JULY 28, 2019
TWO RECENT TITLES from the University Press of Florida make for a remarkably successful pairing: one focuses on the “golden years” of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet through the memoir lens of former soloist Bettijane Sills, while the other offers, through a series of impressionistic sketches by former member Marianne Preger-Simon, an insider’s view of the troupe that would become the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The two books map the seemingly opposing sides of the New York City dance world — ballet and modern — of the midcentury period, when the uptown/downtown and ballet/modern choreographic divide was far starker than it is now. More striking, however, is the way in which the two memoirs are organized around the idea of proximity to artistic genius. Neither is the memoir of a celebrity in its own right. Rather, the two authors openly and repeatedly acknowledge the great privilege that they had in working firsthand with two of the most important figures of 20th- and, in the case of Cunningham, 21st-century dance. For anyone interested in the (primarily) New York City–based dance world of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as for anyone interested in the construction of narratives of artistic genius, these two books almost beg to be read side by side.
In Broadway, Balanchine, and Beyond: A Memoir, Bettijane Sills (with Elizabeth McPherson) charts her rise to the rank of soloist (the middle of three: corps de ballet, soloist, and principal) in one of the greatest companies in the world, the New York City Ballet. While Sills tells of her personal journey and experiences working with Balanchine, she also takes on some of the less glamorous topics common to writings about Balanchine and about the ballet world more broadly, such as competition among dancers, the question of body image within a world that prizes extreme thinness, and Balanchine’s relationships with his female dancers. The latter two issues are especially crucial to Sills’s memoir, and it seems that her goal is ultimately to remove much of the blame that has been, to her mind, unfairly apportioned to Balanchine for codifying the ideal of the skinny ballet body and for behaving in a manner that has come under increased scrutiny in the contemporary #MeToo climate.
Sills grew up in New York City and began her stage career as a child actor on Broadway. In the first part of the book, she describes this early period, as well as the transition she made from actor to dancer — partly because her mother took less interest in her ballet career than in her acting career. She shifted her artistic focus to dance in her studies at the High School of Performing Arts (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also known as the “Fame” School, after the 1980 musical film of the same name) and at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, the feeder school to the New York City Ballet. She eventually landed a company contract in 1961, at the age of 18. Sills reminisces about her decade with the company, separating her years in the corps de ballet from the years she spent as a soloist dancer. One of the highlights of the first years that she spent with the company was the 1962 tour of the Soviet Union. She describes in detail the Cold War climate that led the US State Department to send Balanchine’s company on an early cultural exchange tour, where they would dance in some of the most important theaters of the Soviet Union, including the Kirov (now Mariinsky) and the Bolshoi. She also mentions the installation of the New York City Ballet as the resident ballet company of the State Theater at the newly opened Lincoln Center in 1964. These two critical episodes bolster Sills’s contention that the 1960s were the golden years of American ballet under Balanchine, when he was producing some of his most important work and garnering national and international acclaim. The penultimate section of the book covers Sills’s retirement from dancing and transition into teaching at the college level, at the then-new SUNY Purchase, which is still home to one of the top college dance conservatory programs, in no small part thanks to her pedagogical guidance. She concludes the book with some final observations on Balanchine and on the decade that she spent working with him, commentary that is invaluable to the Balanchine legacy.
Though there is no dearth of memoirs by Balanchine dancers, they are, for the most part, written by his stars, the main exception being former New York City Ballet corps de ballet member Toni Bentley’s Winter Season (1982). It should be noted, incidentally, that dancing professionally for any company is by no means an insignificant accomplishment, and dancing for the New York City Ballet as a featured dancer is a level of success that most never achieve. Still, a memoir by a dancer who attained a level of prominence, but who was never a household name in the ballet world, provides a unique perspective. Sills’s recollections of her personal interactions with Balanchine are a valuable addition to Balanchine history and lore. Balanchine was notoriously averse to having star dancers in his company, and Sills recalls the brief period when he abolished the ranking system; he also often gifted his corps de ballet and soloists some of the most beautiful dancing in his repertoire. Just as important and unique is Sills’s description of the 1962 tour — a crucial moment in American, Soviet, and ballet history.
At times, perhaps inevitably, Sills’s memoir veers a little too far into the anecdotal, using the oft-quoted Balanchine aphorisms that some readers may find repetitive: as dance critic Arlene Croce has written, “Balanchine’s followers have taken to repeating his sayings as if they were ‘The Golden Verses of Pythagoras’ (which some of them may well be), invariably incorporating the Master’s twitch, his twang, and his habit of starting sentences with ‘You know, dear …’ Almost every line is Balanchine quoting someone else.” Still, the fact that Balanchine’s dancers are so keen to quote their maestro’s many pearls of wisdom sheds light on the nature of the dancer-director dynamic. And the reliance on Balanchinisms makes all the more sense in Sills’s case, since she herself is a longtime dance pedagogue; it fleshes out her own relationship to Balanchine’s pedagogy and choreographic process, as well as her relationship with the man.
Marianne Preger-Simon’s Dancing with Merce Cunningham also centers on the author’s relationship to a pivotal figure of 20th-century modern dance, Cunningham. Preger-Simon’s story, however, is less about a revered teacher and more about a friend and artistic collaborator — though she still shows some deference to Cunningham’s mostly unquestioned authority as an artistic genius. There are several other key figures that factor into her work, notably Cunningham’s life partner — the composer John Cage — and another founding dancer in the company, Carolyn Brown, as well as other dancers and artists who fell into Cunningham’s orbit, such as the abstract expressionist painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Indeed, Preger-Simon’s book captures an entire era of the American avant-garde, reflecting the multimedia approach that the modern dance world embraced.
Preger-Simon’s early years prepared her well for this multimedia approach. She begins her narrative with an evocation of her year abroad in postwar Paris, where she met Cunningham for the first time, but where she was also exposed to a variety of avant-garde art forms that clearly shaped her aesthetic sensibilities as an artist in her own right. After returning to the United States, she again connects with Cunningham in New York City and becomes one of the founding dancers of what will become the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, officially founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Preger-Simon danced with the company until 1958, when she decided to retire in order to have a child. She delves deeply into this decision in the memoir, describing the emotional impact of leaving a group of artists who came to be more like a family than a group of colleagues in the eight or so years that she was performing. The last fourth of the book describes some memorable reunions with Cunningham, which make abundantly clear how central this relationship was to Preger-Simon’s life.
Dancing with Merce Cunningham has two main strengths as a dance memoir. First, it is an important addition to the body of writings on Cunningham, one of the most important modern choreographers and creative forces of the American avant-garde, who was producing work almost until the end of his life in 2009 and whose wide-reaching influence and collaborations touched artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Rei Kawakubo, and Radiohead. Included are a number of reproductions of correspondence with Cunningham, which will intrigue both scholars and fans of his work. Secondly, the journal-like form and lyrical style of Preger-Simon’s book is simply a pleasure to read; the effect is evocative and nostalgic without veering into the saccharine. Her respect and love for Cunningham is evident on every page, and she takes his status as a genius for granted, but she does not bother to heap further praise on a figure who has long been lauded. Rather, she shows how someone who is now a household name of the dance world came to occupy that position. If anything, Preger-Simon could have told more of her own story; for example, I was left wondering about her childhood and why she decided to study in Paris in the first place.
The justification for both of these memoirs is clearly the proximity of their authors to two major geniuses of 20th-century dance. This is announced in the books’ very titles. The vivid pictures Sills and Preger-Simon paint, and the insights into the choreographic processes of Balanchine and Cunningham they provide, will be invaluable to serious students of dance. And yet, perhaps most interestingly, both books offer examples of the way that the concept of genius can be handled in memoir writing. Ever the expert dancers, Sills and Preger-Simon strike a delicate balance between personal narrative, respectful portraiture, and cultural history.
Megan Race is a visiting assistant professor of Russian studies at Davidson College in North Carolina. She holds a PhD in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale University, where she taught Russian language and literature. Megan was also a postdoctoral fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.