nina, pretty ballerina

I read Toni Bentley’s Winter Season on the advice of Lazy, Self-Indulgent Book Reviews, a Tumblr blog that basically makes me redundant as a human being (she has an unfinished novel in a drawer, an Appendix QH mare called Bella, and she steals all my jokes about books and also is Canadian which is like being Australian only credible.) ANYWAY. Winter Season was written exactly thirty years ago. John Lennon got shot. The Iranian hostages were released. Bentley was 22 years old and one of seventy women dancing with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet.

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.

I did ballet from age about five to twelve. I was dreadful at it. The girls love my stories about being the snowflake who always did the step half a beat behind all the other snowflakes (I was special and unique! and precociously offbeat!) My mother bit her tongue until I confessed that I hated it and she confessed that I was terrible and we all had a big laugh and I got to go and learn to ride horses instead. But the first school I went to was a Serious school. (Janice Green, its draconian head, is mysteriously unGoogleable now.) I was exposed to that world: sweaty tights and ballet shoes, itchy pink leotards, examiners flying out from the Royal Ballet. And the sneaking knowledge that no matter how hard I tried, I was always going to suck at this.

Bentley made it to the top seventy in the world, and no further. Can you imagine?! She watches from the wings as Suzanne Farrell and Darci Kistler dance. She is ravished by their art and knows she will never be as good. She worships Balanchine as a god (he was a god, actually, as much as any human can be: the god of 20th century ballet), and he passively-aggressively fights with the union in order to avoid paying his dancers a living wage. Bentley starves herself. Her feet bleed. She has a cat because dancers can’t talk to human beings. The ballet fans are boring and obsessive and the dancers have nothing in common with anyone else.

The book, in other words, is fantastic. No 22 year old should be allowed to write this well. There oughta be a law! If this insidery-gossipy thing is the kind of thing you’re into, you will also adore Altman’s perfect late film about the Joffrey Ballet, The Company. It obsessed toddler-Claire for months.

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