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2021 Summer Dance Bookshelf

By Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Whether at the shore or city-bound, the dog days of summer are the perfect time to dive into some dance books worthy of checking out. Here are some recommended new releases and some engrossing classics for inspiration and motivation.

First up, two new titles of note for those lazy summer afternoons.

Turning Pointe | How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself | Bold Type Books, 2021

Australian journalist Chloe Angyal provides a critical analysis of the state of the ballet world with a litany of unhealthy industry issues. Her manifesto calls for a new generation of dance artists to save itself or lose all relevancy.   

Each chapter in the book addresses ballet’s laundry list of systemic problems. In the chapter, The Unbearable Whiteness of Ballet, Angyal exposes the discriminatory methods common in the industry, from an outright refusal in some companies to hire black dancers to the issues of colorism in casting and tokenism as a method to sidestep true diversity and inclusion.

Angyal’s chapter, Dance Like a Man, examines the absurd expectation of how ‘manly’ gay dancers on stage portray fictional characters, perpetuating a one-dimensional image of maleness. It further addresses the bullying and aggressiveness of hetero normalcy that many gay men in dance have experienced in dance schools and professional companies.

In Princes and Predators, Angyal covers the litany of sexual harassment issues that both male and female dancers have been subjected to and the industry’s persistent culture of silence that has allowed it to continue.  The #METOO movement has ushered in a new era of change that must become the new standard in the dance world without fail.   

Dancing On My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland with Greg Lawrence | Doubleday, 1986
A must-read for your library!

The reading of Angyal’s analysis brings to mind Gesley Kirkland’s unflinching 1986 ballet memoir Dancing on My Grave. Kirkland threw down the first gauntlet exposing the male-dominated ballet world of the New York City Ballet. Kirkland offers an unflinching portrait of the subjugation of women in ballet. Her position as a prima ballerina offered no escape from the mounting pressures which led to drug use, eating disorders, and destructive relationships.

Center Center by James Whiteside | A funny, sexy, sad almost-memoir of a boy in ballet | Viking, 2021

Center Center is a collection of personal essays that chronicle dancer James Whiteside’s raucous and rebellious life. It follows his unlikely journey from strip mall studio dance classes to the School of American Ballet, followed by years of refinement at the Boston Ballet II, and finally, his life as an American Ballet Theater principal dancer. On stage, he wins raves for his performances, playing straight princely roles. When he is not on the ABT stage, Whiteside is just as bold as an out, proud gay artist, fab cabaret drag diva, as well as a YouTube star and ballet boy guru.

Whiteside’s book is more about his personal life than the backstage dramas of classical ballet. At the center is a frank portrait of his parent’s divorce, his moving relationship with his mother, and coming out as a teen. Following the wry and poignant first chapter about hooking up on Grindr, who can resist the next chapter called ‘Loathe, Revile, Abhor, Detest.’ Whiteside gets around to talking about his experience and life in the high-stakes ballet world, scabrously with ‘Getting Your Dream Job is as easy as ABT.’ He clearly has other intents with this book. Whiteside even includes his play ‘Stranded in Casablanca’ about his experience of desperately trying to get back to Lincoln Center to perform the Nutcracker Prince. Instead, the star is trapped with a coterie of hostile travelers, and there are no exit visas in sight.

NUREYEV The Life by Julie Kavanagh | Vintage Books, 2007
A look back at the most uncloseted gay male ballet dancer of the 20th century Rudolf Nureyev. Even though Rudolf was by no means an LGBTQ2S+ activist, he carried on his rapacious gay sex life without hiding it even from the murderous Soviet regime.

Dance historian Julie Kavanagh was permitted access to Rudolf Nureyev’s previously vaulted files on his life in Russia before he defected to the west in 1962.   Her expert research rescues a lot of material about Nureyev’s childhood and his intimate circle of colleagues, friends, and lovers at both the Bolshoi and Kirov ballet companies. Covered is the inside story of his training with dance master Alexander Pushkin and Rudy’s affair with Pushkin’s wife, Xenia.

Throughout, there is a sharp focus in the book on Nureyev’s significant relationships, most notably with Eric Bruhn and Robert Tracey. Kavanagh doesn’t avoid Nureyev’s adventurous gay sex life including his prowls of leather bars, bathhouses, and cruising grounds worldwide.

Nureyev changed ballet with his forceful personality, electrifying artistry, and his superstar swagger.  Rudolf was bigger than life and the richest dancer in the world with homes and an island in the Mediterranean.  Kavanagh balances his cyclonic life for an intimate and frank portrayal of the private man, the artist, and the international superstar. The chapters that detail his life after his AIDS diagnosis while still touring and directing the Paris Opera Ballet are poignant studies of a rapacious artist driven to dance on, even as he faced death. 

Next, consider two unconventionally studies of visionary dancemakers, whose personal history and creative lives are indelible journeys of undiscovered creative ground that have changed dance-theater forever.    

Pina Bausch | The Biography | Marion Meyer | Translated by Penny Black |Oberon Books London, 2017

Marion Meyer’s unconventional approach to painting a dimensional prose portrait of Pina Bausch is an exploratory, deep dive into the choreographer’s creative life and analysis of her long career. Bausch’s artistic contemporaries called her ‘the sphinx’ for a good reason. As Meyer reveals, her personal life lives in her dances where she expresses “key human themes as fear, longing, doubt, the search for happiness, the innocence of childhood in contrast with the merciless world of adults.”  

The book revisits Bausch’s own understanding of her dance life as being an all-consuming creative drive that was often inscrutably compulsive, even to her, as she rarely paused in questioning her methods, even as she was committed to realizing them on a big scale.  

The reader is presented with a stunning series of photographs of Pina dancing backstage (a rarity), as well as performance photographs in beautiful miniature transfers.  

Meyers can give a cursory account of Pina growing up in the hotel that her parents owned and often left to her own devices, crouching under tables in the restaurant and observing everybody. At school, she was singled out for her ability to somersault and soon ended up in dance class. German choreographer Kurt Joost recognized Bausch’s talents early on when she attended the Essen Academy, noted for its multi-arts syllabus.  By the age of eighteen, Bausch was in New York studying at Juilliard School with masters Antony Tudor and Jose Limon.  Loving New York art culture, Bausch was lured back to Germany to dance and choreograph at Germany’s prestigious TanzTheatre, where she was eventually appointed director.    

Her initial work was not decidedly derivative of other choreographers. Bausch was on a mission to develop her own dance language, distinct from established techniques and methods. Transcripts of interviews with Bauch’s dancers are particularly insightful and fill in the gaps about her private life.  

Bausch’s creative life is a study of complete artistic expression and freedom. So, on its own terms, this first ‘bio’ of Bausch in its English translation is a rich resource, including a bibliography of all of Bausch’s dance-theater works and multi-media collaborations.  

Last Night On Earth by Bill T. Jones with Peggy Gillespie | Pantheon Books, 1995

In contrast to the secretive Pina, Bill T. Jones’ 1995 autobiography bleeds with details about his life growing up in a large family, his parents running a migrant field business. They eventually moved from the Jim Crow South to rural New York. Even as they dealt with another brand of racism in the still culturally segregated North, the family prospered.

Jones is a masterful storyteller with a crystal memory. He recalls the first time he saw theatrical dance and realized that the body could tell a story better than words. 

Jones vividly writes of his growing up in a family of 12 children, and his portraits of his mother Estella and father Gus are candid and beautiful observed. He recalls his high school days as a star sprinter in rural New York, describing his ‘now’ moment that propelled him across the finish line.  “There is a spot behind my solar plexus, connecting my pelvis and legs to the place where tears come from and beauty is perceived.”  That moment reoccurs when he is onstage.

Jones vividly recalls his gay life in New York City in the 70s and his relationship with Arnie Zane – their sex lives together and apart, the success of their company, and the devastation of the performing arts world in the mid-80s as the city emerged as the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic.

Meeting Arnie Zane and establishing their company, The Bill T. Jones /Arnie Zane Company, led to their legendary performance history that changed the template of dance-theater in the US. With a relationship that lasted over 17 years, they were one of the first New York companies to fully represent LGBTQ lives, relations, and community on the dance stage. Zane and members of the company were lost to AIDS, and Jones became the sole choreographer. 

As much as anything else. Last Night On Earth is the narrative of a last generation of New York artists lost to the HIV aids epidemic.

Jones’ chapters on his groundbreaking early productions, including The Promised Land, Still/Here, are revelatory chronicles of a visionary artist at the height of his creative powers. Last Night On Earth is a moving self-portrait of a visionary artist whose singular voice deconstructed expectations of dance-theater with a new mission as a stage for socio-political and artistic expression.

To round out this Summer’s list, in memoriam, a look back with virtuoso dancer/teacher Jacques d’Amboise.

I Was a Dancer, A Memoir by Jacques d’Amboise | Knopf, 2011

Jacques d’Amboise died this year at the age of 86. His illustrious career as an NYCB principal and in big Hollywood movie musicals like Seven Bride for Seven Brothers made him a dance legend. His technical artistry and gift as a dancer-actor put him among the best.

At NYCB, George Balanchine created various roles for him, but it was d’Amboise who wrote a new vocabulary with his body and superb partnering with prima ballerinas. After twenty years of international stardom, he left the ballet stage to become the beloved pied piper of dance. He went on to offering classes in person to generations of young students all over the world.

In addition to being a memoir, I Was A Dancer depicts some of the most defining years in American ballet. d’Amboise’s transition to a rewarding life outside of fame in many respects remains an inspirational final artistic expression of a fulfilled dancer’s life.

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