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20 February 2009

"When I am dancing, I know who I really am."

Book review: Once a Dancer, An Autobiography, by Allegra Kent.

I’ve loved ballet since I was 8 years old and saw Alicia Markova and Jacques D’Amboise dance “Coppelia” at Stern Grove in San Francisco. That was in 1945. From then on I kept scrapbooks of magazine articles about ballet dancers, read everything I could find about dancing, and the summer I was 9, I even talked my grandmother into enrolling me in a beginning ballet class at the Ft. Bragg grange hall in northern California. During my first lesson, Grandma noticed that both my knee joints were swollen and swept me off to the doctor, who said I had rheumatic fever. End of my ballet dreams, but not of my interest.

Reading Allegra Kent’s autobiography (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) was a thrill. Born Iris Cohen, she started lessons relatively late (at age 9) but excelled in both athletic ability and imaginative gifts. Later she joined the New York City Ballet at 16, the youngest member of the company. George Balanchine choreographed some of his best-known dances especially for her.

Allegra was a choreographer’s dream. She was small (she weighed 100 pounds, and if she gained even 5 pound she worked it off at the barre). She was athletic, with a strict regimen of daily attendance at class (even after childbirth), muscle massages, and swimming exercises with water wings attached to her ankles (her own invention). Balanchine described her as “bendable.” She could do a perfect split standing up–one leg straight up over her head.

Kent had a distinctly unique gift as a dancer--an imagination that could transport her physical body into a character with sensitivity and exquisite nuance. And often an unexpected dash of humor, which enchanted Balanchine.

Outside of dancing, though, her life was a mess. Abandoned by her father, dominated by her mother, involved with first no men at all and then a real rake hooked on drugs, she was gun-shy for years. She reveled in motherhood, bore three children, all gifted in the arts, but all her life she scratched for money to raise them on her own. Her late-in-life love died young (at 60), after only four years together.

Like many talented artists, Allegra was her own worst enemy. She trusted the wrong people, struggled with stage fright all her performing life, and, inevitably, she grew older. Over the years he kept her body in shape for dance, had very few injuries and consistently substituted for other dancers who did, and sometimes ended up dancing eight ballets in a single weekend.

Allegra Kent was the oldest member of the ballet company, still performing at 50, when her mentor Balanchine died. New young talents (Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland) were joining the company and Allegra was finally eased out of the troupe.

She was devasted. She had held onto dancing because “When I am dancing, I know who I really am.” In the following years she taught at ballet academies, coached other dancers in various ballet troupes, and performed in special “gala”concerts to which she was invited for a starring role.

What is most impressive to me is that she never gave up. She worked at dance; she sacrificed for her children; she loved unwisely and she suffered great losses. But each time she picked herself up, packed up her leotard and pointe shoes, and marched off to her daily regimen of classes.

Sound familiar?

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7 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Wow, Lynna! I love Allegra Kent -- my mother went to school with her and used to tell me stories about how she would dance on the cafeteria tables at lunch time. I saw her dance at NYCB when I was a little girl -- along with Jacques D'Amboise, Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Gelsey Kirkland (who I also saw dance with ABT) and my very first crush -- Edward Villela. What I never knew is about Allegra Kent's childhood (and her very unprepossessing given name). Thank you so much for this nostalgic trip!

3:24 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn denis said...

Yep, Lynna, I remember wanting to run away to NY and be a dancer...devoted so much time in elementary, jr and high school to ballet classes--refusing to recognize at 5 ft 11 inches tall, it was unlikely that I would rise to stardom. ;-)

Didn't keep me from trying though.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

What a wonderful story and very inspirational. I think we can all appreciate that kind of devotion to our art. Still I look at her life and think, how did she do it? How did she keep getting up time after time? Amazing.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think there's something about the temperament of professional dancers; they are so disciplined and so motivated from an early age that it remains ingrained. As writers, we can learn from that! Also, because most dancers begin to study when they are so young (even at age 9, which is "late") and have to devote so many hours to perfecting their technique and artistry, there is little time left for anything else, so they often don't know much more than how to dance. I know several professional dancers who modestly refer to themselves as "stupid" but they admit that academics and everything else took a back seat to dance. It was their all-consuming passion, and as with anything to do with one's body, if you stop for even a couple of days you get rusty and injury-prone. So even as adults when they became injured or too old to compete with some of their colleagues for some of the more technically demanding roles, they had no choice but to pick themselves up and shoulder that dance bag, because it was all they knew. And sometimes, it was all they loved. A lot of dancers sacrificed relationships and family for their art. Balanchine was notorious for hating it when his dancers got married and he found ways to "punish" them for falling in love with something else besides ballet.

One of my favorite movies remains "The Turning Point" with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. They play former friends (and rivals), but MacLaine chose to retire and raise a family, while Bancroft chose to pursue ballet to superstardom -- which she achieved, but at the cost of any deep or fulfilling personal relationships. Each woman envies what the other has.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the post, Lynna -- I also saw Allegra Kent dance when I was a child (and loved her name as well as her dancing -- who knew?).

And you're right, it does all sound familiar. Though less familiar, and considerably wilder, is Gelsey Kirkland's memoir -- the title of which I don't remember, because I always think of it as She Slept With Barishnikov.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I believe the title of Gelsey's bio is "Dancing On My Grave." I read it when it first came out. Her affair with Baryshnikov is fictionalized in the film "The Turning Point" where the fictional version of GK is played by Lesley Browne, though the fictional version of Baryshnikov is played by ... Baryshnikov.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Yes, I wrote about "The Turning Point" a million years ago when it came out, for a fringey film magazine called "Jump Cut." I said, as I remember, that I thought it was more intellectually true to the lives of women than the more toney "Julia," which came out at the same time. And I'd probably still agree with that, except for the Lesley Browne character's meteoric rise to prima ballerina.

5:05 PM  

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