The NYCB star ballerina picks up an award and reissues a book.
Mon Nov 2 2009
Allegra Kent’s scintillating autobiography, Once a Dancer..., begins with these prescient words: “As a child, I knew I had one great possession: my body. It was little and quick. I lived within it.” -This month, Kent, who danced with the New York City Ballet for more than 30 years, celebrates a couple of milestones. The first is the reissue of her memoir, charming and juicy by turns; the second occurs on Monday 9, when Kent is presented with a Dance Magazine Award. In the program, held at Florence Gould Hall, Janie Taylor of NYCB will perform Kent’s original part in “The Unanswered Question,” in which a ballerina is held aloft, her feet never touching the floor. Interviewing Kent is a little like trying to catch a butterfly without a net. Her ballerina days aren’t exactly over; now she dances with words.
For the Dance Magazine ceremony, you requested that Janie Taylor perform “The Unanswered Question” from Ivesiana. Why did you want her?
Well, she’s done it and she’s beautiful. It’s a piece we don’t get to see that often, but it’s also the first piece that Mr. Balanchine did for me. Ivesiana was so unusual, part of his kind of stories about that figure: the unattainable or metaphysical figure. Or, also, totally physical figure.
But what do you admire about Taylor?
She is almost of another world herself, which great ballet dancers are.
What first drew you to her?
Her imagination, her musicality and individuality. Individual peculiarity. That’s what also drew Balanchine to everyone—their individual qualities—and then he’d create a story or a movement or a dance. Or no story. [Laughs]
Can you take me back to—
1954? Of course! How do you want to travel? By chariot? Apollo’s chariot? Well, I was so new in the company and so hopeful, of course. And then, suddenly, there was my name for this dance on the bulletin board. I thought it was going to be jumping, but it wasn’t. Who was in the company? Maria Tallchief. Tanaquil Le Clercq. Melissa Hayden. They were all great individual ballerinas to watch. And also they would come running back and say, “Your eyes are too round!” “Not enough rouge!” [Laughs] They were all very involved with the company and that was wonderful—the input. Not just from the top, from everyone.
Tell me about the rehearsals.
The music! Oh, the music. No one had really heard that. Ives just wasn’t played. Balanchine discovered music and it wasn’t like there were CDs around; he would just play musical scores. He was so informed about what was happening.
So you’re in the rehearsal for Ivesiana—
“Take your shoes off and climb on the barre.” [Happily] Oh, just let me climb on the barre! I climbed mountains in Ojai Valley [California]. I’ll climb anything in front of me. Well, not the subway. [Laughs]
So you climbed on the barre?
Yeah. In the corner. And then got on the boy’s shoulders. Nobody had any idea; [Balanchine] didn’t give a description. “Step on the boy’s back and straighten up and let go. And when you hear the trumpet, that’s your cue.” I was so thrilled that I had Mr. B’s vote of confidence. That, psychologically? Oh my gosh. Because I basically came from nowhere. I wasn’t brought up anywhere. [Pauses] I was the original understudy for Agon. I like being the original understudy. It has a certain ring to it. At that time, no one had done anything like it. People still refer to [Agon] in their choreography. Not directly, but it expanded ideas of choreography.
Which principal part did you understudy?
Both. But I eventually did Diana Adams’s role. More quickly than I thought. Diana was fragile. She’d be out. Well, dancers are fragile. You have to go see them the minute you discover them. Dancers are also generous. When you get on stage and give a performance, that is generosity.
When you’re an understudy—
You’re in the back of the room where you can really think and watch. And also not have a certain amount of tension; although it’s good to be in the front of the room too. It’s good to be in the room. [Laughs]
What did you observe back there?
Maybe sometimes how I’d change something to suit myself more. Or be inspired by what I saw but always with an idea because you have to put everything on your own body a little bit. Like this poncho you’re wearing. Which is fantastic. Get me my crochet hook! [Laughs] I also crochet, but I don’t have time. We mustn’t go off on crocheting too much, but I made this. [She pulls a blue hat out of her bag.] I don’t have that much time.
You were also famously in Seven Deadly Sins, which paired you with the singer Lotte Leyna.
Oh, I love to sin.
What’s your favorite sin?
My gosh. They’re all so much fun. Maybe sloth is not as much fun, but lust is fun. Changing the costumes was fun. Diving through aluminum foil. Eddie Bigalow would catch me—always. [Laughs]
Do you remember much about it?
I do. But they tried to revive it and they waited too long. Well, Balanchine wanted to revive it, but there were always problems because Lenya wasn’t available; then, Barbra Streisand; then, Bette Midler; then, a union strike. I remember gluttony so well: A scale and an ice cream cone and a back walkover, which I didn’t know how to do. I needed more acrobatic training, but my mother didn’t believe in tap, toe and acrobatic. Those were the schools in those days! But my mother chose really good teachers for me: Carmelita Maracci. Nijinska.
What is a snapshot memory of Nijinska?
Oh! Black pajamas only! In class, she didn’t wear a [Felia] Doubrovska dress. No. There we would go across the room—furious, demonic energy! And she would run over to the pianist and make them do it right when they had the wrong tempo. After class, she was very, very loving. No chewing gum. The other day I was teaching at Barnard and I said to a girl, “Are you chewing gum?” and she said, “No, I’m eating an apple!” I said, “What? Is it green or red?” I didn’t know what to say. No eating apples. No chewing gum. This is an old Russian principle. Not just that. It’s an always principle. But she didn’t know.
Did Nijinska encourage you?
Yeah. And that was wonderful to be encouraged by a teacher. It’s inexplicable why I’m winning this award, but I’m delighted. I got into the ballet company and I watched and watched. I listened. I hadn’t heard any of that music before. I didn’t grow up with classical music; we grew up with the radio. We were a one nutcracker family. And I mean [She cracks a nut with an invisible crank] that kind of nutcracker.
What do you think Balanchine liked about your dancing? Or you?
It’s probably what I like about Janie and so many other people: peculiarities, demonic energy, and of course, spirit. Maybe a natural grace combined with a natural ungracefulness? Maybe it was my spirit in a monster part that he liked. I threw myself in being a Firebird monster. I think he could see passion and I was lucky I was there. I’m not sure what he saw. I thought I was good. I was 15. And I also knew I had a lot to learn, an encyclopedia—the old kind.
No. When we were on tour, almost everyone in the company went sightseeing, I went to ballet class. So he saw dedication. Maria was there, Tanny was there. About three other people were there. [Laughs] I went sightseeing later.
Who is presenting your Dance Magazine award?
Jacques [d’Amboise], my first partner in adagio class. He was swashbuckling. And he didn’t seem to mind that my hair looked a bit disheveled in adagio class. It’s hard to have neat hair! Jacques was great.
Why did you dance well together?
Chemistry. It’s like in Nutcracker-—you get a husband in the first act, but when the curtain goes down... No, it’s admiration, and you can create a romantic fantasy, and as Fellini said, dancing is like lace. I loved dancing Scotch Symphony with him. We did it with the catch, which has since been taken out; it’s too bad. It’s an easy catch. We like tosses. We must toss our ballerinas high and always catch them. Or have a few catchers in the rye. There’s lots of rye in Russia. [Cracks up]
It drives me crazy to watch one ballet you made famous—Bugaku—because I don’t feel like I’ve ever seen it properly performed.
It’s a mix of things. It’s, of course, inward and outward simultaneously. And then what is it? It’s innocent and yet it’s sensual. Things like that weren’t necessarily seen onstage. Actually, look at a dvelopp la seconde. [With one arm straightened, she draws the other intoretire and then stretches it out to the side.] Is that not one of the most thrilling things? The body in ballet is beautiful. And so unreal. The whole idea of pointe shoes. How about that?
Do you still wear them in class?
No. At night.
In your dreams?
[She laughs approvingly.]
I’m onto you now. Do you have dreams where you’ve danced?
Oh, yes. Dreaming is good. My pirouettes in dreams are fantastic.... I think the Greek gods would have wanted to be on pointe. No, let’s forget that.
What didn’t you dance that you wanted to? Liebeslieder Walzer?
And didn’t you tell Balanchine, “No—I’m too busy,” when he asked you to do it?
Oh, why did I do that? Well, I was overwhelmed. We can’t look back. We have to look at this moment. And today is beautiful.
Why did you write Once a Dancer...?
I was writing it more for myself in a way, to find out where I’d been. And to be excited about that again. I was happy that a lot of people liked it. Why not? It’s a story. And everyone has such a different story. I’m so glad that University of Florida is reissuing this book. I was quite thrilled. It took me a long time to write it because I wrote it in longhand and then I put it away and then I brought it out which is sometimes a good thing to do. It’s my ostrich egg. It took a long time to hatch! [Laughs]
How did it help you to have it percolate in that way?
Well, my career, of course, was over and I wanted to revisit it and I was trying to make my sentences pirouette and put a little dance into what I wrote. It was challenging. But it was also destination.
You changed your first name from Iris to Allegra. Did you feel like you had to become a different person?
No! It was easy. Everybody has changed their name.
Well, that’s terrific. Minerva changed it. Was it Athena and then Minerva? My grandparents changed their name when they came to this country. Some people really love their background, but I have no idea what my background is because I just wonder how my relatives got through the middle ages. I hate cold water.
Speaking of water, do you still swim?
I like really warm water. I’m not doing that. But I like my water exercises that I invented. They had a certain amount of humor.
How long have you been teaching ballet at Barnard?
I think I’ve been teaching there for seven years. [The students are] at Barnard and Columbia because they want education, but they also want to dance, so I don’t have the responsibility of the conservatory—it’s different but it’s pure ballet. It’s a place where they can dance. And that’s what they want to do even at 10am on a Friday morning, which is a very tiring moment for the students of this university. I love them. There I am at Barnard, and they have white geraniums outside and magnolia trees. It’s wonderful and it’s a different world.
Once a Dancer...(University Press of Florida, $22.95) is out now; the Dance Magazine Awards are Mon 9 at Florence Gould Hall.