5 Memoirs Written by New York City Ballet Ballerinas

New York City Ballet, founded in the 1940s by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, is considered by many to be the epitome of prestige in American ballet...

Today, the company sits among the most famous and highly regarded ballet companies in the world.

Despite its acclaim, NYCB has come under public scrutiny on more than one occasion — this scrutiny usually surrounds the company's tendency to allow artistic leadership to preside unchecked, without any clear system of checks and balances.

The unquestioned leadership of one man at a time, first choreographer George Balanchine and then his predecessor Peter Martins, created an unusual company culture that some would describe as toxic, especially for the dancers.

These days, leadership at NYCB looks quite a bit different, with two artistic directors, Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan, leading the company in a more modern and collaborative fashion.

Regardless of past controversies, NYCB is undoubtedly a pillar of excellence in ballet — adored by countless ballet fans — and home to many of the world’s greatest dancers.

If you've ever wondered what it's REALLY like to dance for NYCB, if you've ever wished you could be a fly on the wall at the NYCB studios and theater — then you're in luck. Here are five detailed, honest memoirs written by a few of the company's most famous ballerinas...

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Dancing Through It by Jenifer Ringer

#1) Dancing Through It by Jenifer Ringer

Jenifer Ringer joined NYCB in 1990 at the age of sixteen.

In Dancing Through It, Ringer tells the story of how an eating disorder almost ended her ballet career — but of how she recovered and ultimately went on to have a long, successful tenure at NYCB, even being promoted to principal dancer in the year 2000.

Ringer also shares an interesting milestone of her life: she received a throng of media attention in 2010, when New York Times reviewer Alastair Macaulay wrote that, on stage, Ringer "looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many."

Macaulay’s review went viral.

Many of Ringer’s fans were aware of her previous struggles with an eating disorder, and as a result, felt a collective sense of outrage toward Macaulay.

Thousands of people rose to Ringer’s defense, which was a surreal but also encouraging experience for her.

She ended up discussing the review and her reaction to it on national television, in appearances on both Oprah and The Today Show.

Winter Season by Toni Bentley

#2) Winter Season by Toni Bentley

Toni Bentley joined NYCB in 1975 at the age of eighteen.

Written in the style of a diary, Bentley’s memoir is titled Winter Season because it is her day-to-day account of her life as a corps de ballet dancer during the winter season of 1980.

She was twenty-two years old at the time, and she felt restless and discouraged. She turned to writing to help herself process her experiences and to find herself outside of dance.

The result is a time capsule of life at NYCB, a window into what it was like to spend one’s days dancing at this world-famous company in the early 1980s.

Her descriptions of the minutiae of ballet company life are detailed and fascinating.

She also does an excellent job of describing the atmosphere of NYCB toward the end of the era and reign of Balanchine as choreographer and artistic director — he would succomb to illness just three years later in 1983.

Bentley elegantly communicates the beauty, but also the pain, of life in the professional ballet world.

The next two books on our list are also written by Balanchine-era ballerinas…

Dancing On My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland

#3) Dancing on My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland

Gelsey Kirkland joined NYCB in 1968 at the age of fifteen.

Her life as a dancer was rife with struggle, and Dancing on My Grave covers difficult topics such as child abuse, domestic violence, sexism, drug abuse, and eating disorders.

Kirkland is a deeply sensitive and artistic soul who experiences the world in an intense way, thus giving her the ability to eloquently and articulately communicate the story of her life, especially the unique challenges she faced as professional ballet dancer under the artistic directorship of Balanchine.

While many readers admire Kirkland for her vulnerability and brutal honesty, others do not.

Her writing casts a dark shadow over Balanchine, who is almost unequivocally revered in the American ballet world. Thus, her book has been a point of controversy, especially at the time it was published.

Some consider the next book on this list, by NYCB ballerina Suzanne Farrell, to be a response to Kirkland’s critical accounts of Balanchine. Although the two ballerinas shared similar struggles in their careers, Farrell, unlike Kirkland, remained staunchly supportive of Mr. B and his work.

Holding Onto the Air by Suzanne Farrell

#4) Holding Onto the Air by Suzanne Farrell

Suzanne Farrell joined NYCB in 1961 at the age of fifteen. Just four years later, she would be promoted to principal dancer.

Farrell was one of Balanchine’s most famous muses.

She had more than one-hundred works created just for her during her time at the company, which spanned from 1961-1989. Retiring in her forties, she had unusually long ballet career for her generation.

Farrell wrote Holding Onto the Air in collaboration with Toni Bentley, the author of Winter Season.

Farrell is quite honest and frank about controversies that took place at the company during her years there, making this an interesting read. However, while she is forthright, her book is not as dark as Kirkland’s Dancing On My Grave and it never become a serious point of controversy in the dance world.

That is not to say that her life in the company under Balanchine's leadership was without difficulty — their personal relationship was a struggle, mostly because Balanchine wanted an intimate relationship with her and she was not interested.

Their conflict ultimately resulted in Balanchine dismissing Farrell and her husband from the company. Balanchine eventually allowed her to return to NYCB — but he never fully let go of his grudge. (He did not allow her husband to return to the company.)

Farrell, on the other hand, was extremely forgiving toward Balanchine.

In Balanchine's Company by Barbara Milberg Fisher

#5) In Balanchine’s Company by Barbara Milberg Fisher

Milberg-Fisher first danced with Balanchine’s short-lived company Ballet Society, which soon transformed into what we now know as NYCB.

Thus, having joined even before its inception, she is a founding dancer of NYCB.

She danced with the the company for twelve years, and during her career, she was promoted to soloist.

In her memoir, In Balanchine’s Company, Millberg-Fisher tells not only the story of her life in ballet, but also the history of how NYCB was founded and ultimately became one one of the top ballet companies in the world. In her book, Milberg primarily focuses on George Balanchine and his work as artistic director and choreographer.

After her dance career, Millberg-Fisher went on to become a professor of English, and In Balanchine’s Company is peppered with references to literature and history, making it a unique blend of memoir, ballet history, and scholarship.

There you have it! Five detailed, beautifully written memoirs about life at NYCB. Each of these dancers have given us a tremendous gift by offering us a piece of their hearts and minds in the form of a book.