, indeed. It may be hard for people to imagine just how beloved the Hayden-d'Amboise partnership was at NYCB in the first 10-15 years of d'Amboises' career.

I don't mean with purist critics like Denby, Haggins, or Garis, who rarely mentioned Hayden, and never with great respect. I mean with audiences. My very first NYCB performance featured a Firebird with Hayden and d'Amboise. They remained my favorite couple for many years. They knew how to project emotion out into the auditorium and were miracles of consistency and commitment in so many performances and such a broad repertoire. For some reason, their partnership clicked.

NYCB people from the late 50s and the 60s love to tell stories about the no-nonsense Hayden. I've never heard a story that has not been told with affection, even when she was being ... shall we say ... "difficult.". The same holds true of stories about the more easy-going and lighter-hearted d'Amboise.

#67 papeetepatrick

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 08:59 PM

I don't mean with purist critics like Denby, Haggins, or Garis, who rarely mentioned Hayden, and never with great respect. I mean with audiences. My very first NYCB performance featured a Firebird with Hayden and d'Amboise. They remained my favorite couple for many years. They knew how to project emotion out into the auditorium and were miracles of consistency and commitment in so many performances and such a broad repertoire. For some reason, their partnership clicked.

NYCB people from the late 50s and the 60s love to tell stories about the no-nonsense Hayden. I've never heard a story that has not been told with affection, even when she was being ... shall we say ... "difficult.". The same holds true of stories about the more easy-going and lighter-hearted d'Amboise.


I'd like to know more about what you mean by these purist critics and why they didn't mention Hayden much and with much respect. What were there ideas of what were 'the best Balanchine dancers'? I read the whole thread this afternoon, and this does stand out as something very deep; it is somehow a most wonderful thing to know. I never got to see d'Amboise at his peak, but the one time I did see Hayden I've mentioned way too many times, and it was nothing short of indescribable. I've seen a couple of other NYCB ballerinas who've meant as much, but none more. It's like a special blessing to have seen her in 'Swan Lake' in 1971. re: the 'difficult' stories, I knew someone who worked with her regularly, and said as much in less polite terms. I reported this to a wickedly funny friend, who said 'well, I'm sure if SHE said that, then WE would definitely like Melissa!', which has always given me no end of pleasure. Not that that was up there with the performance itself, mind you, which I can attest, having heard the remark first.

#68 Helene

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 11:16 PM

Hayden didn't get a lot of the early premieres. In the "Six Ballerinas" documentary, I think it was she -- if not it was Tallchief -- who said that Tallchief would get the first performances, and then Hayden would take over the roles.

In "Dance as a Contact Sport" Joseph Mazo wrote about "Cortege Hongrois", the ballet Balanchine choreographed for Hayden's retirement:

Many in the company feel the new ballet is not one of Balanchine's best efforts, certainly not equal to the pieces he did for the Stravinsky Festival last June, perhaps not even up to earlier incarnations of "Raymonda". This, too, they say, is because he "made it for Melissa". Although Milly shows high respect for Mr. B. and he returns the compliment, a lot of dancers insist, "He never liked her -- and she's not crazy about him, either." Milly , they say, really is a dramatic ballerina, a dancer whose emotional power and acting ability are as important as her technique, and Mr. B. has never had much use for dramatic ballerinas or dramatic ballets, etiher. Milly, they hint, always has been too independent to suit Mr. B.

Milly herself admits, "In more than twenty years with this company, I've always been Number 2." She was Number 2 to Maria Tallchief, to Allegra, to Suzanne Farrell, to Gelsey Kirkland--to whoever happened to be Number 1 during an era.

Still, "New Raymonda", as the rehearsal schedule calls it, is a highly skilled piece of work, a tribute to one professional from another, a gesture of esteem, if not of love. There are worse ways to say goodbye.


She was too much for the staid Pacific Northwest Ballet board and company during her short reign as AD and predecessor to Russell and Stowell.

Thank you, all for these intelligent and insightful readings of what d'Amboise has to say. One small comment:


It's very clear from the book how much he regarded Melissa Hayden.

Yes, indeed. It may be hard for people to imagine just how beloved the Hayden-d'Amboise partnership was at NYCB in the first 10-15 years of d'Amboises' career.

Just before the quote above, Mazo wrote:

Milly's partner, obviously, would be Jacques d'Amboise. Having Milly without Jacques would be like having half a Yo-Yo.



#69 Quiggin

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Posted 24 April 2011 - 12:49 AM

I always enjoy watching Melissa Hayden on video of the Tschaikovsky pas and "Stars and Stripes". There is a way she whips her hand and foot around on a turn for extra bit of rotation just when you think everything is over. Perhaps she was more an allegro dancer, like Merrill Ashley?

Robert Garis has good words for Hayden, especially in "Liebeslieder" when she danced with Jonathan Watts. But here's how he ranked the company between 1948 and 1957 (in service of the choreography, not as stars) :

Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil Le Clercq were supreme; Diana Adams had a lovely, natural style, as did Yvonne Mounsey; Melissa Hayden and Patricia Wilde were dependable peformers who capably imitated high style without possessing it. Francisco Moncion was the only distinguished male dancer (though not a technician); Nicholas Magallanes (also no technician; he specialized in "low leaps") was an invaluable partner, lending to such roles as "Orpheus" an eloquent presence; Andre Eglevsky's technical virtuosity filled a company need; Jacques d'Amboise was a useful cavalier.


Of the same period O'Hara & Berkson in "Hymns of St. Bridget" say,

What we love is that "Melissa" or "Diana" or "Patricia" (know without being known) did that, gestured so miraculously last evening ... that we seem to soar unusually in our descripions of their feats ... One of Balanchine's greatest achievements is making the dancers be the dance.


Like dirac, I was taken aback in the witholding of generousity towards Suzanne Farrell. Also - probably the same as what Helene is saying - he wanted the position the more he realized he was being passed over for it.

#70 papeetepatrick

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Posted 24 April 2011 - 07:24 AM

the witholding of generousity towards Suzanne Farrell. Also - probably the same as what Helene is saying - he wanted the position the more he realized he was being passed over for it.


Nearly 15 years has passed since 'Elusive Muse', although I don't know how much that would have to do with it. He was very effusive when talking about her there, of course, not only the talent, but I even remember he said 'this was a beautiful woman', which I found charming. He came across in that as this very jovial, somewhat earthy and likable guy with no pretentiousness, and even called her 'Susan' instead of 'Suzanne', I believe. Thanks for the Garis, Quiggin, although this sort of thing

Melissa Hayden and Patricia Wilde were dependable peformers who capably imitated high style without possessing it

I find to be loathsome dated-highbrow 'criticspeak' (Samuel Lipman used to write similar things in his music criticism). There ought to be a way to search out old reviews to see who got the most 'incomparables', for example. What Mazo said is probably closer to the truth, and does have to do with her uniqueness in

emotional power and acting ability

, which I do see was one of the reasons why the 'Swan Lake' was so ineffable, untouchable, and yes, incomparable. So that that was an understood thing among those who knew her dancing well (I knew nothing at all about it when I saw her.) I saw Farrell many more times, and once she was very theatrical in the performance, but I thought there were very specific, atypical reasons why it came naturally then to express herself so. And while there's something very pristine about 'Diamonds' that might obviously lend itself to being called 'high style', the problem with these terms like this is that, even with the word, that doesn't necessarily make it 'higher' or 'greater' so much as it refers to a kind of impersonal-pure/classical tone, mode, the 'Apollonian' as opposed to something more emotional and romantic in the 19th-century sense. In music, there are some parallels to this, when Mozart is preferred to Beethoven, which doesn't mean much to a lot of us, but more interesting is that Bach doesn't tend to come up. There are many professionals who probably think Bach was 'the greatest', but most of them don't say so, but rather play him all the time. Which doesn't mean I think terms like 'high-style' don't mean anything, but rather may not mean that much and/or sometimes misused.

Perhaps she was more an allegro dancer, like Merrill Ashley?


If she was more of an allegro dancer, she certainly didn't remind me in any way of Merrill Ashley in terms of presence. I saw the latter quite a number of times, and she was never theatrical, although I did enjoy a number of things I saw live, esp. loved her in 'Allegro Brillante' (unlike the taped 'Emeralds', which is the least satisfying thing I've seen of hers.)

#71 dirac

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Posted 24 April 2011 - 11:43 AM

He was very effusive when talking about her there, of course, not only the talent, but I even remember he said 'this was a beautiful woman', which I found charming. He came across in that as this very jovial, somewhat earthy and likable guy with no pretentiousness, and even called her 'Susan' instead of 'Suzanne', I believe.


He speaks well of her dancing, of course, and says something pro forma about her work with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, but that's about it. Most other references are either subtly or not so subtly disparaging. Again, there's nothing wrong about being frank in a book like this, but the lack of generosity, as Quiggin says, was striking. Farrell talked at some length about their work together in performance and off. Perhaps it was like that for her and not for d'Amboise? - he was just catering to Balanchine's muse du jour and it was all in a day's work for him. Made me wonder if Villella didn't have a point.

#72 papeetepatrick

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Posted 24 April 2011 - 11:49 AM

Perhaps it was like that for her and not for d'Amboise? - he was just catering to Balanchine's muse du jour and it was all in a day's work for him. Made me wonder if Villella didn't have a point.


Could you refresh on Villella's point. It's some strange thing that he (Villella) said about Farrell, that I read several years ago here (at ballet alert) in a linked article, that I remember--something about how she was now his 'wife of the long nights', he indicated something a little over-possessive about Farrell's attachment to the Balanchine oeuvre. I'll see if I can google it, but I doubt I can find it, and I know I don't know where it is in our archives here.

I can't find it. I guess Villella's point is about d'Amboise. Catering to a muse du jour does sound like nice work if you can get it...

Yes, here it is, it was posted by volcanohunter in 2007 from an article in the New Criterion on 'Jewels':

Edward Villella, who is now the artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, the only company other than NYCB ever to stage a complete Jewels, told of how he had invited all three ballerinas—Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, and Suzanne Farrell—to coach his ballerinas in their roles. He praised the commitment and skill of all three equally. And then he paused, angled his body toward the audience, and moved into a more searching key, as if to grapple with something difficult. It was his opinion that Suzanne had become too serious in her devotion to Balanchine, serving his memory and coaching his ballets as if she were wearing a mantle, and maybe it was too much. That Villella was compelled to voice this particular feeling—saying what has been unsaid—in the context of this particular ballet should come as no surprise. Is it not another shock from the house of Jewels? Farrell didn’t marry Balanchine in his lifetime, but she has become the wife of his nights.


To clarify that last statement, I've included the following from the thread:

sandik said:

Vilella's comments at the end of the essay are indeed very interesting

"Farrell didn’t marry Balanchine in his lifetime, but she has become the wife of his nights."

This is perhaps a question to discuss in a more general forum -- the role of the acolyte or the muse in maintaining a repertory once the creator is gone. The first impulse is usually to say that the muse is an invaluable part of the equation, but Villela seems to imply that isn't always the case.


Dale said:

That quote doesn't come from Villella, but is written by Jacobs.



#73 Helene

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Posted 24 April 2011 - 12:03 PM

d'Amboise describes how he had many irons in the fire.

One thing that surprised me when I read the book was that he doesn't talk about the small touring groups he put together, which Ashley in "Dancing for Balanchine" described as critical to her career. He also doesn't talk much about his own choreography. Ashley ascribes that d'Amboise casting her in "Saltarelli" was crucial in Balanchine's new way of looking at her, after which she was given many new opportunities, in additions to the ones she was given because of self-described luck, when many of the ballerinas were injured or no longer danced the "Tchaikovsky gut-crunchers", as Croce called them.

He may have been more important to Farrell than Farrell was to him. He had already had great roles before Balanchine choreographed for him and Farrell. He had the advantage of being the tall, dark, handsome, but older Balanchine surrogate in Balanchine's later works for him and Farrell. He had other, outside things, his own little lecture-demo and touring troupes -- my mother, who knew little about ballet, talked for years about the one he did in Paramus, NJ with Hayden and other dancers, Hayden being the only woman she remembered -- choreography, a family, film, etc.

He was also close to Hayden, Leclercq, and other company members, and he was one of the people who was there from the beginning, and saw first-hand the effect that Farrell and Balanchine's obsession with Farrell had on dancers who were his friends and to whom he was loyal and to the company as a whole. (One of the few times I saw Francia Russell almost lose control was when she started to describe how Farrell played Balachine, and then she stopped herself and said, "But she was young.") This is borne out in his critical comments, that Balanchine had given her control over rep and casting, which goes a long way to explain her expectation when she made an ultimatum, and her shock at being treated like everyone else who reportedly had ever made one. (d'Amboise gives the example of Kipling Houston in his book, and Balanchine's expected reaction.) He also explains Farrell's break with Martins and NYCB, by writing that she demanded artistic control over the Balanchine rep, a "You've got to be kidding" moment, especially considering how few works Balanchine left to her control in his will.

#74 Quiggin

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Posted 24 April 2011 - 12:51 PM

Robert Garis's language was a bit "high" but no more so than John Martin's and B H Haggin's, and even Arlene Croce's. Garis's book seems to occupy an important place somewhat between Denby's and Croce's accounts. He notes that premieres went to Tallchief or Le Clercq, but "experimental" works like "Opus 34" or "Ivesiana" went to Adams.

Denby's characterizations of the same dancers in 1952:

Tallchief, though weak in adagio, strikes me as the most audacious and more correctly brilliant of allegro classicists...Le Clercq has a heavenly radiance and lovely adagio ... Her New York elegance of person, her intelligence in every movement, the delicacy of her rhythmic attack we all adore. Adams has a perfect action, the best adagio, a ravishing figure ... Wilde has a beautiful Veronese grandeur and plasticity of sharpe in her dancing, a glorious jump; and Hayden has a Lautrec edge and vehement stab and a strange softness in her she seems to hate; a great actress, if she learns calm. They are all in "Caracole" ...


Regarding Ashton's "Picnic at Tintagel" and "Illuminations" (as a side note to Banchine's "pettiness") Denby says,

Ashton's two [pieces] are sound workmanship and each has first-rate passages. I find the subject matter of each too magnificent to suit their official-style scores, to suit too, Ashton's own wonderfully intimate and poetic view of it. The more trivial the subject, the deeper and more beautiful is Ashton's poetic view of it.


I hope all of this is not too off-topic but gives some idea of the context of the years when D'amboise was first dancing with the complany.

Helene:

[Farrell's] shock at being treated like everyone else who reportedly had ever made [such an ultimatum]..


Yes, that was an incredible moment in the book - when Balanchine had finally had too much, and sharply saw the truth of what was happening.

papeetepatrick:

It was his opinion that Suzanne had become too serious in her devotion to Balanchine, serving his memory and coaching his ballets as if she were wearing a mantle, and maybe it was too much.


Farrell's company does great small scaled things, "Sonnambula" is especially good, "Union Jack" seemed not so, at least here in Berkeley at Zellerbach. Her dutiful reading of her program notes before the performances seem a bit out of character with the event. I thought D'amboise's comment about Stanley Williams might have been directed obliquely to Villella, but maybe not.

#75 dirac

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Posted 24 April 2011 - 04:11 PM

This is borne out in his critical comments, that Balanchine had given her control over rep and casting, which goes a long way to explain her expectation when she made an ultimatum, and her shock at being treated like everyone else who reportedly had ever made one. (d'Amboise gives the example of Kipling Houston in his book, and Balanchine's expected reaction.) He also explains Farrell's break with Martins and NYCB, by writing that she demanded artistic control over the Balanchine rep, a "You've got to be kidding" moment, especially considering how few works Balanchine left to her control in his will.


I never said his critical comments were necessarily inaccurate, but one-sided and often without context. It may well have seemed that Farrell was "playing" Balanchine and no doubt on occasion she was but he placed a very young woman in a very isolated and difficult position and brought great pressure to bear upon her. Even Farrell's final disastrous ultimatum can also be seen not only as the act of one who has overestimated her power but also as one who has been under fearful tension. (He was also quite capable of dropping Farrell abruptly when he had other business to attend to.) That's what I meant by no context. D'Amboise also has a way of saying that Farrell did or said something "dramatically" in a way that implies that her emotion is somehow overdone or insincere. He has one anecdote of them working together, and it involves the two of them disagreeing over something and Balanchine settling the question by putting Farrell down. Even if it's all gospel true I think it's a bit on the tacky side.


He may have been more important to Farrell than Farrell was to him.


That's what I meant when I said that perhaps he saw their relationship differently from Farrell. His position in the company rose as Farrell's regular partner, which Villella mentions.

He also explains Farrell's break with Martins and NYCB, by writing that she demanded artistic control over the Balanchine rep, a "You've got to be kidding" moment, especially considering how few works Balanchine left to her control in his will.


I think it's already known that Farrell wanted some kind of power sharing arrangement. Also, and I don't want to take the thread off topic, but while I can think of reasons why Farrell might not be right to run NYCB solo, "he didn't leave her that many ballets" isn't one of them. [Edited to add: I'm leaving this in but didn't intend my tone to be this flippant.) (Also, d'Amboise writes that Farrell "left" NYCB when as is common knowledge she was fired. That's misleading, although it could just have been carelessness.)

Edited by dirac, 24 April 2011 - 08:45 PM.



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