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Dancer Autobiographies

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(This thread inspired by the reference to Allegra Kent's autobiorgraphy in the "Ballerinas You've Never Seen" thread.)

I've read as many dancer autobiographies as I could find, and find it fascinating how each reveals something of the dancer's personality.

As I recall, Allegra Kent had a wry view on any number of topics, including her mother and her marriage. I remember being struck by how important it was for her to have children (she had three, I believe), and what a (negative) impact this had on her dancing career.

Edward Villela, in his autobiography, talks about how hard Balanchine's compnay classes were on his body. He had to go elsewhere to take class, and felt that Balanchine always resented it.

This was in striking contrast to Merrill Ashley, who absolutely adored Balanchine's classes and tells of taking class even when others took the day off. (Perhaps tellingly, Ashley did not really write an autobiography, but more of a technique book with autobiographical bits thrown in.)

Peter Martins also found Balanchine's classes hard on the body, and preferred to take class with Stanley Williams. He feels that Balanchine initially misunderstood his ability to be something other than a classical Bournonville dancer, and seems to have been the most successful in terms of speaking frankly to Balanchine and seeing his relationship with Balanchine change.

One of my favorites was Maria Tallchief, who seems to have developed a striking maturity as a person as well as a dancer. (Some autobiographies leave you with the impression that the person never thought about anything other than the next dance class or performance.)

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Here's the list.

Since most of these are out of print, you'll probably have the best luck tracking them down through interlibrary loan.


Merrill Ashley: Dancing for Balanchine

Suzanne Farrell: Holding on to the Air

Margot Fonteyn: Autobiography: Margot Fonteyn

Allegra Kent: Once a Dancer

Gelsey Kirkland: Dancing on my Grave

(she also wrote a sequel which goes into excruciating detail about performing -- I think Romeo & Juliet -- with the Royal Ballet)

Peter Martins: Far from Denmark

(this was writting at a fairly young age -- about 20 years ago -- so it doesn't provide as much of an overview of his life as I would like.)

Maria Tallchief: Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

Edward Villella: Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic

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A lot of these are out of print, but I got a copy of both Ashley's and Villela's book through Amazon.com's out-of-print service. It takes a while for them to track these used books down, but it is a great service! Otherwise, if you have a good university library near you, that may be a good bet.

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Another excellent autobiography is Valery Panov's "To Dance". He danced in the USSR during the same period of time in history as described in Maya Plisetskaya's autobiography.

Panov's is MUCH easier to read since he wisely wrote it with a professional. Plisetskaya's book is an unwieldy volume filled with too many names and no index.

That said, I read one book right after the other and, taken together, both gave me a really good idea of life for dancers in the Soviet Union.

Fendrock, I've read all but one of the books you listed (Merrill Ashley's). After reading Tallchief's book, I'd say that my impression of her was entirely different from yours. I found it to be a gossipy book from start to finish - yes, I admit it, the gossip was interesting. I much preferred Farrell's and Fonteyn's, both of which left an awful lot unsaid.

Agens DeMille wrote several interesting books chronicling her life.

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This is my cue to put in a plug for Suzanne's "Holding on to the Air," which is in print in a nice paperback edition from the University Press of Florida, who also published Alexandra's great biography of Henning Kronstam in hardcover.

I too thought Panov's "To Dance" an excellent book. Of the memoirs by Balanchine's wives, I thought "Split Seconds" by the first one, Tamara Geva, was the best. But that too has long been out of print.

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I found the autobiography of Alexandra Danilova to be quite interesting. The name of it is "Choura," and although the first half of the book goes into detail about the Maryinsky, Balanchine figures an importaing part in the rest of the book. Intersting are her insights to the early times of American ballet. (Not the American Ballet, but American ballet in general).

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I think Tamara Karsavina wrote an autobiography, but I can't remember its title. Also, the memoirs of Marius Petipa are interesting, although practically impossible to find. His book is really irritating, though, because when he gets to describing the ballets he created with Tchaikovsky, he merely lists them and goes into no detail, even as he acknowledges that it was his creative high point!

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Alida Belair, the first Australian dancer to study with the Bolshoi Ballet, wrote "Out of Step, A Dancer Refects". Eventually she became a principal with Ballet Rambert and then on to ABT among other companies.

At this point I don't remember many details except that I enjoyed her account of a career with a complicated path to success. Many Australians leave to train and dance abroad and like Belair have

varying degrees of success. The most famous of these dancers is with out a doubt the late Robert Helpmann.

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I've read many of the books that have been mentioned, and while they are all interesting, I think the ones that I particularly loved were Valery Panov's "To Dance" and Alexandra Danilova's "Choura". Just talking about them makes me want to go find them and read them again..

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One of the best ever autobiographies is "Winter Season" by Toni Bentley. I think it was first published in the early 1980's while Balanchine was still alive. She was a corps dancer and goes over her experience during a season with NYCB. She is a wonderful writer and subsequently helped with a number of other ballet autobiographies. I believe she ultimately became a writer rather than a ballet dancer. But the book contains a number of insights into what it was like dancing for Balanchine. This was during a period when there was strike threats and how Balanchine dealt with them. Basically as I recall he told them to go and strike, he would fold the company and start again.

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Guest lil_dancer

has anyone read danceing on my grave and my teacher suggest that we read it and i was wonderning if any one here read it and did you like it?

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I read that Gelsey Kirkland book and I distinctly dislike it. I firmly feel that she was writing it from an unhealthy mental state. I found that, from start to finish, the book screamed, "Victim, victim, victim!" even while she was admitting her own faults. I came away with the impression that, yes it's admirable she broke the drug problems, but she still had a LONG way to go towards real mental health. I guess it bothered me because it's a book that's read by teenage dancers everywhere and I don't really think she, at that stage in her life, was a good role model.

I also thought that the way she wrote about Balanchine was cruel -not only WHAT she said but HOW she quoted him, syllable by syllable of broken English in quotes.

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One of the saddest series of posts we ever had here was a little girl who was 12 (before we had an age requirement of 13 to post here) who began that book and was so excited. She told us several times how much she liked it -- she'd report every few chapters or so. Then there was a long silence. And then she came on and said she'd finished it and she wished she hadn't read it, and she didn't like Kirkland any more.

If I were a parent, I wouldn't let anyone under 15 or 16 read that book, and I'd make sure the child knew that Kirkland was a great artist, but the book might be disturbing.

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Paul Taylor's PRIVATE DOMAIN is my favorite dancer autobiography (and it's in-print). He comes across as a thoughtful, humerous, nonpretentious person and artist. Just like his choreography.

The worst? Paul Szilard's UNDER MY WINGS. Ego tripping, name dropping trash talk. A waste of my time and money.

While this isn't strictly autobiographical, Francis Mason's I REMEMBER BALANCHINE is a priceless collection of interviews and "first person sketches" from dancers, artists, and writers. The last entry is from his last doctor describing his last terrible illness. I doubt if the book is still in print - dance books disappear so quickly - but it's worth taking the trouble searching for.

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Patricia, I can't agree with you more about Paul Szilard's book. Dreadful! When I saw a photo of him, I thought I knew him. Shortly before he became an "impressario" I came in contact with him while I was taking a few classes with a Russian teacher (I think it was Orest Sergievsky). He was Mr. Bragodoccio in those days, too and a decidedly oily character. What really amazed me though, was that a few years later he was partnering Nora Kaye in 'Giselle'---in Japan! He was not too impressive in the technique department--he was already about 40 when I knew him.

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