THERE IS A WORLD around us most never see. Confined to bare, mirrored studios, it harbors as odd an assortment of characters as you're ever likely to meet. There we find the imperious director and distant board chairman, the constant teacher and that thoroughbred of athletes, the dancer. It is a world both rewarding and demeaning, familial yet unforgiving. As if by sorcery, it transforms itself, leaping to life and public consciousness in theaters across the country--a glittering realm of muscular princes and leggy sylphs. It is, of course, the world of ballet. But as Suzanne Gordon, author of Lonely in America and Black Mesa: Angel of Death, makes abundantly clear in her third book, Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet, some rather unattractive strings are pulled to maintain this illusion of effortless harmony.
Gordon goes to some pains to assure us that she doesn't hate ballet. On the contrary, she was "raised on ballet. Not to be a dancer, but to love the dance." In short, she is a fan. While researching an article for Geo magazine, however, she found snakes lurking in the wings. "I discovered that there was as much anguish as art in ballet, and that the anguish was created by the ballet establishment. It was not inherent in the art." Paradise was not what it seemed.
One snake is marked with dollar signs. Dancers are shamefully underpaid. What defense is there for paying stagehands more than the artists who draw the crowds? None of course; yet that is precisely the case. Management, says Frank Smith, a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre, has "taken the money out of the dancers' pockets to pay for the labor of other union workers." When pressed for an explanation, management preaches sacrifice for the art and hints at bankruptcy. Directors accuse dancers of "relaxing" artistic standards once they achieve financial security.
The reality, more cold-blooded, is fiscal cunning. Financial managers will cut budgets where the cutting is easiest: dancer's salaries and benefits. In the fall of 1979, shortly before they locked out their dancers, ABT "offered to raise the dancers' salaries by a mere 5 percent, an increase that would have cost ABT only $150,000 during the three-year life of the contract. That was all it could afford, insisted ABT. Shortly thereafter, the company offered Russian defector Alexander Godunov, a yearly salary of $150,000--equal to the total sum ABT was prepared to spend on raises for seventy- seven dancers over three years." At Ballet Theatre, there was clearly no ethical bottom line.
You'd think a quick call to the dancer's union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, might solve the problem? Wrong. As Gordon correctly points out, "AGMA has the reputation of being a 'let's not make waves' organization which is not much better than a 'company union.' " She details some rather shady union complicity with New York City Ballet. Apparently, NYCB dancers seeking advice from a labor lawyer, found their jobs threatened by management. Not a peep from AGMA. With unions like that, who needs scabs?
The reasons that management and AGMA get away with such chicanery become clear as Gordon examines a few more snakes: isolation, lack of education and an "inbred diffidence." To realize their dreams of becoming professionals, dancers must begin their training at an early age (8 to 12 for women, a bit later for men). At this tender age they begin training in a closed environment and are fed dogma that creates a compliant dancer. Teachers, choreographers and directors repeatedly drive the message home: what dancers want, what they think, what they feel is not important. They are merely tools, used to build another person's creation. "Dance is the art of sacrifice and deprivation," states Gordon, "not fulfillment and gratification."
Schooling generally falls short of a meaningful high-school education. Peers and role models are almost exclusively fellow dancers. As students work towards professional status, their external reference points dwindle and disappear. Finally, they become what their ballet mothers, their teachers, and their companies want them to be, namely: "pinheads" as they are called in current trade lingo.
If there is a bogeyman in this story, he is the late George Balanchine. Genius choreographer he may have been; but, according to Gordon, he was the paragon of the "ballet dictator." His dancers seemed mesmerized; he represented everything--father, friend, lover. One of his company, Toni Bentley, describes being "bare, naked, exposed" beneath his gaze and, in the next breath, rejoices, "We are all his children." Like a Moonie, another ballerina intones, "You must have the belief that he is a god." Some suggest that this slavish devotion is necessary for the maintenance of high artistic standards. More thoughtful critics reply that more great art is generated by free thinkers than by sychophants.
Balanchine is also largely responsible for the esthetic that demands extreme thinness in a female dancer. This brings us to the deadliest snake: anorexia nervosa, the disease enabling many weight-obsessed dancers to starve their way to the "perfect" body. Rachel Maiorano explains, "When you're a teenage girl and you begin to get your period and breasts and hips, a very strange thing happens. You don't want them. It's very ironic." It's more than ironic: it's deeply disturbing.
Yet Balanchine has had many allies in his war against hormones and flesh. Gordon wisely hands them a rope and then lets them swing on their own words. Dance critic Norma McLain Stoop, cheerfully oblivious to the latest diet trends, loves "the fact they (dancers) practically live on peanut butter sandwiches or the equivalent." She is also quite comfortable that "they really do not get paid." Another critic, Arlene Croce, applauds the dancer, "with the body of a pubescent girl, the bones of a sparrow," who has "dispensed with all angles of her body . . . with recalcitrant flesh." "How does a dancer get to be so transparent?" she exults. Try starvation and laxatives for lunch, Arlene. Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine's financial mentor, comments compassionately on the consequences of anorexia, "So they don't get their periods. So what?" So, Gordon tells us, there is a former New York City Ballet dancer dying of anorexia in a New York hospital and others are in danger.
Suzanne Gordon obviously intends to shock. She succeeds. She has contributed a valuable and brutally realistic addition to our ballet library. I hope that dancers, their parents, and their audience will read this book and become angry enough to fight for a change., The next time you watch, enthralled, as a "transparent" ballerina bourr,es across the stage, remember where she's been and what's waiting for her when she reaches the wings.