books: dancing for balanchine, by merrill ashley

It’s a quick read and an interesting read, this book that Merrill Ashley put out a year after Balanchine’s death. It feels like Ashley…and that’s not her original name, we find out, a classmate stole her actual name…it feels like she is just sitting with you over a cup of tea, chatting about some of the interesting milestones and epiphanies in her dancing life. What ties them all together is her quest to understand the subtleties of technique.
Some of the interesting points I’ll take away from this book are: (1) things look really different from the audience’s perspective than they do from backstage or in the studio; and (2) so much learning and adjusting happens even after a dancer feels that s/he is ready, that s/he has arrived.

There’s this fascinating passage where Ashley’s boyfriend admits that she always looks like she is in pain when she’s onstage. (He finally confesses this to her after a successful debut, when they are out dancing for fun at a club and he gets bowled away by the myriad expressions of exhilaration that cross her face.) It turns out she had no idea. I’ve seen this look on other dancers, and what’s so horrific is that it can totally ruin the effect of their dancing for some of us. All that hard work and pain… The effort that allows them to do the step gets in the way of us enjoying the step. What a crazy art. And how amazing when a dancer realizes it, changes it, and becomes transcendent!

You’ll probably only find a used copy of this book, but even a used copy would be a good gift for the ballet-lover in your life, whether it’s a young dancer or an audience member who wants to get a better sense of what a dancer’s life is like. I thoroughly enjoyed zipping through it…except for the last few pages, which read like a stilted cover letter in a job application. I’ll go back to this thoughtful, well-written look at Merrill Ashley’s experience as a dancer with Balanchine, but it’ll probably be for the pictures, which are not all gorgeous but which are certainly interesting. There are several series of photos—enough, but not too many—where she breaks down the steps. Take a look at her tendu from the side…

photos by, I think, Jack Vartoogian
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Seattle Public Library carries the book. Here’s the call #: 792.82092 As35D