Sunday, April 17, 2016

Conversations with the Muses by Robert Tracy; Dancing on My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland; Holding on to the Air by Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley

Ballet has always been one of my passions.  There is something about watching the fluidity of movement as a dancer uses agility and power to move his or her body through space, controlled by the timing of beautiful music that is such an elevating experience. 

 But all the components have to be there.  

I don't feel the same way when watching gymnasts or ice skaters.  Their moves are not as diverse. They don't move for the sake of beauty but rather for correct motion.  Dancing isn't simply about accuracy and being graded a number.  It is the combination of motion and music. It's not just about speed and impressive jumps but controlling the body to move to the tempo of the music. Dance creates a visual expression of an aural production.

It amazes me how many different kinds of dances and compositions there are.  Also, each dancer gives their own interpretation, which is why you can watch the same ballet with different dancers and receive something different from each one.

My personal preference is for the abstract.  I've never been as interested in the traditional ballets that tell a story like Don Quixote or Romeo and Juliet.  My favorite choreographer is George Balanchine and my favorite ballet dancers are the ones who danced in the New York City Ballet while he was the director. Balanchine wrote many ballets to the music of Charles Ives, Paul Hindemith and many to his good friend Igor Stravinsky's works.  As these composers were Twentieth century in their compositional style, so are Balanchine's dances.  I don't care about a story line when it is the movement of the body to music that provokes an aesthetic response in me, not the - oftentimes overly sentimental- 18th century Romantic Ballets. 

One book I have enjoyed reading many times is Balanchine's Ballerinas:  Conversations with the Muses.  The author Robert Tracy interviewed as many of the choreographer's Prima Donnas as were available, alive, or willing to be interviewed (Gelsey Kirkland refused, but more about her later).

 Balanchine's career spans many decades.  One has to remind one's self that the man who made the ballets for the pale dancers with black eyeliner in those silent screen-like photos is the same one who created ballets for dances that look as if they were performed yesterday, even though the footage is from the seventies.

Most of the women interviewed in Balanchine's Ballerinas share a loyalty, some gushing, some fierce, others merely pragmatic, towards the man that enabled them to reach  such great heights in dance. More than one dancer called him her "Svengali".

Balanchine obsessed over his dancers.  When he found a certain woman, the one with the right body type and ability (he liked tall; one dancer said his training elongated your muscles and turned you into a filly), she became his world and he created all sorts of dances for her.  Some might call it romantic and he did marry some of them, but I think it was something more:  a drive to channel great music through the bodies of people capable of moving in ways according to his vision.

The girls are interesting studies.  They all have a single driving ambition to dance.  They entered his school at young ages and were raised in a secluded enclave that had little correspondence to the rest of the world.  When reading about these ballerinas, one can't tell what year it is because current events don't touch their lives.  When someone ran up to Suzanne Farrell and told her they saw her photo in a magazine next to the Beatles, Suzanne asked, "Who are the Beatles?"

The downside to this is that Ballet is a young person's career, by the time a dancer is forty, they are usually suffering from multiple injuries, often needing hip or knee replacements.  Ironic that such beauty can be so brutal to the body.  

Another brutal experience for Balanchine's ballerinas was  being tossed over in favor of the new obsession; the younger dancer who could now fulfill the choreographer's idea of mobile perfection.  Many dancers suffered as ballets made especially for them were taken away and given to the new favorite.

I would like to read a book about what most ballet dancers do when their career is over.  Instead, I read a couple of autobiographies of two of Balanchine's Prima Donnas.  The dancers are quite different from each other in temperament as well as their relationship to the man who projected their careers.

The first one I read was Gelsey Kirkland's Dancing on My Grave.  Kirkland grew up in a famous, privileged and dysfunctional family.  Her dad, the author Jack Kirkland, was an alcoholic.  Gelsey's mother was the last of several wives.  Growing up in an unstable environment probably contributed to the anger that colors her autobiography.  

The contents are filled with horror tales of anorexia, dancing with inflamed tendons, drugs and sleeping around.  She is as merciless in describing her own self-absorbed and destructive lifestyle as she is with those she whom shared that life with.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she partnered with in the American Ballet Theater for several years, comes across as narcissistic.  Her love affair with him seems like a meaningless after thought, yet she demanded him to love her and couldn't forgive him when he didn't.  Perhaps her growing up gave her such a warped view of  love and intimacy that she had no clear definition of what real love looked like.  She moves from lover to lover, starving herself, becoming a cocaine addict, changing her body and face through plastic surgery (she even clipped her ear lobes!) but nevertheless looking like a fairy-like phantasma as she effortlessly twirls and  trips across the stage.

She describes Balanchine as a monstrous exploiter of women, creating his own personal dance mill and throwing away the used up products afterward.

She wrote a follow up biography which I haven't read.  I hope things improved for her.

Suzanne Farrell writes a different biography that comes across as more honest or at least even-handed.  She doesn't sugar coat her relationship with Balanchine.  Well, maybe a little.  We read of a little girl whose all-consuming desire was to dance.  Meeting Balanchine made that dream come true.  

Farrell is considered the embodiment of everything Balanchine wanted in a dancer.  Many dancers suffered the heartache of ceasing to exist in their idol's eyes as they saw Farrell dance ballets originally created for them as well as several ballets that he made personally for her.

It is interesting to read of their complicated relationship.  As far as Farrell was concerned, he was the vehicle through which she was able to dance.  She willingly became his vehicle to express his choreography, so in a sense it was a symbiotic relationship.  

The waters get murky when she describes their off stage relationship.  According to her, it never became physical and she was conflicted with the feelings she had for him and knowing that he was married.  Apparently she didn't consider it wrong to travel all over Europe with a married man, even if it was non-physical.  According to Farrell their relationship had one purpose: to consummate dance between choreographer and dancer.

Considering that Farrell was only 18 and, like the other dancers, had no world outside the New York City Ballet, one can cut her a little slack. Also, there were no men in her life before Balanchine.  Her mother was divorced, she rarely saw her father and she never knew her grandfather.  She never dated or had any kind of relationship with a man before Balanchine.  

However, it shows how myopic someone can be about only one thing: her life had no meaning outside the context of the dance world.

Balachine's last wife was Tanaquil le Clerq, a divine masterpiece of long legs and slender body that flitted across the stage like something from another world.  Her grace and motion was ethereal.  At the height of her powers, she was the ultimate Balanchine Muse.  Tragically she was struck down with polio at the age of 26.  Because of guilt, Balanchine probably stayed married to her longer than his previous three wives. 

But when Farrell came along, after some years, he finally divorced le Clerq in Mexico.  When he returned, he found Farrell had married another dancer.

Farrell does not talk much about her husband Paul Mejia and they seemed to spend more time apart than together, although for the first five years of the marriage they spent their time together dancing in a Belgian Ballet Company after Balanchine evicted them from the NYC Ballet.

Eventually she returned to the NYC Ballet and shortly before his death Balanchine seems to have had some kind of religious conversion.  He took Suzanne to dinner where he talked about the Bible and even recited the Lord's Prayer.  He then told her he was wrong for what he did and asked her forgiveness.

It's interesting that even though Farrell was Roman Catholic and regularly attended Mass, she couldn't quite accept what they did as wrong.  In her book she insists that both she and Balanchine were instruments as a means to create ultimate art.  Maybe that is naivety on her part.  Maybe that is how she really viewed it.

Unlike Kirkland who seems to be a tiny ball of spitfire, Farrell comes across as a tall, cool, drink of water.  In her own words, not much makes her angry.  I don't think she's lying; some people have a more tranquil spirit.  It was her self-containment that communicated a feminine mystique that made her the final and perfect Balanchine Muse.

One thing I greatly appreciated from a performer's point of view (I'm a musician) was how self-effacing Farrell and many of the other dancers were.  They never felt as if they had arrived.  I found their struggles to master the art comforting because it is such hard work to do that.  Like them, I never feel as though I've arrived yet.  I always feel I  need one more month to learn a piece.

What all the women in these three books have in common is a life consumed with love for dance and their ability to use their bodies to convert motion with music into great art.


  1. While I love all kinds of art, it's disturbing when a "thing" becomes more important than a person or a personal relationship. I'm reading a few biographies now where the person is consumed either by their art or ambition. Not very healthy or life-giving no matter how hard they're driven.

    I continually admire the wide-range of books that you read. And from your reading, I learn a little something as well! :-)

    1. Hi Cleopatra! I fully agree with you. It becomes their god that they worship. I think many of them must feel cut adrift when they no longer have that idol.

      Especially in ballet when you're still a relatively young person when your body deteriorates on you. It must feel as though you're held captive in a body that won't move.

      In Suzanne Farrell's book she writes how she was having problems with her hip but refused to stop dancing until she collapsed. It turned out she had no more cartilage in that hip and it had to be replaced.

      I'm glad that we can worship He who is greater than ourselves.

      I'm glad to share all my interests with you and glad you can derive something from them as well. :)

  2. This is an art form that I wish I knew more about. I have seen ballets and from a perspective of someone who knows little about dance, I was very impressed.

    These books also sound like they explore some fascinating characters.

    1. Hi Brian! I agree with you that ballet dancers are interesting but I must admit that their lives are also very narrow.

      On the one hand, I'm glad that there are people out there that are willing to sacrifice so much because I enjoy watching them. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to have such a limited perspective on life.

      Most of these dancers, like Kirkland and Farrell, started very young and barely have a high school education. In fact, neither of Kirkland or Farrell graduated from high school because it interfered with their dance classes. I believe that is typical of many professional dancers.

  3. I’ve always enjoyed going to the ballet but admit I know little about it. Some of these books sound fascinating; it is time I educated myself.

    1. Hi Barbara! I think that you will find that these books enhance your enjoyment of the dance.

  4. Having a little girl who loves ballet, it was interesting reading your blog. I enjoyed learning about what is happening behind-the-scenes at the ballet.

    My daughters also loved looking at the ballerina pictures as I read through your post. The Degas at the end was a big hit!

    1. Hi Chris! I just hope they don't make a career out of it. It's too narrow a life. So now I know what kind of art book to get them next time I see them. Hm....

  5. one of the great article to find specially great heights in dance. More than one dancer called him her "Svengali".

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    1. Hi Keyle! Balanchine was the best. I don't think there has been a choreographer like him since.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.