We decided to take a month off from selecting a new pick for Ballerina Book Club to get caught up, but in the meantime I’ve rounded up some of my favorite dancer autobiographies.
I’ve always loved immersing myself in the lives of dancers who came before me and seeing how things were different then — and how so much has remained the same. Someone once said that because ballets are passed down from dancer to dancer, when we dance it’s like we’re communicating with the dancers of the past. Isn’t that a wonderful notion?
I see so much courage and determination in each of these dancers, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading their stories, too.
If I had to pick just one favorite, this would be it. I found this now out-of-print book stuffed on a shelf in a tiny used bookstore when I was on tour performing in Australia, and I’m so glad I did. Irina was one of the three baby ballerinas of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and later was a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre in the very early days of ABT. The pressures she had on her to perform from such a young age and grow up so quickly — from her mother, choreographers and older men — are almost unimaginable.
In this incredibly intimate and honest memoir, her luminous personality shines through, and I so wish I could’ve met this beautiful artist and person. My favorite part was reading about the year-long tours through America, when the Ballets Russes dancers lived on a train, sometimes warmed up in pastures next to cows and performed in a different small town every night.
Maria was a trailblazer in every sense. I loved learning about her journey — from growing up in the Osage Nation to joining New York City Ballet and becoming arguably America’s first prima ballerina, her artistic process, her travels around the world, and her relationship with other dance legends like George Balanchine and Rudolf Nureyev.
When I first performed Alexei Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” I went to the New York Public Library and studied Maria Tallchief’s performance in the Stravinsky ballet, a role that was created for her by her then-husband, Balanchine. The solo where she hypnotically bourrées across the stage, staying on pointe for what seems like an eternity, is pure magic. The audience used to go crazy following performances of her sensational interpretation of the Firebird. Intelligent, beautiful, talented, hard-working and innately glamorous, she was a true star in every sense.
As a close friend of Misty and having shared a dressing room with her for so many years, I still found her memoir to be a revelation. It is a sensitive and inspirational account of her childhood, her start in ballet, the people who helped her along the way, and the many obstacles she had to overcome as she broke down barrier after barrier to become the first-ever Black principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre and a global icon. It was also fascinating to read about her artistic process while working on roles like the Firebird.
It’s great for any age, but I would definitely recommend this book for any young dancers needing a reminder of the power of perseverance.
Check out our interview with Misty for more bookish insights.
Go watch Allegra Kent in Balanchine’s second movement of “Symphony in C” on YouTube, and you’ll get a sense of the kind of dancer and person she is. Whenever I need a reminder of the importance of individuality onstage, I watch videos of Allegra. Her unique personality infused her dancing and writing with something inimitable. Despite her glamorous appearance, there’s nothing diva-ish about her honest and heartfelt memoir.
More so than the other memoirs on this list, this book really delves into the process in the studio. Suzanne Farrell’s work ethic and enthusiasm as a collaborator with Balanchine, Maurice Béjart and Jerome Robbins was unmatched. What struck me most was how Balanchine’s devotion and unwavering belief in Suzanne enabled her to soar to such artistic heights. He gave her total freedom, and she gave him some of his greatest ballets.