Five Favorite Books About Ballet

When I was five, my mother, May Ishimoto, signed me up for ballet lessons. I loved the classes and especially the recitals, for which our teacher, Roy Gean, who later co-founded the Maryland Youth Ballet, recruited my mother to sew costumes. One enchanted evening, Mr. Gean took a group of students to see ballet legends Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev perform in Baltimore. No one imagined that one day my mother would work with those stars.

I moved on to guitar lessons, but Mr. Gean, a dancer with D.C.'s short-lived National Ballet, remembered my mother. He recommended her to be the National Ballet's wardrobe mistress, which she was from 1962 to 1971. The New York City Ballet eventually came calling, and she worked there from 1971-1973, before becoming American Ballet Theatre's wardrobe mistress until her retirement in 1990, during Mikhail Baryshnikov's artistic directorship.

Out of my mother's hundred or so books about ballet in her apartment, which is decorated with signed ballet posters, I've gathered five of her favorites:

1. Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, by George Balanchine.
A timeless guide published in 1954 by the late revered artistic director and prolific choreographer of the New York City Ballet. "I still use it for reference," says my mother, holding her signed copy, "for the stories of all the ballets."

2. A Dance Autobiography, by Natalia Makarova.
The story of the Russian-born ballerina with the Kirov Ballet who defected to the West in 1980 and became a star of ABT. "Natasha was a temperamental performer," my mother tells me. "If she had artistic complaints about her costumes, I always gave in and made the changes. It was good, reading her book, to find out about her life."

3. Dancing on My Grave, by Gelsey Kirkland.
This candid, controversial 1986 autobiography by one of George Balanchine's most dazzling ballerinas, tells of her rise, descent into cocaine addiction, and triumphant professional comeback. "I met Gelsey at the NYC Ballet when she was 16," says my mother, "and worked with her when she came to the ABT in 1974 until she resigned in 1984. I ran into her after her book came out and told her, 'When you were with ABT, you made my life hell, but I still love you.' She gave me a pitiful smile and a hug. I read her book twice."

4. Distant Dances, by Sono Osato.
The 1980 autobiography of a half Irish-American, half Japanese dancer, who, at the age of 14, joined the fabled Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, became a ballerina with Ballet Theatre, and a Broadway star. "She came to ABT to help with a ballet and seemed so glamorous to me," my mother remembers. "She was a very kind, nice lady, and her book is very interesting."

5. In a Rehearsal Room, photographs by Susan Cook, text by Robin Woodard.
A 1976 portrait of ABT principal dancers Cynthia Gregory and Ivan Nagy. "In this book I learned more about what goes on in rehearsals," says mother. "I knew Cynthia and Ivan and the choreographer, Bill Carter. Cynthia was one of my favorite dancers. She never had hysterics. She was always a lady, like Margot Fonteyn. Ivan was a beautiful dancer, a good partner. He was always polite. He treated me so well, so when I see this book, it makes me feel good." My mother, who is writing her own memoir, and Ms. Gregory still send each other Christmas cards.

What books about ballet or the performing arts do you love?

-- Mary Morris

By Christian Pelusi |  August 14, 2008; 10:47 AM ET Mary Morris
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One of the favorites in my house, and which I loved as a girl, is "A Very Young Dancer" by Jill Krementz. It is out of print, which is a crime!

Posted by: Gayle | August 15, 2008 12:38 AM

Ms. Morris,
Bless you!
You'll probably get one or two comments on this blog, not more, because the ballet world is very small. And shrinking. But it's very passionate.
And I love that you did this.
Thank you. thank you!
NOW, for my favorite book. It's Margot Fonteyn's autobiography. Published by Knopf some time in the '70s or '80s, I think. She was the most UN-SHOWY ballerina who ever danced. But a great one. And her book is full of that natural nobility.

Posted by: Angelina | August 15, 2008 10:18 PM

Thursday's Children by Rumer Godden

Posted by: Ballet Fan | August 16, 2008 2:15 PM

Winter Season by Toni Bentley.

Posted by: toeshoes | August 16, 2008 7:56 PM

I don't know it it's still in print, but I have an oversize book of photos from Fonteyn and Nureyev's partnership that follows their partnership (it's called Fonteyn & Nureyev: The Great Years) by Keith Money and it is stunning. The text really gave me insight into their personalities and how well they worked together. There are so many great ballet books, but this one is my favorite photo book. I still love my old copy of Basic Principles of Classical Ballet by Vaganova, too.

Posted by: Tracy | August 17, 2008 8:54 AM

Can anyone recommend some good ones for children? My wife had an old copy of Margot Fonteyn's Swan Lake, which my daughter has enjoyed. But we're always looking for more for our 8 yr old ballerina.

Posted by: Dave | August 17, 2008 12:51 PM

"A Very Young Dancer" is out of print? What a shame! I had that when I was a kid.

I remember also having a kids' novel (in fact, I think I still have it) called "Ballet Shoes," which follows three sisters in WWII London. They're entered in a performing arts academy, and we watch them through the years as one becomes an actress, one a dancer, and one an aviator. Haven't read it in, I would say, 25 years, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy, but I believe it did detail the drudgery as well as the glory that comes with performing arts success.

I remember reading "Dancing on My Grave" in high school and liking it, but the other books listed here really sound wonderful. I'll have to look them up.

Posted by: KLeewrite | August 18, 2008 10:07 AM

For children (and discerning adults), I would recommend Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, A Dream of Sadler's Wells by Lorna Hill, the Drina books by Mabel Esther Allan, and the Susie books by Lee Wyndman.

Posted by: Lillian | August 22, 2008 6:28 PM

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