In her latest book, Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet author Alice Robb calls New York City Ballet co-founder George Balanchine her “problematic fave.” Especially as the dance world continues to examine many of the darker aspects of the famed choreographer’s influence on ballet culture, this is a sentiment that many of us—myself included—seem to be echoing.
This is not the only portion of the book in which I felt incredibly seen. In Don’t Think, Dear, Robb mines her own personal history as a dancer (she studied at the School of American Ballet until age 12 and continued her studies at Studio Maestro, Steps on Broadway and at summer intensives until age 15) to examine how the lessons young women and girls learn in ballet class inform our perspectives as we grow older. This—combined with stories from her SAB classmates and several of ballet’s most iconic figures—allows Robb to shed light on issues like dancer’s body image, mental health, and the culture of dancing through injuries, while weaving in her ongoing, steadfast love for the art form. During our conversation, we dove into Balanchine’s complex legacy, Robb’s path from dance to writing, and the way ballet impacts dancer’s lives—long after shedding their last pair of pointe shoes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I saw a lot of myself in this book—especially as you talk about things like body image, your tendencies toward anxiety, and enjoying the sense of control ballet class gave you—and I think a lot of other dancers and former dancers will, too. Do you think ballet draws in a certain type of person, or does it change us as we study it? Or perhaps there’s a bit of both?
It’s very hard to say, right? You can’t really do a controlled study of one version of Alice who never did ballet. I think that I do feel comfortable saying that whoever is attracted to it, the environment of ballet is going to exacerbate those tendencies of wanting to control your body and being very critical. Many girls start ballet when we’re so young—I started doing little baby ballet classes when I was probably three years old—but I didn’t understand what I was getting into.
You do a lot of soul-searching in relation to the ways ballet has affected your worldview, especially in relation to the way you view femininity and womanhood. When did you start having these realizations about ballet culture and the ways it continues to affect you?
When I quit ballet when I was 15, I went through a period of just totally trying to avoid ballet. I think it was just kind of too painful. It was too much of a loss to really grapple with at that point, so I just threw myself into high school, tried to join the track team—which was kind of ridiculous—went to college, and just kind of tried to make ballet not my identity anymore. I think I did that pretty successfully for a handful of years, and then when I was in my mid-twenties I finally had room to think more about ballet and how it had shaped me. I guess I felt like I was still sort of in thrall to these gender stereotypes from ballet. I would still put on eyeliner every day and I was still on the thin side—not by ballet standards—but that was definitely still important to me. I started thinking about “Is this about ballet? Why am I still presenting myself in this way?” And then when I started talking to some of my old classmates about it, it was like we are all kind of grappling with the same questions.
And as you explore the ways SAB affected your classmates, you also tie in the ways that ballet still plays a role in their lives and may have even helped guide them to their current artistic/professional pursuits. Do you connect ballet to your writing career in any way?
I think ballet and writing have so much in common. I was always interested in writing, even at the time that I was dancing. I was writing little journals—mostly about ballet—but about school and other things, too. Ballet gave me a lot of resilience because it was so hard, and it also got me comfortable with receiving criticism. I think that, in particular, has been helpful in my career—I don’t really get offended by being edited. I think both writing and ballet involve being quiet, at least with your voice. I think that the perfectionism of ballet was something that I had to get over in order to write because you have to be so messy when you’re writing. And you have to be willing to write a terrible first draft and to just take notes that you don’t want anyone to ever see. And writing is so private, whereas ballet is so public, you’re making your mistakes in front of all of your classmates and your teacher.
The title of your book references a famous Balanchine quote—“Don’t think dear; just do”—and throughout the book, you discuss both Balanchine’s artistic contributions as well as some of the more problematic aspects of his legacy. Given that his influence—in both regards—still very much permeates ballet culture today, do you have any suggestions for how we can educate young dancers about him?
I really wanted to write about him because I feel like he’s either totally dismissed because of some of his personal behavior by certain feminist critics, or he’s still just kind of treated as this hero. Balanchine was a huge figure to me as a child, even though he died a decade before I was born. I grew up hearing my teacher basically talk about him as if he was still alive and he was still this person that we should be trying to impress. And I do think there must be a way to pass on his choreography, which is brilliant and such a pleasure to dance and to watch, without the whole kind of cult of personality. And I think there were certain ways that, because he was not alive, things he had said with who knows how much weight were passed on as gospel in this way that I think became very rigid.
Yes, one thing I really enjoyed about the book was your nuanced description of Balanchine, which neither held him up as a godlike figure nor dismissed him entirely.
Obviously, we’re still in the middle of this huge conversation about whether we can divorce the art from the artist, but I do think, at least for children, they could learn and enjoy his choreography, without even necessarily having to delve into his personality.
And what about ballet’s culture as a whole? How do you think we can make shifts so this industry becomes a healthier place for dancers?
I was focusing on, in this book, a very specific time and place and I wanted to do that, because, whatever’s going on now is going on now, but I’m 30 and my friends are 30 and we’re all dealing now with these issues that happened 15 years ago. So I’m not a super-expert on what’s changed in the last 15 years in ballet schools, but I do think the change comes from the top, and if companies are promoting dancers with more diverse body types, that’s going to give young dancers more people to look up to. There was one study that I came across that I thought was really interesting that had dancers take classes without the typical uniform. They let them wear looser clothes, or take classes in studios without mirrors and found that they felt more positively about their bodies afterwards. You grow up thinking that this is just how ballet is and if you do ballet you’re going to do it in front of a mirror. If we maybe rethink some of those assumptions, we could get somewhere.
Don’t Think, Dear is published by Harper Collins and due to be released on February 28, 2023.