"I began to search out writers whose style, as I was learning to see, was an indication that what they had to say was worth knowing." --Guy Davenport


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Case for Rocky as a Classic Holiday Movie 


 The terrible inverse of Baby’s First Christmas has got to be Mother’s First Holiday after Divorce. A year ago at Thanksgiving, my sons were 12 and 14, on the downward slide towards adulthood but not there yet, and their father had recently moved to another state. What holiday traditions could we salvage from the torched scaffolding of our broken family?

We needed a holiday movie, a cultural equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life around Christmas, something to watch together with the same sense of ritual and renewal. That November 2015 a Rocky sequel of sorts had been released entitled Creed, highly praised and putting everyone in mind of the original. Reach back though all the sequels to that summer of 1977 and the first time I saw Rocky, on vacation with my parents at the Jersey Shore. Going to the movies on vacation was a double dose of escape, but Rocky seemed more real than any movie I’d seen before. Its storyline hinged on the fanfare surrounding the American Bicentennial, and the filmmakers managed to release it during the exact timespan it depicts, November–December 1976. Forty years later, the film still speaks to me.

Seventies movies are renowned for their gritty depiction of urban life, and Rocky is a prime example of this aesthetic: those streets of North Philly looked nothing like my hometown of Indiana, PA, population 15,000, a Bedford Falls of sorts and the actual hometown of Jimmy Stewart. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, the plot of Rocky arcs towards redemption, but it takes a long time to get there. A day in the life of Rocky Balboa out in the streets of North Philly meant a pile-up of petty conflicts: with the stingy fight manager, with the loan shark Mr. Gazzo exhorting Rocky to let him do the thinking, with Gazzo’s snarling driver. Even 13-year-old Marie, a neighborhood girl whom Rocky counsels to have more self-respect, is having none of his piety: “Screw you, Rocky!” she retorts.

All of this mean-spiritedness abates only in the pet shop, in the company of Adrian, the clerk so shy she cannot make eye contact with our strapping protagonist. Earlier we saw Rocky alone in his apartment rehearsing pet jokes about his turtles, and now we know for whom he was inventing these lines. Adrian smiles in spite of herself at Rocky’s turtle jokes and is promptly ordered to the basement by her boss to clean the cat cages. The pet shop is all about cages: in a later scene Rocky finally asks Adrian on a date while she’s tending to a birdcage on the counter between them, an impassable barrier. Adrian is so discomfited by his invitation that she can’t respond, and Rocky gives up and leaves with no answer—the first of two pivotal scenes where a character just shuffles offstage, everything unresolved, a hallmark of the movie's realism. Butkus from his cage on the floor is the all-seeing dog, but even he doesn’t know that by the end of the movie, they’ll be all of them sprung and united as a family.

George Bailey and Rocky Balboa suffer through a lifetime of bad breaks, economic struggles, and emasculation, too goodhearted to be overtly angry, lost until they meet their angels, Clarence and Apollo Creed. Rocky’s only friend, Paulie, is the sort of character you can imagine voting for Trump, far angrier than Rocky about his meager opportunities in life. He reluctantly aids Rocky in courting his sister Adrian, with remarks about her “dried up,” “old maid” status, a naked misogyny that in 2015 seemed dated but in 2016 is less so. In this twilight of his fighting career we’ve seen Rocky repeatedly humbled, and in Adrian he finds a downtrodden compatriot in her own seeming twilight of marriageability, both arrived at that particular late-twenties moment where you feel on the old side of young. More cruel than Paulie’s taunts, however, what plunges a knife in my heart now, after years of cooking for a husband and two children, is when Paulie reaches into the oven on Thanksgiving day to impale Adrian’s roasting turkey and hurl it out the window into the alley. Her meal ruined, Adrian flees to her bedroom and later emerges with a gallows expression for this dreaded first date with Rocky.

Have there ever been more inauspicious circumstances for a first date? Rocky takes Adrian ice skating, though the rink is closing and the manager has to be bribed, allowing them just ten minutes. They circle the empty ice together, Rocky jogging in his street shoes and Adrian knock-kneed in her rental skates and frumpy coat, a vision of misfit harmony. I wonder if Talia Shire really couldn’t skate well, or if that’s an ingenious bit of business from John Avildson, awarded an Academy for his direction. They speak of why boxing lefthanders are called South Paws, why Rocky’s parents told him to use his body since he didn’t have brains, and how Adrian’s mother told her the exact opposite. Rocky will later sum up their bond as “filling gaps” (“She has gaps, I have gaps, together we fill the gaps”), love as a guard against loneliness. The evening ends in Rocky’s apartment, initially shocking in its squalor but seeming almost homey by this point, with a sleeveless odalisque Rocky beckoning Adrian to join him and his muscles on the tattered couch. This erotic display unnerves Adrian, and she asks to call her brother. Rocky maintains his dignity in revealing that he can't afford a telephone, without exactly saying so. One of the great Hollywood kisses is their eventual embrace and slow collapse to the floor, with Adrian still wearing her enormous coat.

I relived this romance between Rocky and Adrian for years, playing the soundtrack in my bedroom at night. “The heralded celibacy of the fighter-in-training,” as Joyce Carol Oates called it, evidently made a chaste Rocky into the ideal heartthrob for an eleven-year-old girl. Forty years later, what grips me harder is the scene where Mickey asks to be Rocky’s manager. “What you need is a manager,” growls Burgess Meredith, the legendary actor in his own twilight, a genuinely ferocious, scowling, very old man. If you look for a crack in that façade to reveal a lovable curmudgeon, you won’t find it: his mood is relentlessly foul. But Mickey knows boxing. We meet him on the day he’s changed the lock on Rocky’s gym locker to assign it to a younger fighter, the ultimate insult; the next day, Rocky is announced as Apollo Creed’s opponent for heavyweight champion of the world.

Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Rocky, and Mickey shows up unannounced at his apartment to make his case. Ineptly, Mickey begins by insulting Rocky’s pet turtles, saying what good soup they’d make, then shows Rocky photos of himself in his prime and the gruesome injuries he sustained as a result of . . . not having a manager. The overture is five years too late, but Rocky is too kind-hearted to openly gloat that the tables are turned and now he gets to do the rejecting. He escapes to the bathroom, and to the sound of flushing Mickey shuffles out, twice, forgetting his hat the first time.
 When the apartment is finally empty, Rocky explodes out of the bathroom in a wounded rant along the lines of “What about my prime?” while the camera cuts to a defeated Mickey descending the staircase, hearing every word. Then, in a leap of grace, his anger spent, Rocky forgives. He jogs down to the darkened street to catch up to Mickey, shown in a streetlamp-lit long shot. We never hear their words, but we see that Mickey is hired after all. It’s one of the most cathartic sequences of hurt and forgiveness that I can think of in any movie. The next day their training together begins, the montage that launched a thousand workout videos, ending famously at the top of the stairs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as if Stallone were saying, this is where my movie belongs, because it’s a masterpiece.

What is it about boxing movies—On the Waterfront, Raging Bull—and their taxonomy of regret? Above all other sports, boxing asks for the largest measure of courage and returns the greatest degree of damage, an irresistible metaphor for life. How to celebrate a holiday in the aftermath of damage is a challenge we all eventually face, sometimes observed by our children, and certain classic movies that offer both darkness and redemption can light the way. A year ago on Thanksgiving eve I cooked to the Rocky soundtrack, thinking of Adrian and her ruined turkey, how it led to something much better. My sons had never seen Rocky, and so we watched it together, and I was consoled.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Nothing Blue Can Stay: The Platoons of Kentucky Men's Basketball



courtesy of www.Under-Main.com, where first published in December 2014



Each year it is with some reluctance that I transfer my affections from the University of Kentucky football team to its men’s basketball team. Their seasons’ overlap in November is uncomfortable for me, adjusting from the wide martial arc of football to the dogfights of basketball. This tempo change is aggravated, in the John Calipari era, by the prospect of an entirely new roster of starters each year, fab freshman whose ever subdividing stages of recruitment—unofficial and official visits, verbal commitments, Letters of Intent—I do not happen to follow. There is a limit to how much time one can squander on sports news.

           I did however witness the pinnacle of recruiting theatrics from Nerlens Noel, who gave proof of his outsized personality and heart when he announced his choice of UK on live TV by swiveling around in his chair to display the UK logo shaved into his nape. We had him for half a season.

       Good relationships take work, and it can be hard caring about a brand new team every year. Longtime fans are accustomed to watching players develop over three, four, sometimes five years. I didn’t set foot in this state until my thirties, and without any  birthright to the Big Blue Nation, my enthusiasm relies on an interest in the players, their strengths and weaknesses, histories, personalities, and how they compete. In UK basketball, with so few returning starters each year, I was becoming jaded with the one-and-done business, despite Calipari’s laudable “players first” philosophy, which I completely embrace. In 2011–12 I revolted, vowing not to tune in until conference play, and not really watching until February, thereby missing the early-to-mid-season progress of a phenomenal team and the NBA’s brightest young light, Anthony Davis. Lesson learned.

         So, after the incredible tournament run of the 2013–14 team and its loss in the national championship, I rejoiced along with the rest of BBN when multiple starters announced their intention to return. We knew another amazing freshman class was on its way to town, and we wondered, who would start? We trusted Coach Cal to work out the details, and he did, inverting Donald Rumsfeld and going to war with the army he had, which was twice as good as the army he may have wished to have. Calipari invented the system, named the system, and suddenly, the fairly urgent problem of too many star players was transformed into an endlessly fascinating new array of tactics and tempos for everyone involved. With the platoon system, we are watching something entirely new: no division 1 team has ever sustained it, because they haven’t needed to, because it’s a new problem, a now inevitable-seeming outcome of Calipari’s recruiting genius.

           But Coach Cal isn’t just a recruiting guy, a marketing guy, a carnival barker as one sporstwriter dubbed him: he can also coach. Pre-season, everyone smelled blood, eager to see a clash of personalities as this plethora of star newcomers and veterans would be required to set aside their entirely reasonable expectations for games with 30–35 minutes of playing time and the resulting big statistics. Instead, they’d get 20 minutes and smaller stats through which to pursue their NBA dreams. Yet, these have become in every way salubrious platoons—for the players, the fans, the media, and the sport itself.

Ample make this team.
Make this team with awe.
In it wait till March Madness break
Excellent and Fair
Be its passes straight
Be its foul shots round
Let no rivals’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

with apologies to Emily Dickinson

The platoon system solves several basketball problems. First, it’s regrettable that such a fun game to play and watch has the smallest roster of any team sport, only 5, versus football’s 11, soccer’s 11, lacrosse’s 10, baseball’s 9, ice hockey’s 6. That basketball is the smallest-roster team sport is a recipe for heartbreak beginning in middle school, in this town where basketball is a religion and so many youth are highly skilled at the game and expect to make their school team. “He’s one of the toughest kids in the school, but when anyone talks about the try-out, he starts tearing up,” reported my 6th grader in illustration of the widespread agony around try-out time for those who didn’t make the team.
Basketball is also the sport most vulnerable to selfish playing styles, such as ball-hogging and offensive showboating. Yet it seems that the founding articles of Calipari’s platoon system are unselfish play and attention to defense. We must credit his leadership for building a team of 10 starters who are off the charts in numbers of assists and blocked shots and opponents’ low shooting percentages. “The best defensive team in the modern era of college basketball” is what the Eastern Kentucky coach declared, having lost 82–49.
Platoons change the game, for players, opponents, and even fans. With so many games in a season, there is the temptation for busy fans to tune in only after halftime. Doing so this year would mean missing the exquisite drama of the Blue Platoon, who start the game, warming up the opponent for 4 minutes, probably with some blocked shots and alley-oops, until around 16:00 when Blue exits en masse to be replaced by the White Platoon, who also block shots and alley-oop, and so forth throughout the game in roughly 4-minute increments. Wonder which team gets tired first?
The White Platoon, which starts the second half, has just one starter from last year, Dakari Johnson, plus three freshman, Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker, and last year’s bench warmer Marcus Lee. Lee had one break-out half in the tournament last year, when he scored 10 crucial points vs. Michigan, securing him a spot in BBN’s hearts forever. How terrible it would have been, without this platoon system, to see Marcus Lee only warming that bench again this year! Thank you, Coach Cal, for finding a way to consistently play Marcus Lee. And Dakari Johnson, who stepped into a starting role after Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury last year, has accomplished very good things already, but he would likely be the 6th man again, behind Cauley-Stein and Towns, were it not for these salubrious platoons.
The Blue Platoon is returning starters Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Willie Cauley Stein, Alex Poythress, and the extraordinarily talented, well-spoken, and huge freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, whose name accurately conveys the grandeur of his person and prospects. Now all those amazing buzzer-beaters by Aaron Harrison, the reassuring game management and dribble-drives of Andrew Harrison, the nimble eccentricity of Cauley-Stein, the periodic explosiveness of Poythress: their remembered feats make fond penumbras around the new season.
Much has been written about Alex Poythress and his season-ending ACL tear on December 11. He was a team favorite, a fan favorite, and a coaches’ favorite for his achievements and character on and off the court. There is even a Twitter tribute account worth visiting, @APTheTypeOfDude, affectionately mocking his straight-arrow personality, in which every tweet begins the same, e.g., “Poythress the type of dude to use the clear nights we’ve had lately as a chance to finally test out his new telescope.” Poignantly, its tweet on December 12 was, “Poythress the type of dude to come back from his injury better than ever, whether it’s with UK or the NBA. He’ll be back.”
I asked my friend Whitney if she ever mentally assembles her favorite players into a hypothetical starting 5, say the best players from each platoon. “No,” she said, “because the platoons are so well balanced.” It’s true: scoring and other stats across both platoons bear this out, and that’s no coincidence. Balance is fundamental to sustaining the platoon system. Otherwise, if one platoon significantly outperformed the other, it would be untenable to continue giving equal minutes to both platoons. Time will tell if the balance endures, and certainly Poythress’s vacancy is a challenge to the system. “I’m on a mission to make this work for each of these kids,” said Calipari pre-season, and if the firehose of talent is to continue gushing our way with each new recruiting class, it must.
Meanwhile, fans are in a state of ecstasy, not only because we’re 12–0, but because we have twice as many players to love. Coach Cal didn’t invent platoons to enhance the fan experience, but he surely knew that Big Blue Nation and its attendant media could easily absorb a double helping of greatness.

 



Friday, February 21, 2014

Abandon in Sochi



Like thoughtful criticism of a thriving arts scene, the nourishment we receive from Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir’s commentary is a sign that the state of Figure Skating is strong. Did Thursday not live up to the years of anticipation and hype for the marquee event of the Sochi Olympics? Having three skaters within .8 points of each other after the short program made every medal a toss-up. But nobody thought the dark horse Russian, Adelina Sotnikova, upstaged by her younger teammate in the team competition, would seize her diva “don’t stand in my light” moment—as Johnny Weir phrased it—and grab gold.

 Those of us who follow figure skating knew that Johnny Weir was a force of glittering nature, but little did we know how articulate and measured he could be. And Tara Lipinksi? As was said of Tina Fey after her stint of Sarah Palin impersonations: My darling, where have you been? Their partnership was so consistently fabulous that people have called for them to launch their own talk show or host the Academy Awards. Perhaps, but half of what makes Tara and Johnny such brilliant commentators is their formidable knowledge of skaters and skating, deployed with every consideration for the skaters themselves. They empathized with those who faltered and reveled in those who excelled, always educating viewers about the finer points of jumping technique that we’d never perceive on our own. We expect them to be catty but they rarely are. Mom and Steve both noted Johnny’s tender attentiveness to Tara's every comment, a dynamic caught in the photo above. Their foil Terry Gannon (whom some called their “babysitter”) was terrific too and kept referring to them as “the inseparable Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir,” their chemistry evidently extending well beyond the broadcast booth.

Fun facts about Johnny Weir: he began skating late, at age 12, but was talented enough to catch and surpass his peers, winning three U.S. Championships in 2004–06, and placing 5th and 6th in the Turin and Vancouver Olympics, respectively. A sometime target of animal rights activists for wearing fur off the ice, in his signature programs on the ice he wore feathers: “The Swan” and “Fallen Angel,” which best embody his classically pure style. A lifelong Russophile, he became fluent in the language by watching Russian movies and seeking out friendships with Russian skaters and coaches. Since his marriage in 2011 to a Georgetown Law grad of Russian descent, his legal name has been Johnny Weir-Voronov. He visits Russia 5–6 times a year and is so popular there that his wedding was front-page news. Johnny had hoped his love of both skating and Russia would culminate in his competing in the Sochi Olympics, but at age 29 the training became too arduous, and he announced his retirement last October. He was quickly hired to announce, and in the months leading up to Sochi, became an energetic advocate for not boycotting the Olympics in protest of Russia’s treatment of gays, arguing that it would be the worst possible outcome for the athletes.

Having Johnny and Tara announce these Games was reminiscent of Adam Lambert’s season on American Idol: a big part of your anticipation is wondering, “What will they wear today?” And they never disappointed, in contrast to the notorious plague of sequins among the skaters. I was intrigued by a Washington Post writer’s proposal that, to earn more credibility as a sport, figure skaters ought to take a cue from gymnasts and wear a team uniform. A seemingly air tight theory that, in practice, would be joy-killing even for a non-fashionista like myself. For every accomplished skater undermined by a ridiculous costume, there is an elite skater in an outfit that delights. Or perhaps great skating sells a costume: who can unravel the alchemy? But a team uniform would undoubtedly trigger the bridesmaid effect: some skaters would look lovely, and others it wouldn’t suit. Further, since gymnasts perform just one event to music—the floor exercise—their endeavors have much less in common with dance than figure skaters’ do. Figure skaters are dancers on ice, obviously, and music and costumes are essential to both. That we make figure skating into a sport with judging causes discomfort to certain sports purists, yet judging and competition are every bit as intrinsic to the performing arts as they are to judged sports. At the highest levels, all professional dancers and musicians and actors have risen through the ranks via auditions, prizes, and evaluation by directors. Instead of criticizing figure skating for being too artistic, why not make all of the performing arts into sport?

These days it’s tough to argue that all this attention to fashion in figure skating is misplaced, given Oregon college football’s varying uniforms or the ceaseless redesigning of basketball shoes. But only in figure skating do we find ourselves critiquing make-up. Am I the only one who applauded the fresh-faced natural look of Russians Yulia Lipnitskaya and Adelina Sotnikova? While Gracie Gold’s lavish frocks were tasteful, her make-up and that of many others seemed garish. They wouldn’t have looked out of place on a cheerleading squad. By contrast the Russians had more gravity: Yulia’s “girl in the red coat” costume had narrative heft, her evident nervousness sadly cohesive with the grave Schindler’s List theme, and Adelina’s Ballanchinesque modernism in the dance vocabulary of her long program worked beautifully with the muted grey dress. 

Ultimately, the skating-and-fashion alchemy prevailed in my favorite competitor, “Queen” Yuna Kim, whose mesmerizing skating and loveliest dresses had no storylines other than the embodiment of beauty. I am still overcome every time I replay her “Send in the Clowns” short program in the yellow dress. It was not enough for the judging rubrics, weirdly, thus launching figure skating’s newest scoring controversy. I would have been thrilled to see Yuna repeat gold from Vancouver, but I was persuaded by Tara and Johnny that Adelina deserved gold for skating the most difficult program almost flawlessly and with—as Johnny put it—“abandon.” Let the gold medals be spread around, perhaps.

Watching Yuna Kim's programs over and over to console myself, I am struck by the irony of her song choice in “Send in the Clowns.” This poignant hit from the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music is sung by a regretful actress in her twilight, with the lyric: “Isn’t it queer, losing my timing this late in my career?” At age 23 Yuna may have felt that Sochi was her twilight. Yet Tara and Johnny said she was better than in Vancouver, and I observed more maturity and substance to her skating, the girlish vamping from her Vancouver programs wholly absent in Sochi. Skating to an instrumental version of “Send in the Clowns,” her timing was inspired: as violin and cello richly bowed each chord, at the perfect moment of its gorgeous sustaining came the whoosh of blades cutting ice as Yuna launched into her jump, awestruck applause scattering in her wake. Suzanne Farrell was Ballanchine’s preeminent muse for her exquisite timing, which she also miraculously combined with abandon. We see the impossibility of this in the contrasting styles of Adelina and Yuna. Will such all-encompassing artistry ever take the ice?


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lives of the Dancers

"See the music, hear the dance." —George Balanchine




Each year the survival of an entire art form—ballet—comes down to this month of December and its ubiquitous performances of The Nutcracker, the earnings from which must fund dance companies for the remainder of the year. A love of dance logically leads to a fascination with dancers, who seem almost a separate species, proportioned as purely as a mathematical equation. Several ballerinas have written memoirs worthy of our fascination, and they are among my favorite books by contemporary women writers.

I read my first dance memoir as a teenager and felt an instant kinship with its 22-year-old narrator, Toni Bentley. In Winter Season, Bentley is a member of the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet during the final years of the Balanchine era. Bentley is not a star and beginning to realize she will never become one. But she writes marvelously, aphoristically—every page has lines I want to quote—and thinks deeply about her art. She sketches the sensibilities of dancers and the details of their daily lives with great insight and irreverence. The glories we witness onstage are made possible only by a Herculean work ethic and self-discipline, even self-abnegation:

We don’t eat food, we eat music. We need artistic sustenance only. Emotional, inspiring sustenance. All our physical energy is the overflow of spiritual feelings. We live on faith, belief, love, inspiration, vitamins and Tab. (16)
. . . And in moments of weakness we try to reassure ourselves that it is worth it, and best of all, that one has the whole rest of one’s life to live. We call “living” what we don’t do—we dance, we don’t live. After all, we are allowed none of the decorations—no love life, no food, no liquor, no late nights, no drugs. This is the general rule. Of course we all are human and forget ourselves, periodically and lapse into “living” habits, but the inevitable repercussions always let us know when living is interfering with dancing! (18)

With such resonant ambivalence about the sacrifices demanded by her art, it is no surprise that a crisis of commitment ensues. Knowing she is good enough to be a star in a lesser company, Bentley struggles to reconcile herself to a rank-and-file position on a premier stage.

The book’s inwardness is like reading a diary in which certain Greek gods —Balanchine, his eventual successor Peter Martins, Heather Watts, and especially Suzanne Farrell—periodically enter and exit, trailing gold-sequined scarves. No one has captured Suzanne Farrell better:

Suzanne just finished another Diamonds, and frankly I cannot put any words on paper to describe her magnificence, her giving. I watch her face and can only think of a love she has greater than I could ever contain. . . . To me she is beauty itself—the word came after her presence. Each time she smiles, I can only cry, and I think of something I read about the sadness of beauty: just to find it is not so hard, but to bear it, that is impossible. (30–31)

With Bentley so besotted, one can almost sympathize with George Balanchine’s plight upon encountering Farrell two decades earlier. Later Bentley dissects the psychodrama of a rehearsal featuring Farrell, Martins, and Balanchine:

[Suzanne’s] brown hair, held up by a single clip, loosens and spreads as she dances. Her face is unpainted but glorious, a wise and beautiful face. The big blue eyes speak of her humor, her sympathy, her devotion, her romance, her experience, her suffering and her care.
She is most attentive to Balanchine, dancing for him. Peter [Martins] listens but tries to maintain an aura of independence and self-composure, appearing to consider carefully and filter every remark of Balanchine’s and then appearing in agreement as if it were the verbalization of his own thoughts. (80)

Never accomplished enough to be a soloist, Bentley made a virtue of necessity in this slim volume by capturing the exigencies of life in the corps, and the book itself has since become the star. A meditation on the sacrifices that all artists make, it offers inspiration to anyone struggling to trust herself, embrace her journey, and find meaning short of fabulous success.

The memoir demanding to be read after Winter Season is of course Suzanne Farrell’s own, Holding on to the Air, co-authored with Toni Bentley in what must have been a very happy collaboration. I have only seen Farrell dance on film, which can never convey the amplitude of a live performance, but from that meager exposure it seems that Bentley’s description of Farrell is no exaggeration. Born in Cincinnati in 1945 with the unstageworthy name Roberta Sue Ficker, Farrell was 16 and Balanchine 57 when she joined NYCB in 1961, and by 1965 he had choreographed his first ballet for her, Don Quixote, dancing the title role himself.

Farrell’s memoir is a gripping counterpart to Bentley’s, revealing the opposite struggles of being a star at a very young age, and the tremendous pressures she faced in her relationship with Balanchine. Imagine: one of the geniuses of the century is creating new work for you, for which you have a deep affinity, he is 41 years older and in complete control of your career and everyone else’s, he’d really like you to become his fifth wife even though he’s still married to his forth, also a dancer, and the term “sexual harrassment” hasn’t been invented yet. From this career cauldron Farrell escaped in 1970 by marrying someone else, leaving the company, and joining a European troupe. Her prodigal return to NYCB in 1975, where she remained until her retirement in 1989, was greeted with elation by all of New York—except for those ballerinas who had been dancing the roles she vacated. It must have been wrenching for everyone. Farrell’s career has had a fitting third act: since 2000 the Suzanne Farrell Ballet has been in residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and receives the ravest reviews.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Balanchine ballet. It was the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, run by another Balanchine protégé and thus granted performance rights by the Balanchine Trust. It was Serenade, an early work (1935), and it remains the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen—indeed very hard to bear. “See the music, hear the dance” is how Balanchine described his mission, and no other choreographer seems to have achieved that same mystical union of music and movement. Until Balanchine, ballets were expected to tell a story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I’m a fierce defender of ungainly hybrids like the Broadway musical. But most of Balanchine’s ballets don’t have a narrative. Instead, they tell tales musicians love—dramas of eighth notes and syncopation and crescendos and resolved triads, all made visible, as if by some new kind of creator.

It is this universal reverence for his ballets that has fueled the publication of so many compelling memoirs by Balanchine’s leading dancers. I also recommend:

·        Barbara Fisher, In Balanchine’s Company: A Dancer’s Memoir (2006)—danced with NYCB mid-century and later became an English professor at City College of New York
·        Allegra Kent, Once a Dancer (1997)—a quirky character and lovely writer who dared to birth three children during the prime of her career
·        Edward Villella, Prodigal Son (1998)—America’s leading home-grown male ballet star who founded and continues to direct the Miami City Ballet
·        Maria Tallchief, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina (2005)—whose popularity with audiences was a great boon during the founding of NYCB, also married to Balanchine
·        Gelsey Kirland, Dancing on My Grave (1996)—began her career with NYCB and famously danced Clara in the 1977 televised version of The Nutcracker, later defecting to the American Ballet Theater, more suited to her dramatic flair
·        Merrill Ashley, Dancing for Balanchine (1984)
·        Darci Kistler, Ballerina: My Story (1993)—the last great soloist favored by Balanchine before his death in 1983, she subsequently married his successor, Peter Martins
·        All offer intoxicating glimpses into that endlessly fascinating subject—life in the performing arts in New York City.

Last is a truly scintillating work of wide appeal that needs to be brought back into print, Dance to the Piper (1951) by the extraordinary Agnes DeMille, niece of the Hollywood impressario Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille’s achievements as a choreographer began with the ballet Rodeo (1942), which earned her a job choreographing the Broadway musical Oklahoma (1943), followed by over a dozen other musicals, including Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949). De Mille is credited with revolutionizing musical theater by creating dances that weren’t just interludes but deepened the plot and character development. Her memoir vividly captures the glory days of early Hollywood, Broadway, and the world of dance in the 1930s and 40s. It begins:

This is the story of an American dancer, a spoiled egocentric wealthy girl, who learned with difficulty to become a worker, to set and meet standards, to brace a Victorian sensibility to contemporary roughhousing, and who, with happy good fortune, participated by the side of great colleagues in a renaissance of the most ancient and magical of all the arts.

This tone of zesty, self-dramatizing certitude instantly transports us to an earlier era and makes DeMille a highly entertaining companion. She was born into theater royalty—Cecil's older brother, her father, was a successful Broadway playwright—but Agnes’s early attraction to dance and her parents’ disdain of it meant that her successes came only after many years of rebellion, apprenticeship, and struggle. It was a Saturday matinee performance by a legendary ballerina that set DeMille on this hard path:

Anna Pavlova! My life stops as I write that name. Across the daily preoccupation of lessons, lunch boxes, tooth brushings and quarrelings with Margaret flashed this bright, unworldly experience and burned in a single afternoon a path over which I could never retrace my steps. I had witnessed the power of beauty, and in some chamber of my heart I lost forever my irresponsibility. I was as clearly marked as though she had looked me in the face and called my name.

DeMille’s parents refused lessons and “Matters might have gone on this way for years if my sister’s arches hadn’t providentially fallen. She was taken to a great orthopedist who advised, of all things, ballet dancing.” Agnes is suffered to tag along.

There is much to love about Dance to the Piper. In addition to her many insights into choreography, DeMille is brilliant at sketching the larger-than-life personalities of her millieu. We get indelible portraits of Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham, and Agnes’s own “Uncle Cecil,” whom she calls “one of the most remarkable men I have ever met”:

His manner was princely and courteous. . . .If he lost his temper it was in the grand manner, building up from a simple statement of displeasure, through long developments of sarcasm to a fulminating climax of operatic splendor which not infrequently terminated with dismissal. (33)
. . . Everything that transpired in his home was gracious, opulent, and shot through always with the excitement of his personality, the note of danger he injected, the sense of change and adventure. (35)

DeMille draws provocative conclusions about the attractions of a dancing career for women in that pre-feminist era, when such displays called her purity into question. Few women dancers “married well,” and only the most self-possessed and kinesthetically driven managed to persevere. That so many of DeMille’s observations on this topic (especially in the chapter “Ballet and Sex”) seem dated now is a somber reminder of how generations of feminists have remade the world into a more welcoming place for women’s achievement in the performing arts.