“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s the Year of the Ass’”

                                                  —Toni Bentley

 

The Ballerina Who Bent

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Toni Bentley Writes Sodomy Memoir, and
Leon Wieseltier Calls It a Masterpiece

by Alexandra Jacobs

On Sunday afternoon, former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley glissade’d into the garden of the Chateau Marmont to discuss her new memoir about sodomy.

Specifically, butt sex. The Surrender—Ms. Bentley’s annals of anal, her tract about her tract, her literary end-all be-all (it becomes hard to stop)—will be published by ReganBooks this week, and the author, hiding behind dark prescription sunglasses and a veil of Chanel No. 5, seemed both proud and petrified: a brittle twig amid the eternally, depressingly green West Hollywood foliage.

"I’m certainly not proselytizing," she said. "I’m not trying to get everyone to do this act—in fact, I think most people shouldn’t do it. I’m completely laissez-faire about that. But I also feel that I can’t be entirely alone."

Indeed, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The thing that makes Ms. Bentley’s new sex confessional extraordinary is less its content—sex confessionals aren’t exactly hard to come by these days—but her curriculum vitae. A New Yorker since the age of 4, she spent a decade dancing under the direction of the legendary George Balanchine in that great Turning Point era when ballet was more than just high art to the city, when it seemed as if every little girl in Manhattan owned a pair of Capezio slippers (pink for the Upper East Siders; black for the Village "bohemians") and a gleaming cellophane-bound copy of Jill Krementz’s book A Very Young Dancer.

Little Toni was one of the pink girls. "I had to become a ballerina," she said. She attended the School of American Ballet and the Professional Children’s School. At 15 or so, she began keeping a diary ("an Anaïs Nin–type thing"), scribbling on yellow legal pads; at age 17, she joined the NYCB, dancing in The Nutcracker for $6.95 per performance; and in 1982, Random House published Winter Season, an account of her time there. It was well-received.

In that maiden book, the young corps de ballet member described her worshipful attitude toward Suzanne Farrell, Mr. Balanchine’s main muse. "I never said boo to her," said Ms. Bentley, who would neither give her age (available evidence suggests mid-40’s) nor discuss the divorce that brought her out West for a fresh start over a decade ago. "She was the goddess. She was intimidating. Then this book came out, and she came up to me at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center after class. We were all looking at the schedule, dripping with sweat—except for her, of course, because she didn’t sweat—and she said to me with these huge blue eyes, ‘Is your book available in legitimate bookstores?’"

The two later collaborated on Ms. Farrell’s own memoir, Holding On to the Air.

Forced to retire early because of a hip injury, Ms. Bentley had found not only a way to have power over the alpha females of this world, but a less ephemeral career.

"I was a very good dancer," she said quietly, poking at a Caesar salad with shrimp. Her outfit today was circa 1978, in a tres chic way: smocked aqua cotton sundress, large denim platform sandals on her size-six feet (spending any amount of time on point is akin to Chinese foot-binding), lots of costume jewelry, pearls dangling from her ears and around her neck, silver bracelets circling both wrists, rhinestones at her décolletage and toes.

"I was not as good a dancer as I could have been," Ms. Bentley corrected. "I consider myself now to have been too modest and fearful. I was kind of too shy to put out there how good I was. I’m braver on the page than I was onstage, that’s for sure."

Reading Ms. Bentley’s most recent opus, which is certainly not for the faint of stomach, it’s tempting to draw a parallel with the current best-seller, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson. Both authors are published by Judith Regan, with the latter’s signature scrapbook-like chapter structure and spastic typefaces. (Is it just one’s imagination, or do Regan books even smell different as they roll off the presses, sort of like burnt popcorn?) Both have queasy New York Times connections (Ms. Jameson famously got a little help from former Times music writer Neil Strauss; Ms. Bentley has freelanced for the Arts & Leisure section—"an honor," she said). Both reserve the honor of anal sex for the special men in their lives ("I’ve only given that up to three men, all of whom I loved," writes the bodacious Ms. Jameson; Ms. Bentley "surrenders" to two). And both have put in time as strippers.

The porn star’s book, more of a multimedia affair, includes an illustrated interlude entitled "Jenna Jameson’s Stripper Dancer Injuries 101" (bunions, lower back pain, ruptured breast implants)—hard knocks of life after logging nights at the Crazy Horse Two in Las Vegas.

The ballerina followed a different track to taking it all off: Tiptoeing after Mr. Balanchine to one of his favorite hangouts, the original Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, in 1980 ("I thought, ‘Oh my God, these girls are just like us’"), a seed was planted which bloomed years later when, no longer dancing with NYCB, Ms. Bentley performed a choreographed burlesque of her own at the now-defunct Blue Angel in Tribeca. "Part of my coming-out," she said, adding, "I still have the money I made—$89."

She used the experience in another book, Sisters of Salome—an intensively researched history of the striptease that was printed by Yale University Press in 2002. "I’m a sexy chick who’s published by Yale University Press—deal with it," she told the Los Angeles Times during the promotional blitz for that volume.

Ms. Bentley surely got way more than $89 for The Surrender, but now faces almost an opposite challenge: publicizing a work of erotica published by an imprint shared not by Harold Brodkey but Howard Stern (Buttman himself), while still maintaining her intellectual credibility among the highbrow crowd. Her next project, after all, is a biography [sic: a memoir] of the NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein; her literary ideal is not Josephine Hart but Colette. Deal with it, encore!

"But the whole high-low thing—that’s where everything happens, to me," Ms. Bentley said excitedly. "That’s what I learned from Balanchine! He’s the ultimate high-art artist, but not a snob, and used to say things like ‘Vulgarity is very useful.’"

And what would Mr. B. make of her new work?

"Ah ha ha ha," Ms. Bentley said. "Gosh—that’s a tough one. I think he would be amused. I think he would be amused, and perhaps happy that he’s dead."

"But then, of course, most sex writing is awful," she said.

The Surrender takes some care to hide that it is sex writing; it comes sheathed in a black cover with a keyhole opening; underneath, there’s a painting by the late John Kacere of an anonymous odalisque’s posterior in sheer panties. "Everyone is going to be asking if that’s me," the author sighed. In fact, the image was also used in the opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s much-ballyhooed 2003 movie, Lost in Translation. "It all kind of happened at the same time, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s the Year of the Ass,’" Ms. Bentley said, giving a prim little laugh.

The book, thank God, is not without humor, intended or otherwise. The narrator describes why she was drawn to ballet as a physical activity ("I had an outright terror of balls of any size heading in my direction"); tells of an affair with a masseur ("The massages were paid for by insurance," she notes); and declares Dr. Ruth–ishly that "you can’t half-ass butt-fuck." A plucky chapter on crotchless panties adds to the occasional advice-column feel. Freud shows up on page 53; Proust’s "madeleine" 99 pages later; Eve Ensler is sandwiched somewhere in between.

There are more than a few swipes at feminism. "Oh my goodness," Ms. Bentley said, with some exasperation. "Basically, feminism is a fantastic thing. Feminism made it possible for me to write this book and have it published, O.K.? That’s the bottom line. Within the scope of things, if feminism means pro-women in every way, I’m the ultimate. But I do not call myself a feminist necessarily. It’s not a label I use."

She went on: "Obviously, I believe in equality, whatever that is. I think that men and women are equal. I mean, equal pay, that’s such a given—but going beyond that? Sexually? Even-steven in the bedroom? That’s not really interesting."

Alas, it is not particularly more interesting to learn that Ms. Bentley has saved the detritus of her anal lovemaking (with a fellow known simply as A-Man) in "a beautiful, tall, round, hand-painted, Chinese lacquered box." Hundreds of used condoms and K-Y: "My treasure," coos the narrator. One woman’s treasure is another’s trash, honey.

Nor, perhaps, was it wise for her to write, after A-Man penetrates her for the 220th time, that "I want to die with him in my ass"—for at that point, the reader is tempted to agree.

The Surrender’s many sex scenes are graphic, unrelenting, explicit—full of four-letter words and the occasional multiple-partner exertions. It might not be porn in the Supreme Court’s "I know it when I see it" sense—i.e., meant to titillate—but it certainly shares a narrative resemblance to porn: pseudonymous principals, thin story line, jumpy sex scenes.

 "Obviously, what we were doing was very technical," said Ms. Bentley. "I’m not going to deny that I wanted to be totally graphic. Which I would align very much with my dance training! You know, Balanchine was the most spiritual, most soulful choreographer ever, and he never talked about that. It was technicalities: If you do three million tendus, you might get it right, and then chances are your soul might show onstage. So to me, this is the same thing."

Early critics are gushing like Astroglide, including Publishers Weekly ("wonderfully smart and sexy and witty and moving," wrote the reviewer, adding a star) and The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, a noted balletomane who received the galley from noir balladeer Leonard Cohen (a mutual friend whose song "Waiting for the Miracle" was chosen by Ms. Bentley as her stripper music).

"I think it might be a small masterpiece of erotic writing," Mr. Wieseltier said in a phone interview. "I admired its lucidity, the tone is true and unsentimental, and it’s so natural—the explicitness is so completely unaffected. It’s not a cold book, but it’s not a moist book. In a funny sort of way, you come away with a feeling more for Toni’s mind than for Toni’s body. I had a feeling of regret when I read it, that it fell to Judith Regan to publish it. I miss the austerity of the old Olympia Press. I miss the days when pornography used to be published austerely."

Is The Surrender pornography, then? "I fear that her publisher thinks it might be pornography," Mr. Wieseltier said sharply. "It’s not pornographic at all. It’s an account of an experience, not an account of a pleasure or an account of a sin or an account of a crime. ‘Serious writing about sex’ is what I’d call it.

"It’s a miracle that a trade publisher did this at all," he added. "Other New York publishers were simply cowards."

Back at the Chateau, Ms. Bentley was feeling a little quivery herself, contemplating her imminent debut as a sodomite.

"It’s funny—so many people have said to me about this book that it’s brave," she said. "Bravery’s a funny thing. Everything has been written; between the Marquis de Sade and the Bible and D.H. Lawrence and Forum and Penthouse, how can anyone be shocked?"

Originally, she confessed, she shopped The Surrender under the nom de plume Madeleine LeClerc, after one of the marquis’ prison mistresses. "But then one person said to me, ‘Your book is so bold, you can’t just then back up on a pseudonym’—so to speak. And I went, ‘O.K., then I’m just going to go for it! I am just going to leap off the cliff!’

"You know, Balanchine always wanted you to put yourself out there, chin up and everything," Ms. Bentley said. "And it was hard for me to do that. And it makes me laugh that I’m doing all of this in my own way, later on."

This column ran on page 1 in the 10/4/2004 edition of The New York Observer.