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Broadway, Balanchine & Beyond


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I'm catching up on my Sunday NY Times and noticed a review (by Helen Shaw) of a new memoir by Bettijane Sills (former NYCB soloist, now a professor at SUNY-Purchase)  with Elizabeth McPherson in the Book Review.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/31/books/review/balanchine-cunningham-dance.html

From the review:

"The moment the polite little book tips accidentally into nightmare comes halfway through. Having already been reprimanded for weight gain, Sills is called into Balanchine’s office, and he takes her hand, squeezing her fingers. 'When I asked what he was doing,' she writes, 'he reminded me of the story of Hansel and Gretel. Did I remember the old witch who in order to tell whether the children were plump enough for eating, would squeeze their fingers every day?' Get out, I thought. But she danced for that witch for 10 more years."

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Thank you for posting, FPF. My first reaction was that maybe the writer of the review should switch to decaf. The issue of weight is a fraught one for women and not only in ballet, but I can actually think of worse ways to remind someone that she needs to keep the extra pounds off. Judging by the accompanying photo, Ms. Sills had a lovely figure with delightful curves but I can also see how in a weight-gaining state of health it might have become a mite too curvy.

Of course, I haven't read Sills' book and that might change my mind. I look forward to reading it in any case. Ms. Preger-Simon's book looks interesting as well.

I do like that photo with "the witch" -- or warlock, I suppose  -- Balanchine on one knee before Sills, demonstrating.

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Both books are quick reads but worthwhile. Sills’ isn’t the most informative about working with Balanchine but she was only with the company a short while. It was troubling to read of her struggles with her weight (never more than 5-10 pounds more than what she and Balanchine considered ‘ideal’) and his approach wasn’t perfect, but she admits to an eating disorder—and describes her habits in some detail—and she maintained a friendly relationship with Balanchine until the end of his life and considers herself privileged to teach his ballets. 

The University of Florida has published quite a few books about dance, including Allegra Kent’s memoir and Nancy Goldner’s excellent books on Balanchine works. Let’s hope it continues. 

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Thank you, Peg, that's informative. 

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The University of Florida has published quite a few books about dance, including Allegra Kent’s memoir and Nancy Goldner’s excellent books on Balanchine works. Let’s hope it continues. 

Yes, indeed. The University Press of Florida also published "Henning Kronstam: Portrait of a Danish Dancer" by Alexandra Tomalonis.

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Thanks to all who have read this book by Bettijane Sills with Elizabeth McPherson.  Just want to clarify that Bettijane Sills danced with NYCB from 1962-1973. This book is her memoir about her childhood as a working actor, into her career with NYCB, then further as a professor at Purchase College.

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Thanks so much for these links -- I liked Siegel's observation at the top of her review, that all writing, especially autobiography, is selective.  As usual, she puts her finger on it.

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I finally read this book a couple of weeks ago.  Ms. Sills is a very engaging storyteller and seems a very positive, upbeat person--the book is written as though she's talking to you directly and telling you about herself. I was particularly interested in the perspective of someone who was not a NYCB principal dancer but was in the company during the Balanchine years. The book covers her childhood on Broadway, her ballet training, years as a corp dancer and soloist with NYCN, and finally her work as a dance professor teaching ballet (primarily to students of modern dance) and staging Balanchine works. I did find some of the material on the Balanchine years interesting, particularly her work friendship with Suzanne Farrell, who she believed recommended her for roles. But, from my point of view, she didn't seem particularly reflective about her experiences or her relationships with others. I think that this is maybe what the NYT review was getting at--not just about Balanchine, for example, but also her relationships with her parents--a more pessimistic reader (like me) might interpret some things less favorably than Ms. Sills does.  

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I believe I arrived at the dance department at Purchase as a student the year BJ Sills arrived as a professor.  I believe she learned to teach on us, and I believe she eventually became a good teacher because she was willing to work at it.   She was the first teacher I had ever encountered who taught from a notebook, (and not the last, though I could number them on one hand).  It may have been what helped her improve.

I can tell you almost none of the freshmen female dancers considered themselves to be modern dancers when they first encountered Ms. Sills.   The conversion to modern  dancers (by the time they graduated, the proportion had reversed)  was influenced perhaps more from the excellence of the modern instructors and their belief in the students' professional potential.  In the late 70s not many professional ballet dancers had been produced by colleges... almost the fact that one was past 16 and not in a ballet company already was an indication of lack of future there... though I do remember a senior joining ABT and someone from the class after me rising to become a principal at Houston Ballet.  I also remember a couple of students who had danced professionally before entering Purchase, but generally they did not stay the four years as it was a conservatory and they were interested in a more traditional college experience.  Eventually, however, most classmates went on to dance professionally with non ballet companies (Cunningham, Graham, Limon, Tharp,  Taylor, Nikolais/Louis Tricia Brown, etc. or form their own companies, like Doug Varone & Terre O Connor).

Nor do I remember anyone being rude in class to BJ, or speaking disrespectfully of her...although I do remember once a student asking why she never gave port de bras back, (or perhaps, why only once per class).  I also remember she did not have an answer for him.  Perhaps it seemed rude to ask a question about  why she was teaching a certain way, given the tradition at SAB, but this was college and students are encouraged to ask questions.  I do remember a lot of negativity for one of her colleagues, so perhaps she meant not only toward herself, but toward her colleagues.... but one has to remember... just because these were ballet students does not mean that that they were trained by teachers in the Balanchine tradition.... there was more division back then between the ABT/Joffrey/European tradition and the Balanchine tradition... perhaps more difference than there had been in the early days of City Ballet, and perhaps more difference than there is now... if you were brought up by teachers adamantly saying "never do it this way, you will ruin your knees [or your Achilles]" and then a teacher asks you to do exactly as you had been warned not to... well, the teacher might encounter push back... before the wonders of orthoscopic surgery, knee injuries could be the end of things.   There was a feeling at the time that SAB could make demands on the body that were risky and if many students were injured as a result, well, there was a never ending supply of students waiting to replace the them... sort of a natural selection process... which might work fine for the look Balanchine was cultivating in his company but could be lousy from the perspective of the individual taking that injury risk...  I also remember some teachers received more respect than others perhaps just based on their personality interacting with the students, and it was not necessarily down a clear  NYCB/non-NYCB divide.   

However, I do not remember BJ being treated with disrespect, and I also do not remember her pushing Balanchine technique as othrs did... it was a more straightforward class.

i guess we all remember different experiences...   

Edited by Amy Reusch
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