Inspired reading from Ellen O'Connell Whittet and Amanda Vaill's new book on Jerome Robbins
April 14, 2020
What You Become in Flight A memoir by Ellen O’Connell Whittet Published by Melville House; $17.99
More than a month into widespread shelter-in-place, many of us could stand to lose ourselves in something other than our computer screens. Let me recommend two new dance books that have proven absorbing pandemic-times reading.
If you are feeling the pain of being kept off-stage, Ellen O’Connell Whittet understands. Designated by a ballet-loving grandmother as a dancer-to-be, Whittet took the blessing to heart, idolizing an older cousin who danced the role of Coppelia with her studio, and watching the Gelsey Kirkland/Mikhail Baryshnikov recording of “The Nutcracker” until she wore the VHS tape out. “That video became a religion to me,” Whittet writes, “something I believed in that was greater than myself, that transcended my family, future, or my body’s capabilities.”
Unfortunately, her body’s needs soon cried out to be respected. Her memoir, What You Become in Flight, opens with Whittet being dropped by her partner while rehearsing a lift in Balanchine’s “Serenade,” an accident that broke her back in two places and ended her college dance training, but her pain began long before that. Blessed with turnout and a buoyant jump from her earliest days training at RAD-syllabus schools, first in London and then in Southern California, she was also plagued by an easily displaced pelvis and a loose lower back. (“[M]any of the injuries that chased my down over the years began around the time I went on pointe,” she writes.)
At 15, dancing a studio production of “Don Quixote” directed by Bolshoi and Kirov dancers, Whittet allows a fellow student to stretch her foot to the point of breaking—and she gets a Novocain injection to perform on it anyway. It’s even more painful to read of her summer training in Boston, when a bone scan reveals an unstable sacroiliac joint but Whittet keeps dancing by trying to hide a pelvic brace beneath her leotard, until a ballet master gets wind of her hospital visit and bars her from class.
Whittet, who has written for the Paris Review and Buzzfeed, and who casts lucid and gently reflective sentences, is eloquent about pain and her dancerly determination to hide it—“It never occurred to me that ballet’s logic was flawed—instead, I believed my body was.” She also writes perceptively about the inherent danger of eating disorders in ballet culture: “When I was shrinking, I was noticed . . . We outlined our chest bones with eyeliner before shows so that they would pop from a distance.” The lens is intelligently feminist and the field of context stimulating—Whittet draws from Pina Bausch, Cunningham, Graham—but the tone is more ruminative than resentful.
Where this memoir might be of greatest inspiration to dancers is in Whittet’s transition to a broader identity. She falls in love first with French literature, then with writing, and takes the leap, after her fall, to applying to graduate writing programs, where she studies with one of the best nonfiction writers of our time, Jo Ann Beard. The memoir carefully plots her shift from muse to creator, and her reclamation of her body.
There are a few odd choices for a memoir written by someone so deeply educated in dance, such as the decision, in the prologue, to call the repetiteur the “choreographer” when they are rehearsing a Balanchine ballet. Also, Part Two leaves the ballet world behind and charts Whittet’s marriage, writing journey, and recovery from rape, making this book feel more like a collection of two related essays rather than one memoir. To her credit, Whittet doesn’t over-force a connection, and the final part of the story, about living through a misogynist student shooting at the University of California Santa Barbara, is chilling and galvanizing.
October 1, 2019
Jerome Robbins, by Himself Edited and with commentary by Amanda Vaill. Published by Knopf; $40
Meanwhile, the recently released Jerome Robbins, by Himself is not mere pandemic refuge, but a timeless book every dancer, choreographer, and dance-lover should have on the shelf. Amanda Vaill, author of the most authoritative of Robbins biographies, Somewhere, has done the dance world a tremendous service by culling the most vibrant, gut-wrenching, and illuminating of Robbins’ notes and letters, as well as excerpts from an unpublished memoir, and arranging them by life-phases, with a short overview of his personal and creative life opening each section.
Vaill aids with concise notes where needed throughout, but nothing feels academic about this book. Keener than reading through is the pleasure of flipping pages for what calls you—the book is beautifully designed and peppered with intimate photographs Robbins took of friends (including many, of course, of Tanaquil Le Clerq), and reproductions of his journals, in which he also sketched and made collage. In short, this is a book you can take off your shelf for sheer inspiration for decades to come.
There are so many reasons to read this book—for the personal drama, especially Robbins’ shame over denying his Jewish identity and his eventual hard-won peace; for the historical time-travel, particularly to the threats of the House Un-American Activities Commission and the intimidation to name names (who would have thought that Ed Sullivan was aiding the FBI?); for for the inside view of Broadway collaboration, with detailed notes on the development of West Side Story, and many letters to Bernstein.
For dancers, Robbins’ thoughts on learning the role of Petrouchka from Fokine, his fierce commitment to get inside it, will likely be motivating: “I figured out how the joints of the puppet were made and of what material to justify the movements. I studied Nijinsky’s make-up, propped the famous photo on my dressing table and tried to imitate it.” Vaill gives us his journal notes running right through his premiere in the role: “Oh god—I’m so happy that Petrushka is working out! [. . .] I am and want to be workman like before the part. It is me in so many ways.”
But most exciting to me is the use this book will be to choreographers. Several selections here are masterclasses unto themselves, such as a late 1950’s letter to artist Bernard Perlin:
“Sometimes when I start a ballet I’m not always sure what the subject is, although I have a feeling toward it. It’s rather like searching in the fog for something you know is there, or modeling with clay, and only by working and stripping off layer after layer do I finally get to the key and essence of what it’s about. What I’ve just described is one way of work. Another way (and that which is most common to Broadway and occasionally to ballet) is to know specifically the characters’ situation, atmosphere, story, the moment of what is about to happen on stage, and to tell what you have to tell as succinctly and directly but always as inventively as possible. Fancy Free, my first ballet, had a very detailed scenario, and the final ballet hardly varied from it all. I don’t write scenarios out anymore for a number of reasons. One, I don’t have to in order to convince people that I’ve got a story. But more importantly, I feel that what I am striving for in ballets has altered and that the ‘story’ ballet is not quite as interesting and fascinating to me as is the nuance, ritual, and saying something in movement which evokes a whole atmosphere, life, and relationship which cannot be said in words but which is understood through movement and gesture by the audience.”
Later, Robbins writes about the utter mystery of how “Dances at a Gathering” came, knowing only that it’s about “the physicality of accepting the music.” Just after comes a simple statement that is one of my favorites of the whole book: “EASIER WITH DANCERS: They trust themselves more than actors do. DANCERS know they will make it their own. ACTORS have the complication of wanting to make it their own, & their horror of exposing what their own is. Dancers always reveal themselves.”
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