Allegra Kent, "Once a Dancer"
Book, published 1997
Quarantine Curtain Call: The future is always unknown, but right now it’s distinctly hard to think about. Cancelled shows and closed studios make it increasingly more difficult to envision our way out, but do not let ballet’s delicate nature fool you — she is a sturdy and stubborn art form, here for us in sickness as much as she is in health. Join me to twirl around some of the artifacts from her history and maybe we’ll discover something new about the present.
Every domain has its renaissance — its awakening. There was the titular movement of European art that gave us Mona Lisa’s smile or the boom of the smartphone’s development at the turn of the century. There were the Wright Brothers and our ability to defy gravity or the golden age of Hollywood glamor. In history books, we look at these periods as explosions: mushroom clouds of new products, new developments, and new ways of seeing the same world. Like all the rest, ballet had its own renaissance, and Allegra Kent was at the very center.
Ballet’s neoclassical awakening often has one name: George Balanchine. A Russian dancer and choreographer, Balanchine was lured to the United States by Lincoln Kerstein in the 1930s and the two then co-founded the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet in 1934 and 1948, respectively, both of which remain absolute machines in their production of ballet dancers of the modern era. Balanchine is often referred to as the father of American ballet, but he did not work alone. His aesthetic, a revised rulebook of Old World technique, holds massive influences from the vitality of jazz, the musicality of tap, and the sincerely unique talent of the dancers around him. A lot of this development came from his appreciation for dance styles arising out of Black American culture — movements that had previously been dismissed by ballet as uncultured and incorrect — but his system was also founded on the now-romanticized structure of female muses: Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClerc, and Diana Adams came first. Allegra Kent came next. She joined NYCB in 1953 when she was only 15, and stayed until Balanchine’s death in 1983. But Kent’s story is far more complicated than company membership. Her 1997 autobiography, “Once a Dancer,” narrates the oftentimes painful effects of her loneliness and love, of misguided doctors and mysterious directors, of a dangerously influential religion and an ongoing, unshakeable love for dance.
Kent’s book opens on a dark night of dangerously fast driving. Her father, divorced from her mother, hired a stranger to drive his son, daughter, and ex-wife from Southern California to Miami. Kent was barely older than five, but the action of this “continuous driving by a madman” seems to encapsulate the rest of her life: constant movement, continuous unrest. A childhood marked by unstable housing gave way to teenage years spent leaping across different dance studios and finally an adulthood of New York City performances, international tours, and domestic abuse that eventually left Kent and her three children in hiding for extended periods of time. There throughout was Kent’s mother, Shirley, but she offered little comfort — a startlingly controlling force, Shirley’s influence pushed Kent to stay in her broken marriage and base her life in Christian Science, denying the existence of pain and for years turning down a polio vaccine. At the same time, Kent never vilifies her mother, nor anyone else. There are no heroes or anti-heroes to this story — merely humans with flaws. The result is less of a romanticized view of the modern renaissance American Ballerina and more of a frank meditation on mental health.
Kent’s childhood, plagued by anxious phobias and a constant lack of reliable home addresses, created a complexity in her young soul that Balanchine seemed to love. But her relationship to the artistic giant was turbulent — he began choreographing on her when she was only 17, yet offered serious judgement of her choice to marry and have children. Balanchine married many of his other muses, often with huge age gaps between them. At times it feels as though Kent may be confused as to why he didn’t marry her. Her interactions with him are ensnared in mysticism, and she writes that what was left out of their conversations was far more interesting than what was said. Conversely, or perhaps in parallel, Kent's descriptions of him also feel fraught with artistic grief; after 15 years with Kent as his muse, Balanchine abandoned her for Suzanne Farrell, a teenager who became his new inspiration and tormented love interest. Kent remained an on and off member of NYCB for another 13 years but Balanchine never commissioned another work for her. Her sense of betrayal is overwhelming: “I had lost the Atlantic Ocean.”
On the back of the book, a review from the Wall Street Journal says Kent’s writing is “as varied, lucid, and troubling as her dancing.” I never saw her dance, but I can imagine this to be true. Her writing emphasizes the metaphysical, the inner workings of her mind rather than the movements of her arms or legs. The prose is thus beautiful but also deeply insightful: The book is peppered with single sentences that encapsulate entire experiences, many of them painful and all of them multiplex.
In many ways, Kent’s book is thus distinctly emblematic of the ballet renaissance — far more profound than a mere explosion of genius. Behind the growth of 15th century art and philosophy was a severe repression of female bodies and minds, and the smartphone era launched a new field of addictions and negative societal reflections. The Wright Brothers story sits embroiled in controversy over its truth as the verifiable first motor-controlled airplane and we’re still reckoning with the damage created by old-school Hollywood’s disrespect of cultures other than those of White America. So Balanchine had his genius, but also his faults. Ballet has its beauty, but also its inability to help a woman once at its helm.
Much like several dancers this year, Kent never received a retirement performance. There was no pandemic, just a potentially mean-spirited board of directors who fired her after Balanchine’s death. Nevertheless, it seems her story could still have much to teach us now, as we sit embroiled in our own world of unparalleled problems — we do not need a hero, and we perhaps don’t even have a villain. We have humans with flaws who could stand to benefit from a bit more empathy and a lot more good examples. “Dancing well is the best revenge,” she writes. She could indeed be right.