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Favorite books by dancers

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This is my personal Top Ten list:

Toni Bentley, Winter Season

Auguste Bournonville, My Theatre Life

Alexandra Danilova, Choura

Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley,

Holding on to the Air

Tamara Geva, Split Seconds

Tamara Karsavina, Theatre Street

Allegra Kent, Once a Dancer...

Robert Maiorano, Worlds Apart

Bronislava Nijinska, Early Memoirs

Paul Taylor, Private Domain

These books vary greatly in length, ambition, and literary quality. They're just those I like best. What are your favorites?

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I love your list -- they'd all be on mine, too; I especially like "Private Domain," it's such a mess, but it is just intoxicating....

I REALLY like "I Remember Balanchine" -- It's not BY a dancer, but by MANY dancers, interviewed by Francis MAson, and it gives a fascinating mosaic of impressions of him in action with them -- nearly 50 of them, from Russian days all the way though to the end -- also a few telling interviews with non-dancers......

(DON'T MISS the little chapter by WIlliam Weslow; my God , that''s lively)

Sorry, I jumped RIGHT AWAY off topic..... but it was the first that came to mind.....

I really admire Margot Fonteyn's autobiography -- what's it called? "Out in hte limelight, home in hte rain" is the phrase that comes to mind..... like Karsavina, she was a wonderful person...

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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.

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First off, let me second FF's choices (though I will confess he has has a strong influence on my book-buying habits).

And thank you, AT, for the tip about the Osato book; I will look it up. I would also respectfully differ from your reaction to the Taylor book. I really liked his efforts to explain how and why he became so obsessed with movement and its meanings. True, the book gets dull when it lapses into "and then I choreographed..." and it does not paint a very engaging portrait of its author. But as the brilliant documentary Dancemaker suggests, Taylor is more appealing as a dancer and dancemaker than as a person.

Meanwhile, let me add one suggested title, mostly for those who have not spent much time in a dance classroom or rehearsal hall: Merrill Ashley's Dancing for Mr. B.. Its exemplary stop-action photos clarify basic steps and help explain how technique becomes dance. The text (as one critic wrote) tells us more than we ever wanted to know, but reading just a few pages helps us enter the mind of a dancer.

For readers without access to major bookstores or libraries, I can suggest that www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com include not only books in print but books out of print as well.

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Here is the first paragraph of the William Weslow chapter………

“My first real contact with Balanchine was at Ballet Theatre in 1950, in Chicago, where his wife, the great Maria Tallchief, was dancing with the company for a time. I was in the corps de ballet. In the finale of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, the Polonaise, the boys had to cross the stage in big leaps to the sound of crashing cymbals. We cleared a path for Maria to come down to the footlights, or we were supposed to. Balanchine was watching a rehearsal. I had never danced the ballet before.

Balanchine suddenly said, “Stop. Stop. You, boy.”

Me, he meant. He was doing his nose mannerisms and he spoke to me, sniffing away. I was quick to pick up any sort of mannerism.

“Boy – you. You must go up. And you go tremendously up. I know you have good elevation, but you have to go up and get our of the way fast, you see.”

Watching his nose, I began imitating him unconsciously.

He said, “And don’t do this nose. I do this nose. You DANCE.” He pushed me about 8 feet, and I did what he wanted. Or so I thought.

He said, “Come here. You, I want to tell you. You have to jump in and out and AWAY. You can’t be in the way, principal come in, and you’re IN THE WAY.”

There I was, going up in the air. And by the time I came down I was blocking Maria, who was coming down to the front. You don’t block Maria’s way. If you do, you’ve got a tomahawk in the middle of your forehead. I say that with admiration, because Maria was the greatest Balanchine dancer. I adored her.

and it just gets better -- don't miss hte sections on Lifar, on Allegra....

or how they used to throw him around the studio because if they threw Allegra and the boys didn't catch her, properly, she could get hurt... (in fact, she was already bruised all over). ...it's' just fabulous......

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Originally posted by Morris Neighbor

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.

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

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.

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"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!

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oops -- sorry, guys, that was pretty stupid of me.... Osato was a beautiful dancer, it's good to think I'll enjoy reading her book.....

and it's true, Weslow is by far the most fun, and the ballerinas are as usual sweetly diplomatic and awfully circumspect...though Mary Ellen Moylan, who's very VERY sweet, does say that Balanchine wanted her in developpe to offer the foot as if it were her hand.......

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What do you all think of Gelsey Kirkland's 'dancing on my grave'?

I couldn't help but read it because it was really sex drugs and rock n roll..... no sex drugs and ballet! Although it did make an impact on me, looking at the mistakes she made.


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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.

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I'm glad Manhattnik mentioned Chris d'Amboise's book. It's called Leap Year and has a foreword by none other than Lincoln Kirstein.

The book is a very lively account of a year in the life of an NYCB dancer -- at the State Theater, Saratoga, Copenhagen, and on a mini-tour of New York State. It's very enjoyable, except perhaps to residents of Buffalo. "Buffalo must be the armpit of New York," writes Chris. It was published by Doubleday in 1982 and I'm sure has long been out-of-print. There must be copies around though, possibly including Manhattnik's.

As for Dancing on my Grave, Gelsey Kirkland did put ballet on the bestseller lists, and I don't think anyone else ever managed to do that. But the main reason I hated the book was that she blamed everyone for her problems except herself. Most astonishingly, she seemed to blame Balanchine for turning her on to drugs. I remember her account of her relationship with Patrick Bissell, a dancer I'd admired since his SAB days, as being both nasty and heartbreaking. I went to my bookshelves just now to refresh my recollection about the book, but couldn't find it. I must have gotten rid of it because it was so depressing. Gelsey was a beautiful, uniquely talented dancer. Let's hope she'll be remembered for that rather than this book.

Incidentally, there was a sequel, also written with Dancing on my Grave's co-author Greg Lawrence (her husband at one point, I believe), which was all sweetness and light. Probably because of that, I've forgotten the title. The book told about Gelsey's teaching at the Royal Ballet. Mr. Lawrence went on to write Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins, which emphasizes the nasty aspects of its subject.

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Although of course I agree with Farrell Fan about Gelsey's first book, -- that husband of hers just seems to have gotten off on getting her revved up and self-pitying -- i have to say, she DID go to extraordinary lengths and take extraordinary pains to perfect her art.... Th section where she went to the MAryinskly Theater to watch the Kiorv take class seems like a pretty lucidf interval for her..... and the loneliness she felt, to diascover that she was pretty much the only dancer who wanted to go check out hte fountainhead.... well, I hve a lot of sympathy with her in that...... Yes, I think she projected a great deal onto her teachers and colleagues -- when they asked her to lighten up -- "dance like Fred Astaire" - she didn't believe they could mean that, and if I remember right, implied that they were trying to sabotage her........

I haven't read it for a long time..... wonder how I'd feel now. It certanly has to be taken "with a grain of salt" -- but the clues are all there; child of alcoholics, the perfectionism, the competition with her sister, the acute sense of her physical limitations, her head was too big as a child and he insteps weren't high enough and she didn't grow up to have the proportions she wanted, or rather, the proportions she admired..... but she was a tremendlusly severe critic of HERSELF....... The saddest thing about he book was that it sounded like she never enjoyed dancing until she started doing drugs.... Maybe she needed that release......

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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.

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'Dancing on my Grave' is a turn off and I wonder if it is the most widely read dancer bio for the general public. Gelsey and Misha were sort of 'People Magazine' stuff back then.

As far as redemption goes, for me, Gelsey's second book: 'The Shape of Love', is inspiring.

I am with Alexandra when it comes to 'Dancing in Petersburg' by Kschessinska.

Imagine being in the company of the Tsar. That level of luxury and sophistication is unfathomable to me. Also there is the power that she wielded.

Then to have to flee to another country and start at zero (okay, she still had her house on the French Riviera). One had to be brave to survive the revolution and start over.

I doubt I read this in her book, but I remember hearing that at the end of her days, she collected payment for class in a cigar box.

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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!

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And how about Edward Villella's Prodigal Son? Real interesting about being a guy loving ballet back when he was a teenager-and all the challenges.Even more interesting later years-and enlightning on how he passes his teachings on now.

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I agree with Paul that dancers face extraordinary tensions at a young age. Fortuantely, most of them find support systems, usually among fellow dancers. From all I have read and heard, these conditions have improved markedly in the past decade or so; there are even dancers who marry and have children in mid-career.

But I cannot think of another dancer who chose to air her dirty linen so gaudily as Gelsey. I was toiling in the book industry (in a cubicle adjacent to FF) when Dancing on My Grace came out, and I do remember tales of the publication party: her publisher invited all her former colleagues at NYCB and ABT, plus other dance world luminaries, and they all refused. The invitation to Peter Martins, whom she portrayed as a callous, two-faced satyr, has to set a high mark in chutzpah.

As for Chris d'Amboise's book, I knew the agent who placed it, and he was very pleased that the editor who took it under her wing was the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Disregarding modern publishing practices, Mrs. O. actually read manuscripts and gave authors extensive editorial notes. And the (at the time) quite young Mr. d'Amboise greatly benefited from her guidance. It's certainly an unusually eloquent, vivid account of a dancer coming of age.

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Farrell Fan -- the sequel to Dancing on My Grave was called The Shape of Love. I enjoyed it, probably because it was devoid of all the sensationalism of Dancing on My Grave. It's all about dancing, and that is why it's out of print. I had to borrow a yellowed copy from a friend. It's worth the read if you are interested in how she built a part.

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Originally posted by glebb

'Dancing on my Grave' is a turn off and I wonder if it is the most widely read dancer bio for the general public.  

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. If I had a dollar for every time someone used the infamous "I want to see bones" quote as justification for why Balanchine is the Great Satan, I'd be able to sit in the orchestra every day for the rest of my life. :D

I much prefer Suzanne Farrell's autobiography. She acknowledges Balanchine's shortcomings without constructing him as a demon and herself as a saint. It's interesting, too, to see her write so positively--and honestly-- about the same people who were making Gelsey so durned miserable, such as Diana Adams, Gloria Govrin, Arthur Mitchell, Mme. Doubrovska, Peter Martins, and, of course, Mr. B. Furthermore, as her book was published after Kirkland's, she makes it a point to refute, directly and indirectly, any conclusions one might draw about ballet and Balanchine from reading Dancing On My Grave.

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This thread comes at a convenient moment. :D 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.

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Ari -- I too was excited a few years back on learning of a book about Balanchine by one Alice Patelson that was new to me. Unfortunately, it turned out to be about Alice Patelson rather than Balanchine, and Ms Patelson was such an uninteresting person and incompetent writer that I couldn't even get halfway through. And it's a slim book.

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