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November 07, 2003

Toni Bentley Redux

Dear Friedrich --

A few months ago I raved a bit (here) about Sisters of Salome, a book by the ballerina-turned-author Toni Bentley about four turn-of-the-century women who danced the role of Salome. A fascinating work of theatrical history as well as a meditation on nudity, sex, performance and modern women, it's one of my favorite books of the past few years. (The book is buyable here.) Since putting that posting up I've treated myself to Toni Bentley's three other books, all of which I like just as much as I like "Sisters of Salome." So I'm back now to rhapsodize about her work some more. Forgive me and my language if I shift into stuffy-critic mode here and there -- bad habit. All I really mean to say is, Hey, I like these books a whole lot, and here's why!

Photo by Paul Kolnik

I find Bentley a daring original. What's sensational about her writing is the way she inhabits her words and her thoughts. We're used to seeing actors and dancers perform bodily and emotional prodigies, but it's rare for writers to convey quicksilver and kinesthetic feats of imagination. Remember the audition in "Mulholland Drive," when Naomi Watts reads for a director? She's been rehearsing a scene on her own in a breathy, innocuous way; now she pulls herself together, faces her co-actor directly, and pours on the eroticism. When I saw the movie, the audience went silent and the temperature in the theater went up a few degrees. The fling-it-out-there physical/emotional/spiritual audacity that Watts showed in that scene is what I find Toni Bentley manages to get down on the page.

Her first book Winter Season (just republished in a new paperback edition and buyable here) is a wonderful combination of the aristocratic and the funky. It's based on a journal she kept when she was 22 and dancing in the corps de ballet at the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. It's unlike most performer's memoirs. What we're used to are the stories of performers who've made it, and who are looking back as they tell us the story of how they got where they are. Bentley wrote "Winter Season" to sort out the confusions and feelings she was living through, and to convey what being a professional ballet dancer is like. She isn't recollecting; what she's writing about is swirling around her as she tries to get it on paper.

During this particular season she had a personal crisis: life outside the ballet studio seemed to be beckoning, and dancing was losing its freshness and meaning for her. "I love all the beauty and movement but hate the life," she writes. She discovers the wonders of sex with romance. She wonders where the magic has gone in her dancing. Could she use some time off? Should she just quit? It's dawned on her that although she dances at the highest level, she'll never be a star. "If simple happiness is the aim, dancing is not the business. If beauty, growth and dedication are worthier objects, then dancing stands a chance. I suppose I believe in the second, but my whole earthly body and mind never stop demanding simple joy," she writes. (Hey, there's that theme again: what happens when the art you love becomes a job?) Her personal crisis is paralleled by a company-wide crisis, a contract dispute that threatened to drive Balanchine from the company whose only real raison d'etre was to perform his ballets.

In one sense, it's a book of over-heated scribbles. She was, after all, just a kid, although she'd been a serious, devoted and successful dancer for over a decade. In another sense, it's a performance in its own right: hyper-articulate, frank and insightful. (I imagine the phrase "wise beyond her years" got used a lot in reviews; I seem to remember the book caused quite a stir when it was first published in 1982.) Bentley's writing here combines the voice of a pretentious teenager confiding secrets to her diary with the voice of an exhausted and seasoned theater pro: "Moi, Danseuse." She's shrewd and objective -- even ruthless -- about costumes, about other performers, about the beauty of other girls, and about her own strengths and weaknesses. A true creature of the theater, she relishes the flavor of passing moments, acknowledges contradictory feelings without needing to reconcile them, and is touchingly extravagant and bold. This is anything but passion recollected in tranquillity; Bentley seems to crave physical sensations and activity, and to see most clearly when she's in the midst of turbulence. It's hard to imagine a book delivering a better picture of what the ballet life is like, and of what it's like to work as a ballerina.

Bentley's second big writing job was as co-author of the Suzanne Farrell autobiography, Holding On to the Air (available in a good-looking new edition here). The book is a moving, intense experience; I wasn't surprised to find that many Amazon reader-reviewers (all of whom loved the book) spoke of having wept as they read it. At 13, Farrell was a poor Cincinnatti kid hoping for a break; by 20, she had become the muse of the century's most famous choreographer. (Bentley seems drawn to fairy-tale lives; either that or she's prone to seeing lives in those terms.) Balanchine was entranced with Farrell; his other ballerinas were envious. Farrell knew that Balanchine loved her, and she adored working with him and embodying his dreams and ideas. Yet she couldn't bring herself to give herself to him physically. (He was married and in his 60s when he noticed her.) Suzanne's own mother wanted Suzanne to give herself to Balanchine; Suzanne was becoming a star; Suzanne's other romances buckled under the strain -- life was nothing but bewildering emotional chaos. And she was so very young. But in the rehearsal room and onstage, everything seemed to come together, to make sense, and to flow. Beauty was their mutual cause ...

All due respects to Farrell, but my instincts tell me there's a lot of Bentley in the book too. Farrell was renowned for her physical daring as a dancer, but also for her rather abstract onstage quality. A ballet-fan friend tells me that Farrell was brilliant but cold; I'm only guessing, but this is probably part of what Balanchine loved about her. And in the book Farrell comes across as an amazingly pure character -- a nun of art, and a creature of performance and action. Yet the book itself has a kind of awareness and reflectiveness that's a characteristic of Bentley's work. This consciousness is present not in a competing-with-the-subject way, but in a subterranean, guiding way, quietly opening up and exploring suggestive pockets. It's part of what makes the book so zingy and moving: Farrell seems clueless about herself and clueless about sex and life, but the book embeds her voice in a larger erotic/aesthetic/physical/religious awareness. So Farrell -- the book's narrator, and narrating her own life -- seems afloat in a matrix of reflections that are only partly hers, yet that inform and set off everything she's saying.

I found the book a super-exciting reading experience. Its power sneaked up on me; I enjoyed it right from the outset, then held on for dear life as it began to show its real power. A few times along the way, I found myself wiping sweat from my brow and reading paragraphs aloud to The Wife. Balanchine seemed to have assumed he and Farrell would wind up together romantically and when she married a dancer her own age instead, he was humiliated and enraged; he fired her as quickly as he could. (She went to Europe for four years to dance with Maurice Bejart -- and then returned to NYCB to work with Balanchine until his death! Performers, eh?) Some of these passages are so emotionally high-pitched that they struck me as worthy of Strindberg or Colette.

On a basic, fun-reading level, both these books deliver tons of performer-lore: what party animals dancers can be, how rare it is for the girls to get their periods, their fondness for Teenform training bras, what they like to eat, how they're dimly aware of being absurd creatures ... Bentley's sweet and funny about the narcissism, naivete and exhibitionism of performers, too -- she shares it herself, of course -- and she does a great job of evoking what it's like to lead a life surrounded by beauty and classical music.

But Bentley's greatest talent as a writer is to do on the page what the best performers do on stage or on screen. Her writing has that same kind of physical-emotional immediacy and awareness and that ability to be objective while in the midst of dizzying events, as well as the shrewdness and opportunism to recognize that what's unpleasant in a moment might also prove to be the key that opens that moment up -- Bentley has an amoral, intuitive insightfulness.

I don't know about you, but I enjoy hanging out with performers. They're often fizzy and attractive. But their conversation! Nine-tenths self-absorbed babble, one-tenth staggeringly insightful -- pity they don't know when they're being interesting. That's one of the reasons the end-of-the-career memoir sometimes works well for performers: by the end of their careers they've polished their stories. They know which ones work and how best to deliver them. Bentley's the rare performer-writer who has a solid sense of how to edit herself; she knows how to excise the babble and cut to the insights.

Her writing has a distinctively heedless yet precise flavor. She does her factual, professional homework with care. Yet the books feel as though they were written rashly -- and were then composed with severity and made to deliver a bit of an icy sting. These aren't works of criticism, analysis or cold reason, god knows; they're made up of evocations, impressions, lore, stories, feelings, and frankness. They aren't explanations; they're about what it's like. Bentley's a precise, clear-headed Romantic, in other words -- exquisite and refined, and a little whorish too (in the best way). There's a hard-yet-tender joy in self-presentation in her work that I find pretty irrresistable.

Her theme in both these books could be said to be the privilege and the cost of living a fairy-tale life, or the perils and ecstasies of trying to live your dreams. I'm not at all sure whether Bentley intends this, and I don't intend to make too much of it (what do I know about it?), but those not drunk on the wine of genius might find themselves worrying a bit about ballet and its costs. The dancers apply themselves to their art from a very young age; they're as highly trained as doctors or lawyers; they injure themselves regularly, and regularly dance through the pain -- and they're then cast out of the life, without a pension and without any conventional-life skills, at the age of 40 (if they're lucky). Bentley herself took her first ballet lesson at three, was taking three classes a day by the age of 13, developed arthritis in her right hip socket in her mid-20s and retired at 28.

I found it hard to read these books without fretting some about ethics of the ballet world: the system seems expert at exploiting (or is it making aesthetic use of?) the trust, the eagerness to please, and the emotions of a certain kind of young girl. Do the girls choose this life freely? Sure -- but to become a professional-quality ballerina you have to commit to the life long before you're an adult. Bentley never denounces the ballet world or Balanchine's influence on it; even so, she calls NYCB a "utopian dictatorship."

When I was feeling more mild, I enjoyed musing over other questions: imagining, for example, what it must be like for a dancer leaving the field to enter civilian life. They've lived such bizarre and marvelous experiences -- such a dream -- up to that point: what must it be like to be suddenly immersed in the humdrum? It could be great, I suppose; it could be awful. Reading these books, I remembered that when I was studying acting, I'd pass ballet studios on the way to the rehearsal room where my acting class was held. In some of these studios were rows of 12 and 13 year old girls doing their barre exercises; outside were girls loafing around as they waited for class to begin. They'd be leaning drowsily against walls, or heaped up on the stairs on top of each other like litters of sleepy whippet puppies: plaintive, beautiful, vulgar, playful. I read these two books wondering how anything in these girls' real lives will compare to the kinds of extreme, exalted experiences they live in their ballet lives.

By the way, Bentley is also -- in her impressionistic, experiential way -- onto some great themes. She's struck again and again by the connections between art, eroticism, religion, and beauty. Her language always seems on the verge of shifting from the vocabulary of art to that of sex, from the language ot sex to that of religion, and then back again: beauty is a miracle, dance is all about belief ... And beneath the sensuality, the rapture and the ecstasy is always the discipline of ballet -- even the torture of it ... Hmm, most suggestive.

Anyway, I enjoyed choosing a bouquet of passages from "Winter Season." Here's hoping I'm not overdoing my Fair Use rights.

  • Describing her first night (and its aftermath) with a dancer hunk, and relating this in the third person: "This young girl who had not had a sexual feeling ever for any man was transformed into a trembling mass. The conscious control that she had taught herself for eighteen years was lost totally, completely and magnficently. Only afterwards could she believe that she had been so transformed into pure feeling. She had not known that rational human beings could lose all reason in thirty seconds ... He became the source of her existence. He was her existence. All else in her short life was thrown into instant perspective; it was not life at all, only preparation. This was life, this was being alive. This was why one lived. This transformation of mind into feeling was everthing; this total loss of reason became her only reason. And she waited each day to lose her reason once again. There were episodes and whole days of separation and pain, but she adored even her pain."
  • "We have no choice; we choose to have no choice. In fact, it would be impossible to dance if we had a choice."
  • About what it's like for dancers to stop dancing: "They are like lost children: no direction, no knowledge, no goals. They have absolutely nothing with which to confront the world or life."
  • "Perhaps a certain tendency to masochism or a least the acceptance of both physical and emotional pain is a prerequisite for dancing, for the absolute belief and dedication that is dancing."
  • On herself and her fellow dancers: "We are uneducated, apolitical and generally amoral -- except where dancing is concerned ... We are accepted by the world as desirable social beings, but we are really pretty alien. We are always performing, even on social occasions -- playing the role of the dancer."
  • On her own yearnings: "I always felt on the edge of hysteria. My whole life felt like the ballet La Valse: dancing in tulle on the verge of volanic eruption."
  • On the joy she's found in writing: "[It's] my way to be private publicly, to be a controlled exhibitionist -- something I felt I never quite mastered as a dancer."
  • She writes about dancing in the corps behind Peter Martins and Farrell the night Balanchine's death was announced: "Onstage behind them, I understood in a flash why my youthful atheism was forever challenged by my experience on Balanchine's stage."

Photo by Wally Skalij

Toni Bentley's other book is Costumes by Karinska (buyable here). It's a coffee table book about the Russian seamstress who sewed and realized costumes for most of Balanchine's ballets. (Hey, another fairy-tale life.) It's full of Bentley's shrewdness, generosity, hard work, precise descriptive language and sensuality. It's also a gorgeous and generous production as a book, full of stills and art. I loved it for the writing and the visuals, and because one of my pet personal themes is the underappreciated importance to the arts of such backstage people as acting teachers, accompanists, editors, costumers ... Highly recommended, but probably of interest mostly to people already pretty knowledgeable about ballet.

"Winter Season" and "Holding On to the Air," though? They're for anyone interested in performers, or in high-wire literary performances.

Here's Toni Bentley's own Web site, where she's put up some journalistic freebies. Be sure not to miss this piece here about Bentley by Louise Roug of the LA Times; Roug gets Bentley talking about the art of stripping. I notice on Bentley's website that she's announcing her next book. It's entitled The Surrender, and is described as "the story of a woman’s unusual path to sexual and spiritual discovery inspired by a powerful experience of what is perhaps the last remaining sexual taboo." How I'd love to know what that's about. We'll find out next year.



posted by Michael at November 7, 2003


If I have a religion, it is surely embodied in my embrace of classical ballet. I am moved beyond words by observing that precise interplay of emotion and abandon.

I, too, weep whenever I recall the Farrell/Balanchine saga, which still seems unresolved by Farrell. When she speaks of that time from her present perspective as a teacher, her sorrow is palpable.

I am being taken to the ballet tomorrow because I need a Balanchine infusion. Ballet is my lifeblood, my introspective confessional. Thank you for writing so movingly about this beautiful art form.

Posted by: Maureen on November 8, 2003 9:34 AM

Maureen -- What a lovely comment, many thanks. But you give me too much credit. Ashamed to admit that I'm a maybe-three-times-a-year-dancegoer, and maybe one of them is to the ballet. If I were to leave NYC now, one of my few regrets would be that I haven't gotten to know ballet well enough. I should obviously quit whining and start attending ...

I did love the Toni Bentley books, though. Have you given them a read?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2003 10:54 AM

Michael -- Yes, I've read Holding On to the Air, and I'm going to reread it this weekend, thanks to your prompting.

I've learned that ballet speaks to the universal longing in all of us, and I make it a practice to seek out ballet companies in whatever out-of-the-way corner of the world I happen to be in at the moment. Once, I attended a performance of Swan Lake in a tiny community theater in Poznan, Poland, and it was a spectacularly emotional moment when those legions of white-clad sylphs inched on to the worn, decrepit stage ... exquisite and transformational.

I need my transfusion tomorrow. Perhaps I shall file a report from the front lines, eh?

Posted by: Maureen on November 8, 2003 11:22 AM

Please do!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2003 11:37 AM

It shall be, then: a meditation from the orchestra seats.

"Ballet: Men wearing pants so tight that you can tell what religion they are." ~ Robin Williams

Posted by: Maureen on November 8, 2003 11:59 AM

"We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once." ~ Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Posted by: Maureen on November 8, 2003 12:10 PM

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