In my quest to learn about the insular world of ballet, I picked up a few books that were included on a list of the best books about ballet. This one by Toni Bentley was not on it, and that is a travesty.
The book is called Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal. It isn’t a novel; it’s more of a memoir/diary hybrid. Toni Bentley was a dancer in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet in the 80s, and so she gave a firsthand look at the world of ballet that I found so much more enriching than any novel could be.
This book is much different from the previous ballet book I’d read about the “inside life” of a professional NYC ballerina because this one was less dramatized and sentimental—understandable considering it was not a novel at all, but a journal.
In the beginning of the book, Bentley begins by describing how anguished and torn she was about dedicating her life to ballet, because that much dedication to a difficult craft means having to sacrifice most of the things normal people enjoy, things like an education and a social life, not to mention decent health and relative freedom from the imminent threat of injury. Oh, and financial security and job skills, two things that most professional dancers don’t have.
My diary bore witness to the opposite, far more prevalent scenario: the transient joys—doing thirty-two fouettés ending with a double, finding the perfect pair of toe shoes, living in a world saturated with classical music—and the endless angst of not being a star, of realizing I probably never would be a solo dancer despite having talent, opportunity, and that haunting dark shadow called potential. I felt deeply committed, and yet totally powerless, to actualize my dream—which was never to be a star per se, just to be intoxicatingly beautiful as a dancer, for my passion to physically manifest. No small feat, but every dancer’s challenge.
Through the very poetic words of Toni Bentley’s nighttime, often post-performance musings, the New York City Ballet company in the 80s comes to vivid life. Balanchine himself, called the father of American ballet, is a “character” in the narrative, appearing as a benefactor, father figure, and a god. Balanchine’s vision was the one that Bentley and all her colleagues and contemporaries served, perhaps too blindly.
Through Toni’s eyes, we learn about the inner workings of the ballet world, and the narrative is free of the ballet cliches that so often riddle pop culture stories. It’s clear how much Bentley loves ballet, it’s almost as if she has sacrificed her identity, her agency, and her happiness to serve it. At one point, she compares herself to a brush that choreographers like Balanchine use to “paint” their ballet. For the art, she’s willing to let herself be used (and discarded) like a tool. But she does it because she loves it so desperately.
Truly, this book brought ballet to life before my eyes like no other book had done before. I learned that there is a stark, vivid, almost ironic contrast between the beauty we see onstage during a ballet, and the immense physical pain dancers can endure. Inside those pointe shoes are often bleeding, mangled feet, and the rest of a dancer’s body takes a hell of a beating, too. But all of that, to a dancer, is a sacrifice to the art. At one point in the book Bentley writes simply, “Dancing is a commitment that refutes real life.”
And perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in ballet—because dancers occupy a very different reality than we do, lead lives that would be unrecognizable to “pedestrians,” and they do it all with the stoicism and dedication of a monk (a very injured monk). And then, what we see onstage looks utterly perfect to the observer, and their life’s work has been accomplished. Maybe.