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'In Balanchine's Company: A Dancer's Memoir'

by Barbara Milberg Fisher

book review by Leland Windreich

July, 2005 -- Place

Every new book about George Balanchine adds a new and fresh perspective concerning the personality and creative processes of the great American ballet master.  In telling her own story as a dancer, Barbara Fisher shows how thoroughly linked her life was to the sphere he inhabited and how important his presence was to those who worked with him.

As Barbara Milberg, the author was the daughter of a Brooklyn dentist, and her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents favored a more practical career as a physical education instructor for her.  She was given piano lessons and excelled in performance; but her innate hyperactivity led her to a local ballet teacher named Miss Selma, who, on retirement in Barbara’s second year of training, suggested that the child continue her study at the School of American Ballet in Manhattan.  In time she was taking nine lessons a week, ultimately becoming a charter member of Balanchine’s Ballet Society in 1946, a few months short of her fifteenth birthday.

Milberg worked in Balanchine’s company for twelve years, during which time it emerged as the New York City Ballet, toured the United States and Europe, and became one of the great ballet establishments in the world.  She ultimately achieved the rank of soloist and would inherit a few plum roles.  What mattered to her was the opportunity to be involved with the organization during its genesis and in an intense period of creativity.  Her recall of the making of such masterpieces as “The Four Temperaments” and “Agon” (she danced in the first pas de trios at the premiere) is vivid and exacting, her own musicianship giving her another dimension for appreciation.

It was the love of music and knowledge of its literature that provided Milberg with a closeness to her mentor.  Balanchine loved to talk about his favorite subjects, and she was an eager conversationalist.  Confident, somewhat aggressive, she was not awed by Balanchine’s position of authority in the company.  In one circumstance when the ballet was on tour in Europe and had suffered a demoralizing season in Paris, she asked Balanchine for a  private audience with him, one in which she managed to convince him that what the company needed most was a pep-talk from their usually reticent director.

She tells of the generosity and consideration of the Balanchine management, who provided first-class Atlantic flights for the dancers and full staff, decent accommodations in the better hotels, and the best theatres for performances, even in times when funding was testy.  On the road, the NYCB dancers rarely had to contend with one-night stands, and their wages were always paid on time. As a tourist in foreign lands, Milberg absorbed impressions of the host countries like a sponge and shares them vividly with her readers

Present at the time of tragedy when Balanchine’s fourth wife, Tanaquil Leclercq, was stricken with polio during an engagement in Denmark, the author reveals for perhaps the first time the impact felt by the entire company and the devastating effect on Balanchine.  Suddenly rendered inactive as a director as he took on the exigencies of attending to his stricken wife, he was obliged to abandon his ballet family in the midst of a tour. The dedicated dancers rallied, continuing their assignment with the kind of courage that their mentor inspired.

Milberg’s career as a performer after the Balanchine years involved tours with Jerome Robbins’ Ballets U.S.A., and she accounts for her experiences in a different milieu with her usual insight and wit.  From her career as a dancer she moved on to the study of English literature and is currently professor emeritus at the City College of New York.

To this day, the influence of her mentor Balanchine is omnipresent, and her appreciation of a remarkable association is evident in every page in this delightful book.

Wesleyan University Press, 2006.  211 pp.  Illus.  ISBN: 978-0-8195-6807-6.  $24.95.

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