ONCE A DANCER .
By Allegra Kent
St. Martin's. 340 pp. $26.95
Go to the first chapter of "Once a Dancer .  "
MARIA TALLCHIEF: America's Prima Ballerina
Go to the first chapter of "Maria Tallchief"
Go to Chapter One
Taking Their PositionsBy Laura Jacobs
Sunday, April 20, 1997; Page X05
If you look up "ballerina" in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find the following definition: "a female dancer, a ballet-girl." This is wrong, as wrong as saying that any female who sings opera is a prima donna; and it reflects a widespread misconception, that toe shoes plus tutu equals a ballerina. Ballet is an art that stands on ceremony, and ceremony bows to hierarchy. The corps de ballet is, by definition, many women; the ballerina, however, is as separate and solitary as the spinning figurine in a little girl's jewel box. Indeed, she is a crown jewel, distinguished by cut and color, clarity and depth.
It is a magical word -- bal-le-ri-na -- that dips and dances into the air, casting a spell. Generations of girls have wanted to be one even before they knew what one was, somehow grasping that this creature is the pinnacle of . . . something. How does a ballerina come to be? What lifts her above the pack? With striking symmetry, two American ballerinas have just published autobiographies: Allegra Kent's Once a Dancer . . . and Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina.
In outline, these stories are not so different. Both girls grew up in small-town America; each had a mother who put herself at the service of her daughter's ambition; both trekked to California and once there took class with Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Nijinsky. Most important, both found their way into the class of George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and blossomed in his ballets. The similarities end there. To carry on the metaphor of gems, Tallchief was a diamond, Kent, perhaps, a pearl.
I read Kent's book first. Born Iris Cohen in 1937, she had an early life that was the crazy kind you might find in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, beginning with mom. Shirley Cohen was a Christian Scientist and free spirit whose world view was pinched with paranoia. Her acute snap judgments resulted in irrevocable life changes -- from name (the Jewish Cohen became the WASP Kent) to place (the family ping ponged pennilessly cross-country at the drop of a hat) to face (Shirley pushed Allegra into a much-hated nose job). Kent's kindly and charismatic father, a traveling salesman, makes cameo appearances but is mostly absent. Later, Shirley and Allegra find a surrogate in the photographer Bert Stern, who looked surprisingly like dad and whom Shirley urged Allegra to marry. It was a terrible marriage, but to Shirley's way of thinking at least it kept Allegra from the clutches of Balanchine, who had a habit of marrying his young favorites. For a stage mother, though, this was an oddly perverse retreat from insider status.
As Kent's story unfolds, we see her tossing and turning between opposing forces: mom vs. Balanchine, the stage vs. children, conformity vs. autonomy, plenty vs. poverty. "I'd always had a secretive side, which was not part of my mother's style," Kent writes, explaining her passion for ballet. "She was accustomed to talking everything out -- the talking cure. I wished to speak in a different way, soundlessly -- the dancing cure. With ballet, I had finally found a way to express myself but not to reveal my thoughts . . . No one can touch silence."
It was in this safe and infinite silence that Kent wrapped her dancing. And it was in metaphysical silence, as well, that Balanchine answered her choreographically, creating dances of powerful mystery. "As I came to understand it, the ballets Mr. B. did for me evolved from my suppressed inner life as much as from my dancing talent. He saw in me the psychological raw material that could be molded and remolded into images of sensuality -- unrealized and restrained, but there, just under the surface. The star inside the sapphire." This is not only a convincing analysis of a difficult concept, it is beautiful writing. Also (I stand corrected) the star in the sapphire is a much better metaphor for Kent than a pearl. It captures her twilight vibration, the "unrealizable" aura that made her the favorite of artist Joseph Cornell, who often worked pictures of her into his famous shadow boxes. She was an Allegra wrapped in an enigma.
Kent, one feels, has never known quite where or who she is. Maria Tallchief, on the other hand, is utterly clear in her identity. She was the daughter of an Osage Indian chief and his Scots-Irish wife, and grew up in relative stability and comfort. When she was a teen dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was told to Russianize her last name, she refused, proud of her heritage.
Tallchief, born in 1925, is a generation older than Kent. Though her mother was doting, she left Maria alone once the career began. Though she thought Maria too young, she allowed her to marry -- who else? -- George Balanchine. In a poetic sense, this marriage was the beginning of the New York City Ballet, a partnership more than a romance. Though sometimes bothered by the career-kids timeclock, Tallchief was unwavering in her dedication to dance. It always came first. The ballet that was NYCB's and Tallchief's first great success -- "The Firebird" in 1949 -- is symbolic. Tailormade by Balanchine for Tallchief, it not only explored her deep and darting exoticism, it suggested the fire of her commitment -- classical ballet as eternal flame.
In fact, Tallchief was a model to younger dancers, Kent among them, setting a standard for technical authority, close musicality, and almost grave trust. To see film of her dancing the berceuse (lullaby) of "The Firebird" is to see simmering concentration, to experience port de bras (carriage of the arms) as mental flow. Offstage, Tallchief was equally commanding. When Kent skipped a London tour because her husband was acting up, Tallchief reprimanded her. "Oh, Allegra, husbands come and husbands go, but your dancing is the thing that's important." Kent says admiringly, "This woman could have been a marine drill sergeant."
Unfortunately, she is not much of a writer. Tallchief's tunnel vision, the very quality Balanchine cherished in her, makes for cut-and-dried prose and an astonishingly unexamined life. The most interesting part of her autobiography is her marriage to Balanchine, in which we get a few peeks behind the curtain, snapshots of the genius at home. One wants more Mr. B. After the Balanchine-Tallchief marriage is annulled, the book reads like a chronology of performances and pulled muscles.
The German poet Novalis wrote that "character is destiny," and his prophecy was never truer than with ballerinas. Their stories, their desires, their imaginations, their nerve shine through their techniques like light through a prism. Even the titles of these books reflect character. Kent's might be a sighing look back, as in, she was "once a dancer . . ." But suddenly the title pirouettes, and those ellipses imply not past tense but future infinity, as in, "once a dancer, always a dancer." Allegra -- ambiguous as ever. Tallchief's title, like Tallchief herself, is declarative, definitive, possessive. She stakes her claim as "America's Prima Ballerina," just as she staked her claim at New York City Ballet. She had a big and brilliant territory. Kent's was smaller, secretive. Both were ballerinas.
Laura Jacobs is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Stagebill, and dance critic of the New Criterion.