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WINTER SEASON: A DANCER'S JOURNAL

I am a dancer in the New York City Ballet. I wrote the pages that follow during one ballet season. I began on November 21, 1980, and finished on February 15, 1981. I was lonely; I was sad. I had decided to be alone, but I had never decided to be lonely. I started writing on a yellow pad. I wrote, and I smoked. Every page was covered with a film of smoke.

My dancing was not going well, and I had ambition. I had always had ambition, at least ever since they told me my first year in the school that I might not make it. I did not know what “it” was. But if I could not have it, it was definitely what I wanted. It was the first thing I had ever wanted.

I took my first ballet lesson at the age of three. My mother thought that it would give her skinny little girl an appetite and some grace. We did not live in New York City then, and I was not a driven child. I allowed myself to be led once a week to this very casual affair. When I was ten, we moved to the city, and new schools had to be arranged. I came to the School of American Ballet almost by chance. Somewhere my mother heard of this dancing school – in the elevator, at the laundromat or from a friend of a friend. I auditioned. Neither my mother nor I had the slightest idea of the possible consequences this audition might have. What made me successful that day was not the will to dance, only the desire to please. But I was accepted, and my life changed.

I found myself committed to an extremely competitive enviroment of beautiful young women. By the time I was thirteen I had ballet classes at ten-thirty each morning and at two-thirty and five-thirty each afternoon. To accommodate this full-time schedule I attended the Professional Children’s School, which was dedicated to squeezing a little science, mathematics and English literature into very busy children – musicians, actors, skaters, models, and dancers. I had a English class from eight-fifteen to ten each morning, rushed over to Lincoln Center for ballet class and then rushed back to eat my lunch in biology class. I had a home-packed lunch which was always the same: three medium-sized sandwiches filled with leftovers from dinner the night before, a bag of Fritos, an apple and two Hostess Twinkies. Most days I would refuse to share any of it. I was growing a lot. PCS was very hectic and very amusing. And very secondary in importance.

Seven years later I made it. I was chosen by Mr. Balanchine. I joined the company.

That was a great day, the day my future was decided. I probably had an ice cream. If I didn’t, I should have. I remember saying to myself, praying to myself, “If I can only get in, I’ll be happy, I’ll be satisfied. I’ll never ask for more.” I did not realize what a deeply sad day it actually was -- the end of a dream and the beginning of reality.

 

Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

We are hairless. We have no leg hairs, no pubic hair, no armpit hair, no facial hair, no neck hair and only a solid little lump at the top of our heads. Any sign if stubble must be closely watched out for and removed.

That is not all. 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.

We live only to dance. If living were not an essential prerequisite, we would abstain.

We have different bodily structure than most humans. Our spirits, our souls, our love reside totally in our bodies, in our toes and knees and hips and vertebrae and necks and elbows and fingertips. Our faces are painted on. We draw black lines for eyes, red circles for cheekbones and ovals for a mouth.

Any hint of facial wrinkles, teary eyes, drops of sweat, audible breathing or diminishing energy levels is a sign of imperfection. They are symptoms of mortality.

Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

 

I am repeating myself, but I must. Suzanne Farrell 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. She is from God’s world – a direct disciple, I think. He has sent her down to brighten our lives and teach us of higher things. 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. If Suzanne were totally aware of the beauty she was creating, she would stop in awe of herself. She somehow makes life so much more than it is and then – well, I am absolutely at a loss.

I suppose the first reaction to such a sight and emotion is to define it. Isn’t that what critics do? By defining and trying to explain her we attempt, I’m sure, to submerge and put aside the sadness that her simple self evokes. She is not to be explained – she cannot be – but it is hard to bear such a sight. Surely any of our mortal words put down to explain her or describe her are absurd. She is, that is all; but how can we learn to bear it? Each time I finish “Rubies” and know that “Diamonds” is to follow, I wonder whether to subject myself to her or carry on my own little life in my own little world and do otherwise. But somehow I go back again and again for more – more and more sadness.

Someone pointed out to me the other day the incredible diamond décolleté of her costume – so many flashing rhinestones, they are blinding. I had never noticed. Her face, her smile, her eyes distract from the sparkle of her costume.


Toni Bentley in the New York Times Book Review

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