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Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome reviewed by The New York

New York Times Book Review - Toni Bentley's Sisters of SalomeHeadless Body and Topless Dancer

Here is a book that will scare the pants off John Ashcroft. It begins with a breast, a left breast, one that exercises a fascination on the teenage Toni Bentley that she makes sense of only years later, as a Balanchine dancer in Paris. There she discovers that estimable strip joint, the Crazy Horse Saloon. What unsettles her is not that George Balanchine winds up his evenings there. Or that the Crazy Horse girls outearn the thoroughbreds from that very different stable at Lincoln Center. It is that Bentley wants what those brazen, luminous, vulnerable women are having: an iron grip on their audience. A stubborn fantasy is born. Rearranging every particle of her identity, Bentley sets out on a quest that will culminate in the exchange of tutus and tiaras for black fishnets and satin choker. With nothing in between, she dances for 50 paying strangers in a TriBeCa club. She is a triumph.
Bentley knows why she did it, and why the bankroll from that red-neon evening still lives in her bedside drawer, on top of the Bible. And -- to some extent -- we know why she did it too. But her single ''flesh-for-cash transaction'' leads her to ask: What has made other women remove their clothes? Was the striptease as we know it today born of women's desire to accommodate men or to declare their independence from them? (Bentley doesn't dwell on the capacity of two naked breasts to incapacitate, though she revels in that phenomenon onstage; the full monty just doesn't work the same effect.) As Bentley points out, this is one way for a woman to lay claim to a room of her own.

A highbrow survey of what generally passes as a lowbrow art, ''Sisters of Salome'' locates the origins of what we know as modern stripping in the Salome craze that held Paris in its vise grip at the turn of the century. Bentley nominates Oscar Wilde as the unlikely father of the striptease: until he wrote Herodias' nubile daughter into his 1893 play, ''Salome,'' there was no Dance of the Seven Veils. And until the dance, Salome had been a male creation. It was Wilde who allowed women to claim her, by slipping into, and out of, her veils. Afterward, Salome would be everywhere, scandal and censorship permitting.

Bentley's is not a history of an idea but a study of this Eastern femme fatale's relationship with four of her avatars, one French, one Dutch, one Russian and one (the kindest and gentlest) Canadian. They are largely contemporaneous: Mata Hari of the jeweled sarongs and Maud Allan -- who danced for King Edward VII in what her accompanist described as ''a diminutive bra, doubtless intended for Mrs. Tom Thumb, and . . . a G-string of diamonds, designed for a midget's baby'' -- both stalked Europe in 1906. The enterprising Ida Rubinstein would soon emerge from a swath of silks at the Theatre du Chatelet. And Colette managed to shock even a Moulin Rouge audience at the outset of 1907, when her Dance of the Seven Veils took the form of flying mummy bandages and the shapely artifact inside received a kiss on the lips from a velvet-suited archaeologist. Who -- in a startling highbrow-lowbrow collision -- happened to be played by the Marquise de Belbeuf, moneyed, newly divorced and the lover of the mostly naked mummy. This was Salome's first appearance as a lesbian femme fatale, having evolved, in Bentley's retelling, from Maud Allan's vaudeville belly dancer to Mata Hari's voluptuous temptress to Rubinstein's Russian Jewish flapper.

That evolution is less neat than an author might like, but Bentley has a light touch and makes no attempt to box her rebels in. Nor does she force them on one another; she has disassembled this phenomenon so that we read each Salome's story straight through. It's a construction that works. It also leads us rather far afield from the line of inquiry, not that any apologies are necessary. The detail is as delicious, and as revealing, as a Dance of the Seven Veils. In the Old Bailey courtroom to which Maud Allan brings an impossible libel suit in 1918, a witness for the defense argues that Salome's kiss to St. John the Baptist would have furnished her with an orgasm. Neither Allan's lawyer nor the judge is familiar with the term. Lord Alfred Douglas makes a guest appearance, testifying against his dead ex-lover. Imprisoned and sentenced to death on trumped-up espionage charges, Mata Hari -- guilty of little more than lavish taste in skimpy clothes, a trail of inordinate hotel bills and an indiscriminate weakness for men in uniform -- asks permission to wear a corset for her appearance before the firing squad. Of the French officers ordered to shoot her, 11 hit their mark. The 12th faints. The French captain primarily responsible for framing her is arrested days later for treason. There is a statue in Paris of Alfred Dreyfus, but none of Mata Hari.

The history of the dance itself is no less fascinating. Ida Rubinstein, the most financially successful of Bentley's sorority and the only one who crossed the Syrian desert to research her role, managed to overturn a ban on an early St. Petersburg production. Having persuaded the censors that the offending part of Wilde's tale was the words, she secured permission to perform the play in mime. Here was a woman who understood in 1908 that readers would buy Playboy only for the articles. Rubinstein's ordeals continued, however. It was sacrilege to depict a saint on the stage in papier-mache. Hours before curtain the prefect of police demanded the head of John the Baptist. The show went on, with Ida miming to an empty platter. '' 'Salome,' '' remarked Leon Bakst, who had helped design the production, ''became a ballet by the grace of the Holy Synod.''

That Salome could qualify as a ballet under the feet of these practitioners is dubious. None of Bentley's heroines were professional dancers. Collectively they make for a singularly inexpert bunch; as ever, nudity provides a fine cover for lack of talent. Colette danced like an elephant. Rubinstein's voice was as deplorable as her diction, further reason to be grateful to the Holy Synod for its interdictions. Nor were these saint-seducers universally blessed with perfect bodies. Mata Hari wore feather-stuffed falsies, quite a feat for a naked dancer. Evidently her breasts were nothing to write home about, or so Colette -- the focus of Bentley's teenage admiration -- would like us to believe.

Of course, the naked body and the naked truth make for reluctant bedfellows. What these women had in common -- and what in the end mattered more than voice lessons or ronds de jambe or shapely breasts -- was a striking talent for self-invention and reinvention. Part of their defiance came in their refusal to play the assigned, corseted role. The other part came in their embracing roles guaranteed to cause mouth-watering and breast-beating. Mata Hari's life was such a gauze of lies it is amazing that she actually took anything off. Leave it to a little Dutch girl to give France ''its first genuinely fake Oriental temple dancer,'' as Bentley puts it. All four were as subversive off as on the stage. None made what can be termed a conventional marriage. Two were bisexual. (Perhaps out of respect for her subject, Bentley refrains from pointing out that the ur-Salome is said to have married her father.) The other two suffered miserably for the sensations they caused.

Bentley goes a long way toward speaking to that ancient conundrum: why is it that men suit up for battle, while women -- think Sigourney Weaver in ''Alien'' -- find their power enhanced when they take it off? As every culture that has attempted to enshroud them recognizes, naked women have made more conquests than their clothed sisters. Myself, I might have liked a little more of Salome's history here, if only because it doesn't seem to me a particularly good idea to take Oscar Wilde's word for anything. His Salome is indeed a lovesick teenager who has it bad for a holy man. But if Matthew and Mark have anything to do with the story -- and Bentley dispenses with them in a few lines -- Salome asks for St. John's head at the instructions of her mother, who is the one with the lurid sex life, and the one to whom Salome passes the platter. Which puts a rather different spin on the tale. And perhaps sheds light on one of Bentley's astute observations: three of the men most responsible for propagating this fin de siecle legend -- Flaubert, Moreau and Huysmans -- demonstrated a fervent attachment to their mothers. Maybe they appreciated Salome's cool-blooded devotion to hers?

But this is a minor quibble. On the other hand, the editor who let the words ''one lesbian woman'' slip by should pick up the telephone this minute and send Toni Bentley flowers. He or she should anyway.

Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of ''Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).''

June 2, 2002 -- Stacy Schiff, The New York Times

Toni Bentley's Winter Season reviewed by Orlando Sentinel

Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome Los Angeles Times ReviewShe's Ready for Take Off
An ex-ballerina discovers a bold sense of sexuality and power in the art of striptease

Toni Bentley's obsessions are apparent on the walls of her house.

In the eggshell-colored dining room, surrounding a polished mahogany table, hang three large posters. An Art Deco Josephine Baker is framed next to a stripper from the famed Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. And the opposite wall is dominated by a ballerina, Maria Tallchief, striking a pose from "Swan Lake."

The Tallchief image is easy to explain: Bentley, who's in her early 40s, took her first dance lesson when she was 4, and spent 10 years with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet. The Baker image, she says, reflects the power of nudity.

As for the stripper, Bentley became fascinated with striptease when she saw her first show at the Crazy Horse--and made a connection between stripping and ballet.

"I experienced an astonishing moment of self-recognition," she writes in her new book. "This glamorous, slim, athletic woman was a Balanchine dancer without her leotard--and I was she."

The worlds come together in, "Sisters of Salome" (Yale University Press, 2002), her history of modern striptease told in four profiles.

"The striptease at the Crazy Horse gave new meaning to my years spent in tights, tutus and tiaras," Bentley writes. "Partial, simulated, decorated, and disguised nudity is part of the appeal of a ballerina. Ballet wear is theatrical underwear--silk, satin, velvet and chiffon their common coverings.

"Stilettos are toe shoes with a stabilizing training heel; both elongate the female leg to its erotic pinnacle. What are boned tutu bodices but skintight corsets and push-up bras? What are pink tights but warm naked legs?"

When a hip injury forced her retirement from the ballet company in 1986, Bentley's overriding fantasy, she said, was to transcend symbolism and become the stripper--which she did on the stage of a New York club called the Blue Angel.

Her own striptease connects her to the four "Sisters of Salome": Maud Allan, a Canadian dancer; Mata Hari, the Dutch spy; Ida Rubenstein, a Russian diva; and Colette, the French author. Bentley's book describes women who subverted notions about sexuality and power, she said. The four all used their sexuality to get what they wanted.

"These women subverted the existing rules to search out a new identity," Bentley writes in the introduction to "Sisters." "They recognized, without moral constraint or fear, that the body is basic, and men through the ages have shown a negotiable weakness for it, even when they've shown little for other forms of appeal."

Striptease is a male fantasy, she writes, but "more significant and less comfortably acknowledged, especially by women, is that the prospect of revealing one's nude body to a roomful of riveted voyeurs is a common female scenario ....It is undoubtedly a male fantasy to look--but it is also a female fantasy to show ....Stripping is both defiant and seductive, an autoerotic metaphor for female arousal where foreplay is central, not peripheral, and the art of the tease is the path to pleasure." Bentley, an Australian who grew up in the U.S., says she was possessed by the stage when she joined Balanchine's school.

Walking through the doors at the Lincoln Center, she said, "my life changed forever."

Not only was Balanchine a "genius," a "Sufi teacher," who inspired those around him, he was also the person who introduced her to the Crazy Horse.

"We were dancing in Paris, and Balanchine would bring these beautiful girls in short skirts backstage," she said. "We were completely hypnotized. 'Who are these girls?' " As it turned out, they were strippers from the Crazy Horse.

Bentley was intrigued and, deciding to investigate, spent an entire per diem, today's equivalent of about $100, on a ticket to the show.

When the women came on stage, "I had an epiphany: 'Oh, my god, they look like me and my girlfriends,' " she said. "They looked so incredible, powerful and desirable--I wanted to be that."

In 1992, Bentley wrote a story about the Crazy Horse strippers for Allure magazine, "but that didn't satisfy me. I still wanted to get up there."

The club's owner, Alain Bernardin, refused her request to dance at the club. But her obsession remained, and it intensified after she left the ballet company.

"I probably wanted to get back on stage," she said.

Her injury had been devastating, but having already received attention from her first book, "Winter Season, A Dancer's Journal" (Random, 1989), the timing was good, she said.

"I had another career I could go to, which is almost unheard of for a professional ballet dancer," she said. "God gave me the dance experience so I could write about it."

For Bentley, who has spent the last decade in Los Angeles, the desire to look, and to be looked at, found expression in her dual career as a dancer and a writer: "Wanting to be in the spotlight and away from it," she said. "The great desire to be seen and the great terror of being seen." Fear helped get her on stage at the Blue Angel.

"Breaking my own taboos, it was a great statement of freedom," she said. "Not just to be naked ... but changing my identity." Having perceived of herself as "a good girl," she wanted to rebel, she said.

"It was scary, but good scary," she said. "How are they going to react? It's a classic test of your female sexual power. Are they going to like what they see? And it was exciting to be able to see somebody, and their reaction."

Unlike the crowd at Lincoln Center, the club audience was close. "Those sitting by the stage are within touching distance," she said. "Needless to say, it's more intimate."

What she hadn't anticipated was the pleasure stripping gave her.

"I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it," she said, adding that she still keeps the money earned that night, $89, in her bedside drawer next to her black Bible.

"My striptease is very symbolic to me." And since it was the genesis of her new book, it seemed appropriate to include it, as "a very personal introduction," she said.

"Will people talk about it? I suppose. But it's not just about my stripping and my nudity. It's about a bigger thing"--feminism and sexual power.

"Feminism over the years [has claimed] women wanted to be like men. But we're totally different," Bentley said. "One should celebrate women's sexuality. Like verbal power. To celebrate it, to use it, to embrace it, is to say, 'I've got it, and it's a good thing.' That's a good feminist thing ....We should take more responsibility for our sexual powers, and use these powers more."

After all, Bentley said, "what women want from being liberated is power."

She bristles at the notion of the stripper as a victim. If it's a choice, it's empowering, she said. And that destabilizes the notion that the woman on stage is an object.

"It's what we all want to be, the subject looking at the object." In this case, she said, the object is the audience. "Who's the subject? Who's the object?" she said. "Those [questions] interest me."

She's unafraid to be both.

"I'm a sexy chick ... who's published by Yale University Press," she said. "Deal with it."

August 7, 2002 -- Louise Roug , Los Angeles Times

Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome reviewed by The Village Voice
A School For Salomes
The Origins of the Modern Striptease

It is the turn of the last century and half-naked young women are dancing with seven veils and papier-mâché heads. "Salomania" is spreading through Europe and the United States, with crowds succumbing. In 1907, a school starts on the roof of the New York Theatre. For two hours each morning, Mlle. Dazié, a/k/a Daisy Peterkin from Detroit, directs her pupils; she produces 150 Salomes every month, filling American music halls. As Toni Bentley writes in her new Sisters of Salome (Yale), by August 1908 four Salomes are performing in New York alone, and by October the number increases sixfold. The next year, every variety and vaudeville show has a Salome on its bill. Every hootchy-kootchy dancer wiggling without underwear in some vaguely Eastern outfit in every early film is a Salome in spirit. By 1912, almost 3000 French poets have fallen under the spell, writing their own versions of the tale. And there are protests. Early feminist Julia Ward Howe, writer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," says Oriental dancing involves "only the most deforming movement of the whole abdominal and lumbar regions."

Bentley studies the figure of the fin-de-siècle femme fatale, in particular four women—Colette, Maud Allan, Mata Hari, and Ida Rubinstein—who chose the way of Salome. They danced exotically to wield their power, reinvent themselves, and, paradoxically, hide their sad pasts by becoming as nude as possible. (Colette had a happy upbringing, but Allan—her brother had murdered two women, slicing open one of them.) The Salome dance was an aspect of the Orientalism that had seized the West stylistically and thematically in the 19th century. Bentley notes the historical simultaneity of the theater as women's erotic territory and, offstage, the beginning of women's rights, as well as the dance's symbolic importance: The story of Salome is "a woman's naked beauty" resulting in a dead man.

Flaubert and others were preoccupied by the Eastern femme fatale, but it was Oscar Wilde's 1893 play Salome (illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley) and Richard Strauss's 1905 opera that sparked the craze. Wilde is the first to give the young girl a dance of the veils—"the unlikely father of modern striptease"—and an independent voice. The Wilde story goes like this: King Herod has just married his sister-in-law after murdering her husband. He is attracted to her daughter Salome and offers her anything to dance; finally she does (in the New Testament Gospels, it is her mother who urges her on), and after taking off each of the seven veils (a reference to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar at the underworld's seven gates), Salome says, I want the head of John the Baptist. She has fallen in love with him while he was howling in the prison below about the coming of Christ, and he would have nothing to do with her. But after she gets the head, the guards kill her.

Wilde also added her murder. Femme fatales always end up dead and take down everybody around them.

I shall dance naked . . . spinning round ablaze with light, blind as a fly in a sunbeam. And I shall invent beautiful slow dances with a veil; sometimes it will cover my body, sometimes it will envelop me with a spiral of smoke, and . . . —Colette, La Vie Parisienne, 1906

Colette was "always in search of an escape from her desk," Bentley notes, detailing the six years of the French writer's life during which she made a whole career out of playing nude fauns and gypsies in music halls and at the all-female Natalie Barney afternoons.

Bentley, a former New York City Ballet dancer and the author of three other books, remembers getting carried away herself. One night in 1980, while the company is in Paris, she follows ballet director George Balanchine to the "red velvet underworld of the Crazy Horse." As the naked women come out wearing only sequined rope around their waists, she wonders why Mr. Balanchine is here. Then she wonders about the women: "This creature, in that moment, was to me the most powerful woman in the world." She is "more powerful than a rich woman, a married woman, a titled woman, or a woman with degrees, diplomas, or awards." She goes backstage and gets some school supplies: Dior No. 004 stage makeup and the black Leichner for painting an equilateral triangle. As Crazy Horse owner Alain Bernardin insists, "Like a painting, like a Modigliani, everyone the same."

Next scene: 1996. A rainy Saturday night, an empty Tribeca street. The place with the blue lightbulb. Here, at the Blue Angel, Bentley finds her training ground. There's a nude fire-eater, someone in a schoolgirl kilt. Working up a little act to Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for the Miracle," Bentley makes a fast $89 and concludes that her "urge to strip in public was an archetypal will to power." This later brings to mind the theatrical leanings of her Viennese great-grandmother and her obsessive handbag collection.

But is going to Salome school the way to go? Three of the four sisters of Salome did not end up very powerful. True, Colette became one of the major French writers of the 20th century, but Maud Allan and Mata Hari subsidized their careers with a lot of prostitution, and the latter was executed for espionage. (After they killed her, they found out she was innocent.) The Canadian Allan, one of Europe's most famous Salomes, ended up in a shabby one-room rental in Los Angeles, working as a drafter at Douglas Aircraft. And Russian performance artist Ida Rubinstein—"a sexy Jewish girl with quite a lot of money," according to Diana Vreeland—who had spent most of her life putting on extravagant vanity productions, passed her remaining years with former lover Romaine Brooks refusing to see her (because she was "no longer like an orchid") and drinking champagne and taking a laxative every night.

Back to 1996. When Bentley does her dance at the Blue Angel, in black pumps and little else, she notices one man in particular: "His desire burned into my own gaze, showing me with a clarity I had not experienced before the power of my own body," she writes. "I then knew what triumph felt like." This reminded me of all those Madonna bad girls and Camille Paglia and gender studies gurgling with excitement of a real takeover and getting mixed up with subversion as fashion. Around that time in New York, I remember, there was a very attractive former semiotics student who would secretly tell everybody that she was stripping at the Blue Angel. One night, she brought one of her fans, an audience member, to a dinner party and he was this accountant and he lived with his mother in Queens and his glasses were smudgy. Now who would want to hold him in the palm of her hands?

A nude woman onstage has power as long as she initiates the dance, Bentley notes, becoming both the subject and author of her show, embodying the misogynist and feminist as the cultural debate of the time. But when the clothes are off, and the music stops, then what? After all this reading about Salome empowerment, all I can think about is when the strip-club owner in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie says to the girl, "You don't have to jump anymore, sweetheart. Just walk up and down."

August 7, 2002 -- Toni Schlesinger, The Village Voice

Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome reviewed by CHOICE

Sisters of Salome

A former ballet dancer and now independent scholar-writer, Bentley weaves a fascinating story of four 19th-century women, each inspired by the story of Salome (by way of either Oscar Wilde's 1893 play or Richard Strauss's 1905 opera). Key players in the Salomania craze, the four contributed prominently to the evolution of the femme fatale. Selected by Bentley as the centerpieces of this intriguing, sensitive, and well-written study are Maud Allan, a virtually forgotten Canadian modern dancer; Mata Hari, the falsely accused Dutch spy; Ida Rubinstein, a Russian theatrical diva with marginal talent who became in old age a religious penitent; and the French novelist and performer Colette. Of the four, only Colette broke free of Salome; the others "became entrapped by her image, relegated to tragedy or obscurity." With informative background on the Wilde and Strauss creations, this book not only explores the ancient myth on stage and in real life but also sheds light on how the four principals creatively used the role of Salome both for artistic purposes and personal power and liberation. Well-chosen illustrations; excellent documentation. Recommended for all academic libraries serving upper-division undergraduates through faculty and for large public libraries.

February 2003 --D. B. Wilmeth, Brown University, CHOICE

Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome reviewed by The Virginia Quarterly Review

Sisters of Salome

Winter 2002, Vol 78; No. 4

First the frame: this book breaks the Yale mold. No crusty academic tome, this daring, playful work reads like a trade book. The seductive and colorful author’s photograph on the back flap surprises readers expecting a certain kind of product from Yale. Next the substance: this book traces the cultural influence of Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play Salome. The idea that the heroine of a Wilde play could induce free-thinking women at the beginning of the 20th-century to risk danger and wing their way through life holds real interest for scholars. Through chapters on Colette, Maud Allan, Mata Hari, and Ida Rubinstein -- “crazy” women of the day -- the author explores a fresh take on how, little by little, sisters started doing it for themselves. Defiantly throwing caution to the wind, the femme fatale has her way in these engaging vignettes.

--The Virginia Quarterly Review

Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome reviewed by 2 Blowhards
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Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome Reviewed on 2 BlowhardsAh, the ballerina Toni Bentley! Sexy, passionate, brilliant -- and I've never seen her dance. I'm a huge fan of her writing, though. Bentley was a Balanchine ballerina, but began writing about dance even before she hurt herself and had to retire. To my shame, I've read only one of her books, Sisters of Salome (buyable here), but I thought it was one of the best new books I've read in recent years. From the opening chapter, I was full of excitement and admiration. I was thinking, "This is sensational!," and "Why aren't lots of people talking about this?"

But, a few nice reviews aside, they weren't. A sign of ... what? How peculiar my tastes are? (Always a possibility.) How clueless the books press is? (My generally-preferred theory.) But maybe uptightness played a role too, because what the book is about is dancing and nudity. Really: it's a high-toned, refined, intellectual (though earthy) book about dancing and nudity -- one of the clearest, most level-headed and best-informed discussions about the connections between art and sex that I've ever run across.

It's a study of the lives of four turn-of-the-century women (that's the 1800/1900 turn, youngsters) who danced the role of Salome in various productions, and who helped give birth to the striptease. What made them do it? What was it like for them? Why then and there?

Fascinating stuff, and written about not only with brains and style but rare from-the-inside knowledge and insight. "Rare"? Well, if you look at most movie, theater or dance reviews, you'll notice that even the featured performers don't often get more than a sentence or two -- yet the performers are usually the real reason audiences go to shows. I've read entire biographies of performers that -- while often worthwhile on the lives and personalities of their subjects -- had virtually nothing to say about what made the performer an interesting one.

Why should this be so? The answer, I'm convinced, is simple: because writing about performers and performance is hard. There aren't, and have never been, many people who do it well. A fair number of writers can do a decent job of evoking a performer or a performance; some, like Kenneth Tynan, do so beautifully. But being able to discuss the work of performers with the same kind of depth and respect that's often accorded painters and writers is a much rarer talent.

The writers I'm aware of who can illuminate from the inside? Just a few: Steve Vineberg in Method Actors (here). Simon Callow in his biographies of Charles Laughton (here) and Orson Welles (here). Eileen Whitfield in her biography of Mary Pickford (here).

And Toni Bentley. No surprise that one thing all these writers have in common is that they've been performers themselves. (Without having taken some acting classes, I'd be even less interesting on performers than I already am.) They know what the experience of performing feels like, as well as the kind of work, thought and preparation that goes into performing. And they're able to recognize what other performers are up to not just in terms of effect but also of intention. Combine that with a brain, an eye, and a verbal gift ... It's startling to read these writers because they're speaking from knowledge and imagination both, and because we aren't used to attributing the same kinds of consciousness and depth to performers that we are to other artists.

So: "Sisters of Salome" -- a fabulous book of social and art history, and an amazingly interesting account of what it's like to dance.

And there's, ahem, another important thing: it's a deeply sexy book, and Bentley's a deeply sexy writer. I don't mean "sexy" in some cutesy or or tee-hee way; I mean in a recognizing-the-full-scope-of-Eros way. Bentley is obviously convinced that a lot of what drives many performers -- and that a lot of the pleasure performers get from performing -- is erotic. (From my own experience in acting classes and from hanging out with a lot of actors, I agree with her. When it's really cooking, performing is a turn-on, and in an eros-equals-the-Life-Force-itself way. Some actors will pretend otherwise for the public or the press, but that's usually because they're hoping to attain respectability. Among themselves, the sexiness of the field is no secret.)

Bentley seems completely unembarassed about this. She's frank as well about the kinds of pleasure audiences take in performers, and she's got an eye for performers that's objective and sophisticated -- appreciative and ruthless both. This is a book that people (like me) who go the ballet, think, "Sheesh, this is high-class porn!" and mean it as a compliment will find agreeable, though I wouldn't be surprised if stuffier performance fans are outraged by her work.

I didn't realize that Toni Bentley has a website until today, when I stumbled across it here. It's a generous one, with info about her and her books, and with some photos too -- what a treat she must have been to watch dance. It also includes a handful of journalistic pieces she's written. They're eye-openers in their own right, and well worth reading. "Sisters of Salome" may be the main course, but there's no reason not to enjoy these freebie appetizers.

Hey, I see from her website that her earlier book, "Winter Season" -- a diary about her life as a dancer -- is going to be reissued this fall. I'll be buying.

Here's a passage from a piece she wrote for Allure magazine about Paris' Crazy Horse Saloon:

Curiously, the women perform as if clothed, adhering to the strict choreography without giving any apparent thought to being overtly sexy. These are girls dancing -- who happen to be naked. The bodies onstage are mesmerizing: slim yet curved, long yet round, athletic yet soft. The faces are fresh, serious and exotic. A Crazy Horse dancer is not the girl next door; she's the fantasy of the girl next door gone wild. She does not imitate or suggest the sexual act, and no male ever shares the stage with her. The Crazy Horse is a veritable fortress of femininity -- ironic and sophisticated.

But it is also deeply erotic -- an eroticism shaped someone who clearly worships at the altar of the female nude.

July 31, 2003 --Michael, 2 Blowhards

Toni Bentley in the New York Times Book Review

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