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Favorite books by dancers


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 09 May 2002 - 08:13 PM

Nice topic, FF :(

I like almost everything on your list -- I'm not a big fan of Private Domain. I know what he was aiming for, but I don't think the half-fantasy half-memoir structure works. (But it must be awful to have to write an autobiography.)

I'd add Kschessinska's Memoires. Karsavina was a much better person, I'm sure, but Kschessinska's memoirs have an undercurrent of viciousness and EGO that I love.

One of the most interesting and well-written, for me, is Sona Osato's "Distant Dances" -- great title, too. If MOrris Neighbor is reading this, Osato's description of a youth spent dancing with the Ballets Russes will give you a good idea of what your mother was spared by not running away and joining them!

Shame Tudor didn't write an autobiography. He would have been a perfect candidate for it.

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 12 May 2002 - 01:18 PM

Thank you for that sympathetic assessment, Paul. At the time, she did seem so whiny and bitter that I think people got caught up in that, and not in her side of things. (Sometimes people want to write their own stories so they can put forth their side. Sometimes it would be better not to do that, but to let someone else do it for you. for another self-destructive autobiography, try to find Lynn Seymour's!)

Paul's list of Gelsey's real demons is right on, I think. Many dancers have some of the same, of course, to varying degrees, but her striving for perfectionism, her insistence on perfectionism, and the very fine microscope with which she viewed her own dancing must have been intolerable. I think she was, or could have been, a very great artist. The saddest thing about her very sad appearance on LA Law more than a decade ago was that you could still see the genius in the bits of dancing they showed, and that she wanted to be seen dancing Giselle -- off pointe, but Giselle, nonetheless, a magnificent Giselle. It's one of the saddest stories in dance history, I think, right up there with Emma Livry's.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 08:39 AM

Originally posted by BalletNut


I wouldn't be surprised in the least if it was the most widely read dancer's autobiography in the mainstream. It has all the ingredients for a bestseller, and it reaffirms most people's general distaste for everything ballet. It certainly seems to be the sole source for all the anti-ballet and anti-Balanchine venom I read and hear all over the place.


You're right on -- I speak from experience :( When I was pitching my manuscript to publishers, they all cited Kirkland's biography as the hit. They wanted dirt, er, "intimate revelations." I also think there's something -- whether in American readers, or just editors -- that loves the "Ballet done me wrong!" story. After "Dancing on My Grave" I think the most popular one is the Edward Stierle book, which was sold as "Just because he didn't have the perfect body no ballet company wanted him." Ballet is an alien art form, still. It is off-putting to many in this country, and they prefer to reinforce the stereotypes and ideas they already have.

Back to books by dancers, what about Plisetskaya's Memoirs -- I have it but haven't had a chance to read it yet. Everything I've heard is, flawed, but fascinating.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 10:19 AM

Ari, I really think there's a certain element -- even in the 1970s -- which thought of ballet as an alien art form. Modern dance is American. Ballet is European. There is much that's distastefully unAmerican about ballet -- its hierarchies, the notion that one must decide on a career when one is ten, its structure and traditions. That's one school of thought that's wafted and waned since the beginning of this century, but it has a very strong voice in publishing.

Exceptions, as always, of course, the major one for many blessed years was Robert Gottlieb at Knopf. Check any of our threads on great or favorite books and one notices how many were Knopf books.

#5 dirac

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Posted 10 May 2002 - 12:02 PM

Weslow's great. As noted, his chapter has a boffo ending, too. :(


I also enjoyed Edward Warburg's reminiscences about Balanchine's early years in America, and Lucia Davidova had interesting things to say. Not everyone represented in the volume is so enlightening, unfortunately.


I would also put in a good word for Distant Dances in addition to those already given above. Very interesting and intelligent book.

#6 dirac

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 10:51 AM

I was always amazed that Kschessinska could actually dance under the weight of all those jewels. Must be nice to always have a Grand Duke or two on tap, not to mention the heir to the throne. I can't say I feel terribly sorry for the members of the Imperial circle -- it was a most unsympathetic regime -- but she did show guts after the Revolution(s).



I think what Paul said about drugs being a release for Kirkland is right on the money. I felt torn reading her book -- she's intellectually curious, independent, talented, all wonderful qualities mitigated by those terrible insecurities. Not to mention lousy copy editing -- I will forever cherish the reference to "fulsome breasts." (I'd add that "The Shape of Love," although very different in tone and content, shows a Kirkland very similar in key respects to the one on display in the first volume.)



Also, Paul, not all the ballerinas were that discreet -- check out Melissa Hayden. I wish she'd write a book!

#7 dirac

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 11:13 AM

In defense of "Dancing On My Grave," I should note that while I wish Kirkland had taken a less sensational approach, I found it interesting to read and it gave me considerable insight into a talented and troubled person, although I regret many of the misconceptions about ballet the book encouraged, intentionally or otherwise. She was unhappy; she said so, and gave her reasons why. What we think of those reasons may be another matter, and we're free to disagree or point out inaccuracies where we see them. I thought "Holding On to the Air" was somewhat sanitized in that respect; I didn't expect Farrell to Reveal All, but she was bending over so far backward to avoid saying anything remotely unpleasant about anyone, with the notable exception of Kirkland, that the book is sometimes borderline bland, IMO.

#8 dirac

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Posted 15 May 2002 - 09:30 AM

Becky, I very much enjoyed Makarova's book. She has many interesting things to say about technique and other matters. (And the photographs are wonderful, which is always nice for a volume on dance.)

#9 NextStage

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Posted 10 May 2002 - 06:59 PM

"Distant Dances" is the title of Sono Osato's autobiography. Alexandra mentioned the book in a post toward the beginning of this thread. Osato was a dancer with the Ballets Russes in the 1930s, with Ballet Theatre in its early years, and then went on to dance on Broadway. Count me in among those who read this book with much interest and enjoyment!

#10 Nanatchka

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Posted 10 May 2002 - 11:14 AM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by Morris Neighbor
[B]But as the brilliant documentary Dancemaker suggests, Taylor is more appealing as a dancer and dancemaker than as a person.


I happen to disagree with this for any number of reasons. (Just for instance: 1.You cannot separate the dancer and dancemaker from the person. 2.All that whining about him in the movie didn't make him less appealing to me. Etc.What could be more appealing than Esplanade? Diggity? Et.al.? Or Taylor at curtain? )The book--Private Domain-- is just as much a made up thing as the dances--maybe that's why it seems so truthful. Well, there you have it. I really do love Paul Taylor.

I read a whole stack of dancer books, several years ago. Most fell into the category of Too Much Information. But Moira Shearer was a real sleeper.

#11 Manhattnik

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Posted 12 May 2002 - 08:00 AM

While we're talking about purchasing books online, I feel the need to remind everyone that if you purchase books from Amazon via the link at the top of this (and every) page, a small pittance from your purchase goes to Ballet Alert. So if you do have the urge to obtain any of these books, please go through the above link?

Thanks in advance!

I wonder what happened to my copy of Christopher d'Amboise's book about his first year or so with NYCB. The passage where he's taking NYCB class, suddenly realizes he's surrounded by scores of gorgeous women, and then trades a silent, knowing glance with his father, is really priceless.

#12 Manhattnik

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 12:06 PM

I liked Villella's book, and rather enjoyed it that he wasn't above doing a bit of score-settling. Some of his stories about Balanchine are astonishing (like the one where Balanchine almost makes Villella dance Donizetti Variations in an utterly ridiculous costume as unspoken "punishment" for daring to dance an encore"). And when Villella writes about having to perform with a painful injury because his understudy wouldn't take over, well, you can almost see Villella crossing Peter Schaufuss of the list of people against whom he'd had a score to settle. I'd much rather read this sort of thing than a bland "everybody was so nice to me" sort of memoir.

I only read Kirkland's book fairly recently, and it was quite interesting to get the "real" or somewhat-real scoop on events I'd experienced as a member of the audience or dance press. I remember waiting for hours and hours at Studio 54 (after it was no longer a cool place) for Kirkland to arrive for a press conference/reception, at which she never arrived, or only long after I'd given up and gone home. I certainly never dreamed at the time that her new "manager" at that time was actually more of a drug connection (according to her book!). And here I had been feeling sorry for the poor guy having to manage such a notoriously flaky charge.

However much one might say Kirkland's problems were of her own making, and deplore her for not pointing the finger at herself, some of the episodes related were harrowing enough to make me feel sympathetic for her regardless of the "blame." And let's not forget that she was one of the finest dancers to ever tread onstage -- even in the blurry, silent, bootlegged films of her you can see only at the Dance Research Collection, her amazing artistry is unmistakeable.

#13 Ari

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 05:56 AM

This thread comes at a convenient moment. :( I've just learned of a book by Alice Patelson called Portrait of a Dancer, Memories of Balanchine. Is anyone familiar with it? Patelson was an NYCB corps member in the 60s. The book was published in 1995 by a vanity press—Vantage— so it's not surprising that it has a very low profile.

#14 Ari

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 10:04 AM

Originally posted by at:
Ballet is an alien art form, still.  It is off-putting to many in this country, and they prefer to reinforce the stereotypes and ideas they already have.

This wasn't true in the 70s, during the "dance boom." I think people sensed then that ballet was a vital art form and that this was where it was all happening, as we said back then. Nowadays, people (quite rightly) perceive the opposite. Hence the distaste and derision.

The "ballet is unfair because it discriminates against those of us without perfect bodies" feeling is always going to be there, because it's true. It only becomes an evil in the minds of nonballetomanes when there seems to be no reason to dance, or watch, ballet.

#15 Ari

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Posted 17 May 2002 - 05:32 AM

Thanks for your review, FF, and the fact that you were fair enough to return to the book after dissing it in print. :( I won't be so eager now to get ahold of a copy!


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