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Don't Think, Dear

Don't Think, Dear

A new book on George Balanchine questions whether ballet is a toxic art form.

Robert Steven Mack
Don't Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet
by Alice Robb (Mariner Books, 304 pp., $17.19)

“Don’t Think, Dear, Just Do.” This mantra belonged to famed Russian-Georgian choreographer George Balanchine, founder of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and the focus of Alice Robb’s book Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet. Part personal memoir, part critique of ballet and specifically of Balanchine, Robb’s book traces her experiences at the School of American Ballet that Balanchine co-founded.

Sometimes the glamor ends at the edge of the stage lights. Through various anecdotes, Robb questions a ballet culture that conditions dancers to accept the hardships of the field as the price of carrying forward Balanchine’s legacy. Much of Robb’s focus is on the traits that the Balanchine school purportedly instilled in young dancers—stoicism, silence, and submission—traits that often serve women poorly in society.

The School of American Ballet dismissed Robb when she was only twelve and she stopped training three years later. As she grew older, she began to see the world that she had so wanted to be a part of as deeply toxic. She tells of one classmate who confronted Asian stereotyping, another deemed thin enough only when she was unable to keep food down, and another who spent her first season at NYCB dancing eight shows a week on an injured foot. Ultimately, she places general blame on ballet for adversely influencing women to exhibit more passive behavior, to have a negative body image, and to tolerate excessive levels of pain.

Robb argues that dancers consciously neglect their own health as part of an entrenched ethos. Many blame Balanchine for shortening dancers’ careers due to injury. But the issue Robb devotes more time to is how ballet conditions dancers to self-sabotage. One scientific study, the “cold pressor test,” showed that when ballet dancers and a control group both submerged their hands in ice water, the dancers demonstrated a higher pain threshold but also experienced pain more intensely. This perverse satisfaction in working through intense pain to achieve balletic perfection manifests itself in strange ways. Robb recounts how several former dancers filled the void with sexual sadism, and she relays in great detail former dancer Toni Bentley’s intimate take on the subject.

Robb recounts a familiar litany of criticisms leveled against Balanchine, such as his insistence on the “perfect” ballet body and his problematic affairs with much younger dancers. She refers us to Suzanne Farrell, who was fifteen years old when she joined the School of American Ballet. Her precocious talent attracted Balanchine’s attention and, in typical fashion, Balanchine fell in love with her. When Farrell rejected his proposal for marriage, “Balanchine punished her by firing her husband and finally—although she was one of the most beloved ballerinas in New York—dismissing her, too.” According to Robb, it was the costume mistress who informed Farrell in her dressing room that she had been fired.

The question remains whether, as Robb insists, ballet is inherently antiquated toward women. Should we really blame a patriarchal system for dancers choosing “Freed pointe shoes over Gaynor Minden shoes,” getting drawn to sexual sadism, or for any number of disconnected things Robb links anecdotally to ballet? Is it true that Balanchine thought that women should not think for themselves, or was there something else behind his “ballet is woman” dictum?

Bettijane Sills, professor of dance at Purchase College, warned longtime ballet critic Mindy Aloff that, “There is so much negativity floating around about Balanchine on the internet and among students that those of us who are proponents of his style and technique and are teaching in college dance programs are in danger of becoming irrelevant.” Robb’s book certainly capitalizes on that narrative, reducing Balanchine to the worst of gossip and allegation. The problem is that she spotlights dancers who generally only harbor resentments; interviews with dancers who seem to have worked successfully with Balanchine are noticeably missing. In her book Why Dance Matters (2023), Aloff worries that bitterness toward the past threatens ballet’s future.

In my estimation, as a professional ballet dancer familiar with Balanchine’s work, Robb’s premise that the choreographer was patronizing to his female dancers falls short. According to John Clifford, a former principal dancer with NYCB, Balanchine’s remark of “Don’t think, dear” meant, “don’t calculate. He was a believer in living for the moment. . . . When you’re performing, he didn’t want you to get in your own head. He wanted you to be free.” Balanchine hardly envisioned his dancers as empty vessels; he encouraged them to be curious about the world—even recommending they read authors such as Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, Cervantes, and Shakespeare.

It can be said that “Don’t think” ethos is behind the success of any athlete or craftsman that relies on the fine-tuning of instinct over analysis. As a dancer who did not train in the Balanchine style until college, I too raised an eyebrow when a teacher told me, “Don’t think, just do.” I would ask myself, If my dancing needs work, should I not analyze the problem? But achieving artistry often requires learning when to “throw away the book;” paradoxically, only then can you interpret the music and steps as your own.

The mystique of ballet comes just as much from the ethereal characters it creates as from the inherent difficulties of the dance technique. Yet the ballet world Robb paints is not ennobling, but more akin to the toxic environments found in the 2014 film Whiplash, in which a teacher abuses his student into “greatness,” and the 2010 film Black Swan, in which the archetypal ballerina spirals out of control in the grip of her obsessions with perfection. In reducing ballet to unhinged obsession and power struggles, Robb’s book can’t help but reinforce these caricatures. Yet many dancers I know indignantly protest them.

Robb leaves us wondering whether ballet is truly an anachronistic artform, whether reform is possible, and what that reform should look like. Aloff, for one, wonders whether the growing movement for revisionism in ballet “may irreparably damage the exterior beauty that kept those works alive for more than a century.” A fundamental reason Balanchine may be falling out of favor is his ars gratia artis outlook: “Dancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful.” Like the mantra from the classic MGM logo, this sentiment looks sadly like a relic from a bygone era.

While many ballet dancers will dismiss this book for trafficking in gossip, Robb’s anecdotes will resonate with some. After all, Robb is right that dancers should be able to criticize an artistic creator and recognize his achievements. Today, the ballet world surely could take more aggressive action against the abusive behaviors found within the industry; in the wake of allegations that forced Balanchine’s NYCB successor Peter Martins’ resignation in 2018, that conversation is already under way. Yet Robb ignores too much important context, oversimplifies too many of the issues, and seemingly limits her sources to those with an axe to grind. We must take her with a hefty grain of salt.

Robert Steven Mack, a research associate at American Purpose, is a professional ballet dancer, filmmaker, and writer. He is pursuing a master of public administration in media, the arts, and public policy at the O‘Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University.

Image: Young dancers prepare to go on stage. (Unsplash: Kazuo Ota)

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