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HOLDING ON TO THE AIR



The stage is dark, but in one corner, in the shadows, kneels the curved, still body of a man. His silhouette shows his face buried in his palms, as if in anguish, as if remembering. . . or as if dreaming. Out of the darkness behind him, in a single shaft of light, steps the figure of a young girl. Her hair is loose, her white gown is flowing and translucent. She reaches toward the man, but he cannot see her until she stands over him and peels his hands from his face. The stage brightens as the man rises, and it is revealed that his hair is graying at the temples and his movement is not as elastic as it once might have been.

The two figures begin to move together, quietly at first, then with such passion, tenderness, and reckless desire that if this were fiction it might endure, but if it were life it could not. She appears to lead, and he to follow, desperately trying to catch up with and seize her youth, her beauty. She is his destiny, he is hers, but fate intervenes and separates them. They end as they began; he kneels and she replaces each hand and then each finger across his eyes. He cannot see her now, but she is yearning, reaching for him even as she backs away into the shaft of light, into the shadows. The curtain falls.

“Meditation,” danced to the sad heightened strains of a Tschaikovsky violin, was the first ballet George Balanchine made on me. I was eighteen, Balanchine was fifty-nine. Critics were shocked that the “cool,” “calculating” master choreographer of Stravinsky’s neoclassical chords could be so blatently emotional, so romantic, so tragic, so vulnerable. They even accused him of “Russian” sentimentality. But those who knew him weren’t surprised; he didn’t stop being Russian when he became American. I certainly wasn’t surprised that my boss had feelings, even the need to love and be loved. I was, however, very much surprised to learn that it was I who inspired these feelings – onstage and off.

I was very backward. All my energies had gone into dancing. By the time I turned eighteen, my love life consisted of one date with my best friend’s brother when I was fourteen; but as I towered over him by several inches, there was little room for romance. There were, a few years later, two kisses, but I felt little for either of the men. My first love affair began when I was eighteen and was the longest, most complex, most productive, and most important of my life. It was also the most passionate and tumultuous, although it did not begin with a kiss but with a ballet. Kisses came several years later, but they signified little that was not already apparent. Within a few months it seemed as if the whole world was talking, guessing about, predicting, and lamenting our alliance, and they seemed to know a great deal more about it than I, one of the principal players. But Balanchine made his feelings about me public long before he declared them in private. The prededent was set for the next twenty years of our lives.


Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

When Diana Adams told Balanchine that she couldn’t do the premiere of “Movements,” he was apparently deeply shaken. Now he had a dilemma: cancel the premiere of a much awaited piece of music by his friend Igor Stravinsky (who was to attend the performance) or do the ballet with someone else. But his vision of “Movements” included Diana, and he couldn’t see it without her. He was on the point of canceling the ballet when Jacques d’Amboise, who was aware of what was at stake, made a bold suggestion: “Let me teach Suzaahn.” Jacques already believed in me, and after he had taught me the “Midsummer” pas de deux six weeks earlier, he knew that I could learn quickly. Balanchine rejected the idea, but Jacques persisted, and finally Balanchine skeptically agreed to let Jacques try. It was at this point that Jacques rushed me to Diana’s.

We found her stretched out on the couch under a blanket in her tiny living room. There was no use changing into practice clothes, so I wore my street clothes and bare feet. Climbing onto pointe on Diana’s slippery parquet floor could only have left me beside her on the couch with a broken foot, and no “Movements” in sight. Along with the rest of the world, I had never heard the music, and between Jacques’and Diana’s grunting, clapping, and singing, I didn’t manage to learn it. I did learn the important counts, but most of the ballet was uncountable, and I was told to listen for “the big boom,” “the second crash,” “the sixth silent note,” or “the sort of pretty music after the messy music.” I thought I was going crazy, but I kept trying to remember the steps, the angles, the upside-down lifts, and complicated stage directions: “Now you run quickly down here, stage right only farther over than in the last section. . .” I couldn’t do any of it physically, of course, because Diana’s living room was ten feet by twelve and had a couch and coffee table in the middle of it.

Despite all this, after about two hours I managed, somehow, to learn the whole ballet. There were enough steps to fill a four-act “Swan Lake,” only they seemed to be danced backward and upside down. My head was swimming in a sea of développés, crouches, lunges, and strange musical cues, but my body hadn’t yet executed one of them. I went home and tried writing it all down in my math notebook (I was also studying for a big algebra exam at Rhodes at the time) before I forgot it, but after filling up twenty or so pages with hieroglyphics and stick-figure diagrams I gave up the literary approach; I had complete only the first of the five sections of the ballet. Writing down steps didn’t help and never would in a three-dimensional profession.


Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER


“Don Quixote” was a rite of passage for me on many levels – on dancing “off-balance,” on being a ballerina, and on being Balanchine’s ballerina – and I think it is interesting to note just how unorthodox my dance education was because I danced in George Balanchine’s company. While most ballet dancers in the world were performing the nineteenth-century classics – “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “The Sleeping Beauty” – I was dancing the twentieth-century classics – “Apollo,” “Symphony in C,” “Liebeslieder Walzer.” Because I worked for Balanchine I was never asked to fit into the mold of the world’s idea of a classical dancer with her grand demeanor, polite arabesque, and rounded elbows. Instead of perfecting a precedent, I was encouraged – as were all of Balanchine’s dancers – to set one, if I dared. We started breaking rules at the very first rehearsal. . . .

Balanchine found square, proper, academic dancing “boring as hell,” and one day as I fell out of a turn into a backbend lunge he said, “Can you do that again, can you fall more . . . lean more. . . bend more?” I said, “Let me try,” and he countered, “Is it impossible?” He always took into account the fact that he had never been on pointe himself and that he might be asking for something actually “impossible.” (In reality he know more about the physics of being on pointe than most dancers who have been up there all their lives.) By now I knew nothing was impossible, at least physically, and replied, “No, it’s not. Let me work on it.” If I couldn’t repeat the movement immediately, we would leave those places sketchy until the next day or the next rehearsal when I could. He never worried about etching steps in stone like some choreographers, because he was secure in his craft and knew that his medium, space, could not be carved or molded by an idea but only by the dynamics of the moment.

Mr. B wanted me to be “off-balance,” and it was surely one of the most unorthodox requests any well-trained ballet master could make. In “Don Quixote” we broke one rule after the other and climbed through the walls of balletic convention to discover a whole new place to inhabit. It was not the conventional space defined by dancers of up and down, left and right; it was a tilted, revolving circle. The air there was delightfully unpolluted, and best of all, there were no laws until we made them.



Toni Bentley in the New York Times Book Review

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