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Favorite books by dancers

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The discussion in another part of the forum about Tudor's The Planets made me pull out Marie Rambert's Quicksilver, which is a great read and an interesting document of the development of Ballet Rambert, especially the early years when Tudor and Ashton were creating works there.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I enjoyed reading Gelsey Kirkland's autobiography, because it was revealing on her situation and character. Not about the ballet aspect, about half way through I think I was far more interested in her personal conflicts because she had such ups and downs. more of the downs it seems, but the highs must have been numerous too.

I think if you take it as it is, without wondering about how much she was to blame, if she villified certain people or not, the extent of the truth in it etc, it can be read as an interesting story on an interesting life. I think she did have an interesting life, worth reading and indeed writing about even if she gets it wrong.

In the eyes of editors, books have to sell and we all know what the essential ingredients are. So the sensationalism is to be expected as it is an easy trap to fall into when writing on such subjects as drugs, ballet, eating ...or not.

I have yet to see her dance on a video, but this thread has reminded me that I meant to. But all I have heard is that she was very gifted.

I am waiting to get Makarova's book from the libary, is it good? I have heard that she talks extensively on the conflict of flexibility against strength (something I have to work on, flexible but not so strong).


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Becky, I absolutely agree that Kirkland's book, true or otherwise, is a good read, very entertaining. The problem is that when it's the only exposure that people have to ballet or to Balanchine, it gets taken as the truth. After all, it is being marketed and presented as an autobiography , which, unlike the novel or even some genres of non-fiction, is, by definition, the true story of the author's life. Now I'm not diminishing the personal relevance of her experiences, nor am I denying that the things she experienced were true to her, but the truth in that book is lopsided, and is best understood in relation to other people's experiences. In other words, Dancing On My Grave represents The Truth According To Gelsey Kirkland, if not necessarily the truth according to the other people she mentions in her book.

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White Swan, Black Swan (Ramdom House, 2001), by Adrienne Sharp is a collection of inter-related stories about dancers and being in dance culture. When I first picked it from the bookstore shelf I thought it would be terrible or tacky, but I was hooked from the first sentence. I had to buy it. The author is credited with having studied at Harkness House for Ballet Arts, but her book flap bio doesn't credit her with having danced in any companies. Nevertheless, she does write fiction about dancers with an insider's view. Although the stories are for the most part fiction, all the characters and events ring true to my experience, and are based on or taken from people I seem to know or have known. Several of the stories use Godunov, Ashton, Fonteyn and Nureyev as focal points, and Adrienne Sharp takes the liberty of saying out loud what most people in the dance community only whispered about. Her literary candor is both courageous and enlightening. Her stories sometimes have a sharp edge, but they are also genuinely moving and sympathetic. Mainly, she just tells some the truths about being a dancer, and she does it with skill, inspiration, and compassion. The book was harshly (and in my opinion, unfairly) criticized in a "Dance Magazine" review. It's true that the work is for mature readers, and it does show dance culture from its most hopeful to its most desperate. But it also reveals the very human side of being a dancer, and she includes everyone, from the stars and the heroes we look up to right over to the lowliest dancer in the corps de ballet.


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Yes, I agree and realise this Balletnut. I was presenting another view that's all. It is a good read, true or otherwise.The way the book shaped attitudes towards Balanchine and ballet and many other people and things, well it is a shame if the reader is misled. It may not have been helpful at all.

No story is ever completely true, it cannot be. the truth is always diluted to some extent to suit the author wether it be for personal reasons, money, pride, popularity, or any number of things. Every story is second hand and never reliable.


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A few messages back, Ari raised an important point: in the dance boom of the late '60s and early '70s, a million flowers bloomed in New York. For those of us who came of age in that period, the posiblities of choreography, in all its many styles and manifestations, blew us away. And when tickets went for $5 or $6 a pop, we got to see a lot of dance. Personal failings were not very important if the performance stretched our ideas of dance.

Today, with tickets running $30 or $50 a pop, I am much more selective.

Similarly with books. Kirkland chose to betray confidences and compromise friendships in order to maximize her profits.

I've never read her book, I have no plans to do so (the reviews were more than enough) and I have lost all respect for her. Talent excuses neither crude vegeance nor criminal excess.

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Okay, I read the whole thing. (See an earlier portion of this thread.)

Alice Patelson was at SAB from 1964 to 1970, and in the NYCB corps from 1970 to 1975. Her career was marked by knee, foot, hip, and back injuries, and was finally ended by what she describes as "muscle weakness." She was unable put on her coat or move a chair without assistance, despite a month's stay at a rehabilitation hospital. During her NYCB days, she had a mild and inconclusive flirtation with a dancer she calls Ted, and after she had to stop dancing, she hit it off with an anonymous professor from her unidentified college. This is how the book ends: "He was thirty-five and was eight years older than myself. I felt that he was a mature and sensitive man. While we were dining and talking, an overwhelming feeling came over me, and this evening turned out to be the beginning of a love affair that was to last for many years."

Alice's father and uncle ran the Joseph Patelson Music House behind Carnegie Hall. George Balanchine was a customer. That's all we're told. While she was at NYCB, Balanchine talked to her a few times, smiled at her, and was always understanding when she couldn't dance because of her injuries. Violette Verdy was nice to her. So was Peter Martins, then a recent addition to the company. She admired the recently-returned Suzanne Farrell. In short, this book, Portrait of a Dancer, Memories of Balanchine, is singularly unrevealing. As set down here, there's nothing individual, unusual, surprising, or even particularly interesting about Alice's experiences in class, rehearsal, onstage, or at home. It was published by Vantage Press, a vanity publisher.

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