2021 was a year of perseverance for dancers returning to in-person training and live performances after more than a year of the dance world being on virtual hold. For many, it was also a time for reflection and dialogues about how companies can attract new audiences and survive further industry uncertainty. A couple of books published this year explored the many issues that need to be addressed going forward.
Top on that list would be journalist Chloe Angyal’s ‘Turning Pointe,’ which investigates racism, sexism, homophobia, diversity, and what needs to change going forward.
Meanwhile, a few noted dance biographies and memoirs also chronicled personal creative journeys of dancers and choreographers for you to add to this year’s dance bookshelf.
Dancing Past the Light | The Life of Tanaquil Le Clercq
University of Florida Press
Dance historian Orel Protopopescu’s ‘Dancing Past the Light’ is an engaging biography of Tanaquil Le Clercq. A prima ballerina at New York City Ballet in the 1950s, who was stricken with polio at the height of her international success. Protopopescu chronicles Le Clercq’s remarkable achievements as a dancer, her courageous fight to conquer paralysis, and her inspirational life as a teacher and champion for dance in America.
Le Clercq was already trying to dance on her toes at three years old. By age five, she was in ballet class, and at nine, she was the youngest student given a scholarship at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, the training school for NYCB.
Le Clercq was born into a troubled family. Her parents were often separated. Her father Jacques, a professor at Columbia, spent most of his time in Europe teaching and died when Tanaquil was a teen. Meanwhile, her mother, Edith, took charge of Le Clercq’s professional dance life, but Le Clercq already was making her way and became an NYCB Principal by age 20. She was partnered with Jacque D’Amboise, Arthur Mitchell, Lew Christenson, and Nicolas Magallanes.
NYCB co-directors Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham created roles for her early on. But first, she became Balanchine’s muse, and her lithe figure became the choreographer’s ideal image for the NYCB ballerina.
Protopopescu delves into the troubling aspects of an industry that women in ballet had to deal with at the time, including draconian requirements about their bodies. Balanchine is one of the chief arbiters of these harmful standards.
Le Clercq’s best friend lover relationship with Jerome Robbins is explored in all of its social complexities around Robbin’s bisexuality. Le Clercq was an avid reader and, when fed up with being driven in the studio by Balanchine, would have her head in a book as he ranted at her to practice more. As devoted as she was to him, she was no fool, even predicting to Robbins on the eve of her wedding that it won’t last.
Tanaquil, at 24, to the 48-year-old Mr. Balanchine who had just divorced Maria Tallchief, had relationships with so many ballerinas, writes an evenhanded portrait of Balanchine – the good, the bad, and personally ugly.
Le Clercq was exhausted and did not want to go on tour in 1957, but Balanchine insisted that she dance her most demanding roles while there. She became sicker with each performance and, within a few days, was unable to dance or walk.
Balanchine and Le Clercq divorced, but when stricken with polio, he was at Le Clercq’s bedside in the first months of her initial confinement and rehabilitation from polio. Adjusting his professional and personal life around her needs and doing what he could to help her return to what she loved doing.
Le Clercq surmounted every social and physical obstacle of the era that would have limited her from having a full life. Protopopescu’s comprehensive research brings this storied era in dance to vivid life as well as a fully dimensional portrait of a legendary dance artist.
By John Clifford
University of Florida Press
Another portrait of Balanchine in his later years is keenly observed in John Clifford’s memoir Balanchine’s Apprentice.
Clifford exuberantly recounts his life before and after his storied years at New York City Ballet and his unlikely collaboration with the mercurial Balanchine before moving on as choreographer and founding director of the Los Angeles Ballet, working on film and his latter as teacher and mentor.
Nothing in Clifford’s training gave him a dance path to become a star of the NYCB in the 60s, partnered with such legendary ballerinas Suzanne Farrell, Merrill Ashley, Allegra Kent, and Gelsey Kirkland. Or to dance with the roster of Balanchine’s more celebrated male dancers at the time, including Jacques D’Amboise, Arthur Mitchell, and Edward Villella.
Clifford grew up in a showbiz family and was a child acrobatic partner in his father’s variety circuit act, getting the leg up, so to speak, on the athleticism. But by the time he was a teen, Clifford was also getting work on TV as an actor and swing/show dancer.
Privately though, he was becoming obsessed with classical ballet and was taking ballet classes in Los Angeles while still hoping to land on the Broadway musical stage. The fates intervened when the Bolshoi Ballet was on tour in LA, and Clifford was able through a friend to take a class with them while Balanchine was visiting his former Russian colleagues.
Clifford came to Balanchine’s attention and was invited to continue his studies at NYBC’s School of American Ballet. Even though Clifford was still considering other options of being an actor or working on Broadway, he was passionate about being an NYCB ballet dancer. He was a favorite of Russian prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who, he said, was the one who most inspired him the most to pursue classical ballet.
Clifford writes that he was certain that he would not master Balanchine’s demanding, innovative ballet techniques and didn’t think Balanchine was interested in him as a dancer or a choreographer, but the opposite was true. Balanchine was accused of not creating solid roles for male dancers, but as Clifford witnessed, that is far from true. The positions he got to dance himself included Apollo, Prodigal Son, Agon, The Four Temperaments.
He describes Balanchine at work, his chaotic creative immediacy with dancers, and gives an insightful analysis of his ‘technique’- How that was applied, or not- on his star dancers. And with respect and humor chronicles the qualities and deficiencies of some of the company’s legendary dancers.
Clifford writes lively accounts of what it was like dancing with leading ballerinas of the era. He was known for his partnering skills. He was cast in roles made famous by NYCB superstars Villella, D’Amboise, and Mitchell. Balanchine also created roles for Clifford. Even more surprising was that Balanchine was impressed with Clifford’s choreography and let him develop ballets for the company.
The author effectively describes classical dance aesthetics from the different schools and Balanchine’s neoclassicism innovations. He writes about specific ballet techniques and performances, which are insightful and conjures vivid dance images even when using French ballet vocabulary.
Clifford doesn’t hold back on naming names and detailing rivalries and personality clashing in the high-tension wire of the backstage ballet world. But never with malice or judgments. He is candid about his faults, even-handed about the successes and failures of his dancers’ life.
By Ani Gavino & Malaya Ulan
De(Scribing) Filipinx | mysite (anigavino.com)
Ani Gavino was a member of Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers for several years and has danced with several companies, including Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, Dallas Black Dance Theater, and Ananya Dance Theater. Gavino directs her project-based company Ani/Malayaworks using dance, film, and literature as “vessels for inscription, community engagement, resistance, and spiritual journeys.”
DE(SCRIBING) Filipino/a/x chronicles that journey with poems, commentary, and memoirs by Gavino and her 12-year-old daughter Malaya Ulan. It is a slim volume, but it has a lot to say about the émigré family navigating America’s promise for freedom and the realities of entrenched xenophobia and racism.
Their collection of poetry and prose they explain “as a tool to unpack emotions, imprint memories – altogether a testament to their unique creative dialogue vis-à-vis being “dance storytellers.”
The volume is laced with stunning beautiful prints of Ani and Malaya dancing together.
Malaya’s openness in articulating her feelings about her school life and at home startles with frankness and thoughtful observation. She lives a very different experience than her mother’s remembrances of growing up in the Philippines among a more supportive community and culture.
Those memories come with a lot of historical bitterness. In her essay ‘Little Brown Brothers,’ Gavino exposes the actual history of the US’s imperialist takeover under President McKinley, who claimed to “uplift, Christianize and civilize.” The ‘Benevolent Assimilation Expansion’ meant domination by land and sea.
These are a ” day in a life ” with a story of emotional pain, humor, and hope side by side, told in prose and poems, sharply observed without being maudlin or decorated with poetic devices.
In her poem My Home Across the Ocean, Malaya writes movingly about being “Separated by land and water/my spirit awaits to rejoin.” In contrast, in The OTHER Girl, she writes of her first day at school among a new unwelcoming group of classmates.
Many of the themes in DE(SCRIBING) are in development as a narrative source for upcoming performances. Meanwhile, mother and daughter continue to “finish each other’s sentences.”