Preface to the 2003 Edition
for Anne Freedgood
Twenty-two years ago, when I first signed a contract with Random House for this book-a brief section of the endless scribbling that had become an Anais Nin-type addiction--I went directly to George Balanchine's offce on the fourth floor of the New York State Theater to inform him that my diary as a dancer in his company, the New York City Ballet, was to be published. I was afraid I would be fired, very afraid. Not because I had written anything shocking or libelous, but because I had written something at all. Dancers didn't write unless they were stars-only then did they have a story worth telling, the story of success.
My diary bore witness to the opposite, far more prevalent scenario: the transient joys-doing thirty-two fouettes ending with a double, finding the perfect pair of toe shoes, living in a world saturated with live classical music-and the endless angst of not being a star, of realizing I probably never would be a solo dancer despite having talent, opportunity, and that haunting dark shadow called potential. I felt deeply committed, and yet totally powerless, to actualize my dream-which was never to be a star per se, just to be intoxicatingly beautiful as a dancer, for my passion to physically manifest. No small feat, but every dancer's challenge.
I knocked on the door. Standing outside Mr. B.'s offce awaiting entrance was like visiting the Vatican awaiting an audience with the Pope. Even worse: Mr. B. knew far more about plies and tendus, the language of my destiny. Most girls knocking on his door were asking for parts, not permission to publish. I wouldn't have dared ask for a role. I only wanted to be allowed to explain on a page how much I wanted parts, why I thought I didn't have them, what I might be able to do about getting them, and what I should do if my "potential" failed me. I was doing more pirouettes with my thoughts than with my legs.
He opened the door, greeted me, and gestured for me to come in and sit down. He sat too. All very simple, very humble. I had vowed not to cry no matter how my visit went; I remembered him telling a weeping friend of mine, "Dear, you cannot be hysterical if you want to dance." But I always felt on the edge of hysteria. My whole life felt like the ballet La Valse: dancing in tulle on the verge of volcanic eruption.
Mr. B. listened attentively, and when I finished my rehearsed speech he sat back in his chair and asked me one question about my forthcoming book: "Is it about me, dear?"
"Oh, no!" I assured him. I explained that, although he was mentioned a few times, it was mainly about me. He sniVed and looked vaguely amused. I completely missed the irony of telling the great genius that he was only a supporting character in my own dramatic life.
"Fine, dear," he said. "Just give me a copy when it is ready." He then kissed me on the forehead and sent me back to rehearsal.
In early July 1982 my beloved editor, Anne Freedgood, sent me the first two copies of the book. She wrote in her note, "One for you and the other for Mr. B." By now Balanchine was already ill with the Creutzfeldt-Jakob brain disease that would kill him within a year. At the time it remained undiagnosed. No one knew what was wrong with the choreographer who had now cruelly, literally lost his balance. He was staying in Saratoga Springs while we performed at our annual summer home there, but he was too unsteady to come to the theater.
Peter Martins was beginning to oversee some of the day-to- day running of things and was known to visit Balanchine for breakfast early each morning at the farm where he was staying. I gave the second copy of the book to Peter, asked him to give it to Mr. B., and held my breath. For a whole week. Despite already receiving positive notice in various publications, there was only one review that really mattered. Balanchine was not the star character in my story; he was the god of my world.
Peter reported to me for the ensuing several days that every time he arrived at 7:30 for breakfast, Mr. B. was reading my little book. When he finished it, he told Peter, "She will be a great writer one day . . . if she wrote it." I had a really good class that day. Really, really good. Not because I would be a "great writer"-that was just more daunting potential to deal with-but because I had, indeed, written it. It had, apparently, exceeded his expectations.
A few days later, while congregating with the other dancers around the daily schedule board backstage after morning company class, I was suddenly targeted by two blue eyes that looked like side-by-side, bottomless pools. It was The Goddess, Suzanne Farrell-the only one who wasn't sweating.
"Is your book available in legitimate bookstores?" she asked me with a mischievous smile. I was speechless; she had never spoken to me before. When I recovered from the shock I murmured, "I believe so." Were there illegitimate bookstores, I wondered?
To my astonishment, a number of my peers in the company pressed surreptitiously scrawled little notes into my hand in the elevator, or explained to me in hushed but relieved tones that I had written their story, their life. They were giving the book to their parents to explain what it was like to dance at NYCB, to persevere despite the ever-present fear of failure. I, in my youthful myopia, had thought that only I was so alone, so inadequate, so brutalized by insecurity, so tormented by my perceived physical imperfections. I found out-to my great surprise and relief-that everyone was! So I joined the human race, or at least the race of thoroughbred Balanchine dancers. It was a gift indeed.
That fall, back in the city, Balanchine was hospitalized near the New York State Theater at St. Roosevelt's Hospital, where he would eventually die. In February 1983, armed with a homemade orange-nut cake soaked in brandy, I set out to visit him. I stood in the doorway of his private room and he looked up from his bed, recognizing me immediately (I didn't know if he would), and without pausing a beat he said, "Are you still with us, dear?"
"Oh, yes," I confirmed. He thought I might have retired from the stage to write, given my recent literary foray. But no, I was still far more interested in the challenge of dancing than that of writing. It was harder.
As I was leaving after my short visit, Mr. B. said to me, "Why don't you write a story about a man and two women, a man and three women, a man and . . ." I have often wondered what he meant. Did he mean himself and his long line of beloved muses? How interesting, I thought-if that was what he meant. It suggested that he was not so concerned with the importance of his ballets as great works of twentieth-century art. His raison d'etre was the story of one man's lifelong adoration and fascination with woman. It was as if the ballets were merely the result, the byproduct, of this obsessive love. He was not concerned with making "masterpieces," or with his immortality. He was interested in exploring and recording the beauty and possibilities, both physical and spiritual, of the female sex. This was the last time I saw him alive.
On April 30, 1983, Mr. B. died. It was a Saturday, and we danced two performances as scheduled. Suzanne and Peter danced the second movement adagio of Symphony in C. It was a prayer, their prayer, our prayer. Onstage behind them, I understood in a flash why my youthful atheism was forever challenged by my experience on Balanchine's stage. It seemed so appropriate that we were all in Karinska's fluVy white Symphony in C tutus, the widowed brides of Balanchine, each and every one of us.
There were several long memorial services held at the Russian Orthodox Church on 93rd Street near Park Avenue. Hundreds of us stood filling the church, the entry, the stairs, and the sidewalk outside, each holding a single white taper. Balanchine's five wives-Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil Le Clercq-were all there, side by side-Galateas all.
Behind the scenes, the clergy was furious that a man of so many wives would be honored and laid to rest in the Orthodox Church. But Father Adrian insisted, and he presided over the ceremonies; he had been to the ballet and understood the religious nature of Balanchine's work. When the protesting priests-who perceived Balanchine only as a man far too interested in women-saw the mammoth crowd who had come to pay homage, spilling out onto the streets, they were astonished. Who was this man? Who, indeed, was this man, this man who called himself (in the words of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky) "a cloud in trousers"?
In the fall of 1983, four months after Balanchine's death, the company embarked on a six-week European tour to London, Copenhagen, and Paris. It was an amazing experience: the company danced its heart out for our dead maestro and we were received like orphaned aristocrats. In London we all got sick with the flu, but kept on dancing, of course. One week after arriving in Copenhagen I stepped into line with the rest of the walking wounded, outside our physical therapist's always crowded office. I told Marika Molnar, the therapist, that I couldn't lift my right leg, couldn't walk up the stairs, and definitely couldn't do the opening side kick in Serenade that evening. I couldn't dance for the rest of the tour; I could barely walk.
Once back in New York I had a hip X-ray and was called into the offce of Dr. William Hamilton, our company orthopedist. "Sit down," he advised-never a good beginning with a doctor. I had developed osteoarthritis in my right hip socket with attendant calcium deposits that left my socket looking craggy as Mount Rushmore when it should be smooth as a Michelangelo marble. He suggested that my career was finished, and that I should stay sitting down. As I gazed at the eerie black and white shadows of bone and missing cartilage in my X-rays, I felt like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, looking into my own grave.
I spent several months in bed recovering from the initial inflammation and then another eight or so months learning to stand in first position all over again. I wasn't succumbing to a doctor's orders. I was omnipotent; I was a Balanchine dancer. A year later I made it back on stage. With my career in the balance, I had finally mastered the art of dancing with a fire under my feet. Assisted by anti-inflammatory drugs, I danced for over a year until compensatory injuries and increasingly alarming X-rays finally forced the truth upon me. I knew that I did not want to martyr myself to my toe shoes. So I retired at the age of twenty-eight.
I have come to think of my hip injury as my war wound in my battle for Beauty, the inevitable scar of so much hard physical work for twenty-five years. And Fate's way of turning my focus from the stage to the page.
My experience in Balanchine's world had given me something worth writing about-the often overlooked, and vastly underrated, imperative for a self-obsessed young writer. I found writing to be the only way to clarify my contradictory feelings and experience internal freedom. The formation of words into comprehensible phrases was my way to be private, publicly, to be a controlled exhibitionist-something I felt I never quite mastered as a dancer.
When I arrived back in New York from Saratoga Springs the summer this book was first published, I found amongst my pile of mail an elegant cream-colored envelope with an engraved return address on the back: "128 East 19th Street, New York City 3." There was no name-but I knew the address. It was a letter from Lincoln Kirstein, with whom I had never spoken. He was the visionary American who in 1933 had invited Balanchine to America. Together they had founded the New York City Ballet. Holding the unopened letter in my hand, I had a sudden and powerful flashback to my days as a student at the School of American Ballet.
Kirstein would visit SAB almost daily. He had an office there, but mostly I think he came to make sure all was going according to the plan, the military-style plan of the school he and Balanchine had established in 1934. The heavy double doors would suddenly swing open, and a cool breeze would blow down the hallway filled with little dancing girls and boys lingering, stretching, complaining, fixing their hair, gossiping, looking like a modern-day version of a Degas painting. All heads would turn in unison as we looked up, way up-Kirstein was huge: six feet two, broad-chested, hawk-like head. All chattering would cease instantly and we would scatter toward the walls, bodies parting like the Red Sea for Moses. Kirstein would barrel straight through the newly formed pathway, lined with young hopefuls. He appeared to look at nothing but saw everything. No one ever dared speak to him. We knew his rules of behavior: (1) there is no justice; (2) it's not fair; (3) be quiet. This was not a democracy; this was a miracle, an aristocracy right in the middle of New York City's upper West Side.
To us young dancers, Kirstein, dressed in his uniform- double-breasted, black Savile Row suit and black Reebok sneakers-was the Darth Vader of the dance world: ominous, impenetrable, daunting, all-powerful. He was also the reason we were there, the reason ballet existed as an American art form.
Only much later did I realize that he was more like Saint Peter guarding the Pearly Gates to the hallowed halls of Balanchine's cathedral.
I opened the letter carefully, trembling. Perhaps now I was to be fired or chastised for going public with my backstage life.
July 29, 1982
Dear Toni Bentley:
I don't think we have ever met, but, having read "Winter Season," I feel I have known you for a long time.
You have written the best book on our company, and have painted the best portrait of Balanchine that exists. Whatever you feel about your present life, it must be some satisfaction to know that, in the future, you will be quoted, and your observation will have the value of a testamentary document.
It is not often that a dancer, as a crafts-master, has won over two languages, steps and words. Sometime, think of yourself as part of the company's future; not just a corps' dancer, but something on the order of a ballet-mistress. We are in for a period of transition; it is like fifty years ago when we were starting, but now the scale is larger, but the diffculties are equally problematical.
Your intelligence and experience fit you for some sort of future connection; what I don't know and have no right to predict, but what you have written earns you a place in our continuous destiny, should you wish to belong to it.
Your career makes you part of a bridge over two periods. You have had some contact with the best of times of the company Balanchine founded; the next five years will be quite diVerent. Now is the religion I believe in; steps are in the present, and nostalgia is pure vanity.
I feel you can be of help in securing a new nowness. You have been blessed, or cursed with the unique gift of an awareness of self, which means consciousness as an alternative to mere "happiness". When I pray for the "Lamb of God, take away the sins of the world", I think of our dancers as Lambs of God. Balanchine has a sacral function, and those who are magnetized by his service to God, are indeed blessed. The religious service that the dancers do, is what makes ballet today a replacement of the rituals of organized religion. That is why Suzanne is a very great artist, and why the prayer in "Mozartiana" aVects audiences who have no superficial realization of how its steps are combined.
This is the most beautiful, most important letter I have ever received. While Kirstein's approval was gratifying, this was not what moved me. He had put my young life into context for me for the first time, and I was able to really grasp that I was part of something greater than my own self.
So how did things end up for the anxious, ambitious young dancer who was me? Spring followed her winter season and with the delivery of Kirstein's letter she experienced a moment of peace, knowing that it had all been worthwhile, that her greatest fear was unfounded and her life did have some meaning. I breathed for the first time in years. I had confessed and been forgiven. Absolution. It is all one can ask for, and more than I ever expected.
Los Angeles, 2003
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