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« Puzzle for the Day | Main | Education Reform and the Lessons of History »

July 31, 2003

Free Reads -- Toni Bentley

Friedrich --

Ah, the ballerina Toni Bentley! Sexy, passionate, brilliant -- and I've never seen her dance. I'm a huge fan of her writing, though. Bentley was a Balanchine ballerina, but began writing about dance even before she hurt herself and had to retire. To my shame, I've read only one of her books, Sisters of Salome (buyable here), but I thought it was one of the best new books I've read in recent years. From the opening chapter, I was full of excitement and admiration. I was thinking, "This is sensational!," and "Why aren't lots of people talking about this?"

But, a few nice reviews aside, they weren't. A sign of ... what? How peculiar my tastes are? (Always a possibility.) How clueless the books press is? (My generally-preferred theory.) But maybe uptightness played a role too, because what the book is about is dancing and nudity. Really: it's a high-toned, refined, intellectual (though earthy) book about dancing and nudity -- one of the clearest, most level-headed and best-informed discussions about the connections between art and sex that I've ever run across.

It's a study of the lives of four turn-of-the-century women (that's the 1800/1900 turn, youngsters) who danced the role of Salome in various productions, and who helped give birth to the striptease. What made them do it? What was it like for them? Why then and there?

Fascinating stuff, and written about not only with brains and style but rare from-the-inside knowledge and insight. "Rare"? Well, if you look at most movie, theater or dance reviews, you'll notice that even the featured performers don't often get more than a sentence or two -- yet the performers are usually the real reason audiences go to shows. I've read entire biographies of performers that -- while often worthwhile on the lives and personalities of their subjects -- had virtually nothing to say about what made the performer an interesting one.

Why should this be so? The answer, I'm convinced, is simple: because writing about performers and performance is hard. There aren't, and have never been, many people who do it well. A fair number of writers can do a decent job of evoking a performer or a performance; some, like Kenneth Tynan, do so beautifully. But being able to discuss the work of performers with the same kind of depth and respect that's often accorded painters and writers is a much rarer talent.

The writers I'm aware of who can illuminate from the inside? Just a few: Steve Vineberg in Method Actors (here). Simon Callow in his biographies of Charles Laughton (here) and Orson Welles (here). Eileen Whitfield in her biography of Mary Pickford (here).

And Toni Bentley. No surprise that one thing all these writers have in common is that they've been performers themselves. (Without having taken some acting classes, I'd be even less interesting on performers than I already am.) They know what the experience of performing feels like, as well as the kind of work, thought and preparation that goes into performing. And they're able to recognize what other performers are up to not just in terms of effect but also of intention. Combine that with a brain, an eye, and a verbal gift ... It's startling to read these writers because they're speaking from knowledge and imagination both, and because we aren't used to attributing the same kinds of consciousness and depth to performers that we are to other artists.

So: "Sisters of Salome" -- a fabulous book of social and art history, and an amazingly interesting account of what it's like to dance.

And there's, ahem, another important thing: it's a deeply sexy book, and Bentley's a deeply sexy writer. I don't mean "sexy" in some cutesy or or tee-hee way; I mean in a recognizing-the-full-scope-of-Eros way. Bentley is obviously convinced that a lot of what drives many performers -- and that a lot of the pleasure performers get from performing -- is erotic. (From my own experience in acting classes and from hanging out with a lot of actors, I agree with her. When it's really cooking, performing is a turn-on, and in an eros-equals-the-Life-Force-itself way. Some actors will pretend otherwise for the public or the press, but that's usually because they're hoping to attain respectability. Among themselves, the sexiness of the field is no secret.)

Bentley seems completely unembarassed about this. She's frank as well about the kinds of pleasure audiences take in performers, and she's got an eye for performers that's objective and sophisticated -- appreciative and ruthless both. This is a book that people (like me) who go the ballet, think, "Sheesh, this is high-class porn!" and mean it as a compliment will find agreeable, though I wouldn't be surprised if stuffier performance fans are outraged by her work.

I didn't realize that Toni Bentley has a website until today, when I stumbled across it here. It's a generous one, with info about her and her books, and with some photos too -- what a treat she must have been to watch dance. It also includes a handful of journalistic pieces she's written. They're eye-openers in their own right, and well worth reading. "Sisters of Salome" may be the main course, but there's no reason not to enjoy these freebie appetizers.

Hey, I see from her website that her earlier book, "Winter Season" -- a diary about her life as a dancer -- is going to be reissued this fall. I'll be buying.

Here's a passage from a piece she wrote for Allure magazine about Paris' Crazy Horse Saloon:

Curiously, the women perform as if clothed, adhering to the strict choreography without giving any apparent thought to being overtly sexy. These are girls dancing -- who happen to be naked. The bodies onstage are mesmerizing: slim yet curved, long yet round, athletic yet soft. The faces are fresh, serious and exotic. A Crazy Horse dancer is not the girl next door; she’s the fantasy of the girl next door gone wild. She does not imitate or suggest the sexual act, and no male ever shares the stage with her. The Crazy Horse is a veritable fortress of femininity -- ironic and sophisticated.

But it is also deeply erotic -- an eroticism shaped someone who clearly worships at the altar of the female nude.



posted by Michael at July 31, 2003


Can't quite tell if what you enjoyed so much is the book about dance, or the book about eroticism, but if it is about dance, you might want to check out an about-10-year-old book from another ex-Ballanchine ballerina, Gelsey Kirkland's "Dancing on My Grave". The book is fascinating for several reasons:

1. She does a remarkable job of giving a very clear description of the actual "process" of dance---how steps are actually created, and in doing so, unfortunately gives Ballanchine a flunking grade on his method of teaching ballet. She says injury (see: Tony Bentley, as well as Kirkland, as well as Peter Martins, as well as even Baryshnikov (sp?) when he danced for Ballanchine) is inevitable due to the fact that all Ballanchine ever taught is how to "imitate" the step, not to "create" it. She thinks that the Russian method is far safer and wiser.

2. The crazed focus on "body type" and the sort of crazy and wild and sometimes wonderful singular focus on performance that dancers have(at least in the sixties and seventies).

3. Fascinating insights on Baryshnikov (again sp?) with whom she danced when he first arrived in the seventies and with whom she had an affair. Traditionally, the prima ballerina takes one rose from her bouquet at the curtain call and gives the single rose to her partner; Kirland, pissed off at Mikael for something, took one rose out, kept it for herself, and slapped the rest of the bouquet in his hands once. Then smiled at the audience. Another comment she made was the her most gratifying moments in dancing came in the rehearsal studio; Baryshnikov's came on stage.

4. An interesting insight into Jackie O. the editor, as she was the editor of this. If this is an example of her editorial talent, Jackie was a talented lady beyond wearing the shift and the pillbox.

If you are interested in dance, I'd really recommend this.

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 08:07 PM

Will do, thanks. I remember the fuss about the book some years ago, and leafing through it looking for the good parts. Bentley has a piece about the Kirkland book here. I'd love to hear what you think of her reaction to it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 31, 2003 08:13 PM

"Yes, dancing is very, very hard; not everyone is able to sustain its demands, not only of body but of spirit. Classical ballet does not allow for mediocrity. Classical dancing, at its best, is about achieving a form of dignity, grace and beauty that is a very far cry from the "self-expression" that so relentlessly preoccupies Ms. Kirkland."

Ms. Bentley is a Ballanchine dancer (an injured one, I point out again, perhaps scoring some points on behalf of Ms. Kirkland's theory) and therefore, on the one hand, I recognize I am presumptuous to argue with her. But...Kirkland was a bigger star than in the ballet world, the Ballanchine world, than Ms. Bentley ever was, and therefore implying that Kirkland was unable to "cut it" seems ridiculous. Many thought Kirklind was Fonteyn's successor. And, yes, certain elements of the Kirkland book do reveal a perhaps less-than-rock-stable personality and that may have been true without Ballanchine. But I don't think Kirkland would argue that. The book is too intelligently written, and caused too much fuss, not NOT have been largely true, in my opinion. I mean---when she says Ballanchine wanted women who looked like starving orphans, and therefore dancers lived on "cigarettes and coffee"---does that sound untrue, given what George's dancers did in fact look like and given what we know now about eating disorders?? Remember---Kirkland passed the test, she made the cut with George, she was installed by him in the lead of "Firebird" at 17. So she's not being bitter about something she couldn't have.

But leaving disagreements about Ballanchine aside--there's a lot more to the book than that. I still think the "soul of a dancer" (regardless of what Ms. Bentley thinks) is very clear in Kirkland. Kirkland truly loves ballet, that comes through---which is why her criticism of Ballanchine rings true to me. I'd still recommend you check it out.

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 08:55 PM


"...adhering to the strict choreography without giving any apparent thought to being overtly sexy. These are girls dancing -- who happen to be naked."

Upon re-reading, that is truly hilarious, and gives us a little more insight into Ms. Bentley. Whatever else Ms. Kirland did, she never arrived onstage without realizing she was naked, and would never have claimed, if she had arrived naked, that there was nothing sexual about it!!!

This makes me think of another very funny and very chauvinistic comment comparing Sophia Loren and Marilym Monroe. It was said that Loren was like the first female movie star who seemed to actively think about sex, while sex seemed like something that happened to Monroe when she was thinking about something else.

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 11:18 PM

Bentley is quite sexy!

Posted by: Ben on August 1, 2003 03:37 PM

I've been and will allways be in love with Toni... And to think I read Winter Season when it was first published, loooved it and then met the Hottie herself..... and.....well, well, well the rest is still and will allways be the most engaging herstory, Yes she is All That XXX

Posted by: Devora on August 31, 2003 07:51 PM

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