WINTER SEASON

A Dancer's Journal

By Toni Bentley

University Press of Florida. 2003. $21.95.

Back in the '80s, I was a young dancer struggling to make it in the Big Bad Apple, broke and despairing of ever having a shot at success. At the time, I was studying ballet with a wonderfully eccentric Romanian, Madame Darvash, who, whenever I failed to execute her commands with the required precision, would scream, "Get my gun; I'm going to shoot you!" Her studio was in the shadows of the famed Lincoln Center, where the New York City Ballet performed, a company filled with otherworldly creatures with superhuman technique. A few of its stars studied with Madame, and I always gaped at them from a safe distance. I was convinced they had it made: They worked for George Balanchine, the world's greatest choreographer. And they had a steady paycheck!

Fortunately for me, I stumbled upon "Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal" (University Press of Florida, 2003, $21.95 paperback), a memoir written by Toni Bentley, then a dancer with City Ballet's corps de ballet. This was a ballet book like no other. Like me, Bentley was a young dancer trying to make it. Like me, she was a dancer who also loved words, and she wrote beautifully. Through her lyrical descriptions of one winter season with City Ballet, performing in endless "Nutcrackers" and hassling with bunions and crippling insecurities, I saw a little of myself.

Reading "Winter Season," I got to eavesdrop on life at City Ballet, from Balanchine's rehearsals to the day-to-day grind of classes and performances that lasted well into the night. It was comforting to know that a dancer's life was hard, no matter where you ended up, and that if your ballet teacher was threatening to shoot you, maybe, just maybe, it was because she thought you had talent. "Winter Season" gave me hope -- fuel that every young artist needs.

-- Teresa Wiltz, arts writer