Monday is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, with each Monday featuring a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). They’ll eventually repeat, but for now, we’re still on the initial installments of each of the various “Grab Bag” legends!
This is the first in a series of examinations of legends related to the world of dance and whether they are true or false.
This week, all the legends specifically relate to ballet!
DANCING LEGEND: Ron Cunningham had a rather painful introduction to the world of ballet.
An interesting aspect of ballet training is the fact that almost all ballet dancers begin their training at an extremely young age, very often pre-adolescence. This is because ballet is extremely demanding on the human body, and it often asks people to do things with their bones and muscles that is just flat-out unnatural.
Ron Cunningham learned this first hand when he decided to become a ballet dancer late in his life.
Cunningham was in school in Chicago and he was almost finished with his schooling for a degree in business when, at the age of 23 (that’s about 139 in dancer years) he saw a Royal Ballet performance by legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev and that’s when he decided that he, too, was going to be a dancer.
So he dropped out of college and began taking ballet classes – he first started in beginner’s classes, he, a 23 year old guy in a room of 8 year old girls, but soon, his raw talent saw him excel at higher level classes – he soon was taking pretty much every class he could find, so he was taking beginner, intermediary AND expert classes – all at the same time!
Eventually, his resolve was rewarded when he began getting small roles in Chicago during the mid-60s.
But again, remember, a standard dancer’s body has been trained for ballet for YEARS – Cunningham was trying to get this done in much less time, so when he got a job working as a background performer in a Royal Ballet performance (starring the great Nureyev), his role was a simple one – in the final act of the ballet, Cunningham was to stand in the back of the stage during the act while holding a spear in a traditional hold position. When the curtains came down, he was to leave the stage, allowing the principals to come out and take their bows.
Fair enough, right?
Well, when the curtains came down, Cunningham went to move and discovered that he COULDN’T! His body had LOCKED itself in the hold position! As the stars came out for their bows, he was still dragging himself off stage!
Luckily for Cunningham, his career blossomed later in the decade and in the late-70s, he got a primo gig at the Boston Ballet as their principal dancer and head choreographer. Here is Cunningham in 1979.
He worked at the Boston Ballet for 13 years and in 1988, he took over as the Artistic Director (along with his wife, Carinne Binda) for the Sacramento Ballet Company, a position he has held to this day.
Not bad for a guy who was in business classes at the same age Nureyev was touring Europe as the male principal of the Russian Ballet!
Thanks to Emily Hite for her interview with Ron Cunningham and thanks to Cunningham for the information! Check out more great dancer stories in Mindy Aloff’s Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance
DANCING LEGEND: Gelsey Kirkland made herself intentionally sick so that she would not be able to do the film The Turning Point.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
Gelsey Kirkland has led a rather tumultuous life as one of the most famous American ballerinas in history.
She joined the New York City Ballet under famed choreographer George Balanchine in 1968 when she was only 15 years old. By 1969, she was a soloist and by 1972 she was principal.
Later in the decade she joined famed ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov at the American Ballet Theater, where they performed probably her most famous role, opposite Baryshnikov in the 1977 televised performance of The Nutcracker…
Later, she even made the cover of Time magazine in 1978 for her performance in Swan Lake. Kirkland was a star.
Hollywood did not fail to notice the buzz that was surrounding the American Ballet Theatre during the mid-to-late 1970s, so in 1976, Arthur Laurents (who certainly had no lack of experience with the world of theater and dancing, having written the book for the classic Broadway musicals West Side Story and Gyspy) wrote the script for the film The Turning Point, with the movie centering upon two old friends, one (Shirley MacLaine) who gave up ballet stardom to raise a family and the other (Anne Bancroft) who went on to become a prima ballerina. Now Bancroft is offering MacLaine’s daughter a position in her ballet company. The reunion brings back old memories for the two friends, both good and bad.
The ballet company in the movie is made up of American Ballet Theatre stars, including Baryshnikov (the director of the film, Herbert Ross, also choreographed for the ABT). MacLaine’s daughter was to be played by Kirkland.
However, Kirkland was removed from the film because of health problems. At five foot four inches, Kirkland was only 80 pounds! In addition, she was suffering severe potassium deficiency.
Kirkland was replaced by her understudy, Leslie Browne, who went on to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for her performance in the film. Here is Director Ross lifting Browne (with Baryshnikov in the background)…
Okay, so the question at hand here revolves around Kirkland’s intent at the time. In her auto-biography, Kirkland stated that she made herself sick so that she would not have to do the film.
Well, there is a problem with – mostly because if you read Kirkland’s biographies, she’s pretty much unwilling to take any blame for anything that went wrong in her life, laying the blame at first Balanchine, then Baryshnikov and, in the case of The Turning Point, her desire to have no dealings with Hollywood.
So when she says that it was her decision to make herself sick, should we believe her?
It’s extremely difficult to discern motive like this, but I tend to agree with her, basically because while she was already anorexic, her bulimia surfaced when the movie began casting – she dropped from the mid-90s in weight to the low-80s in a very short span of time. Then, after the film was filmed, she recovered from her bulimia.
Remember, her greatest performances were all AFTER the filming of The Turning Point, when she was in her mid-20s. Heck, her most famous performance was in 1977 (the aforementioned Nutcracker), which was the same year that the film came out!
Also note that Browne, the woman who replaced her in the film, ALSO ended up turning down multiple film roles after the filming of The Turning Point.
I think there’s something to be said for the fact that these women’s personalities did not lend themselves to pursuing film stardom. Heck, Browne was VERY vocal about not wanting a film career, yet she took acting and singing classes for awhile after The Turning Point. Almost certainly it is because that was what was expected of her – and that surely seems to be the same case for Kirkland – she was told she should do the movie, so she tried out for the movie, but her form of silent protest was to make herself so skeletal that they couldn’t possibly cast her.
As the decade went on, while Kirkland beat her bulimia, her addiction to cocaine (which also began aroudn the same time) worsened, and by the beginning of the 1980s, she was replaced at the ABT, as she just was too unreliable. She officially left the ABT in 1984. She eventually overcame her drug addiction during the 80s, and spent a number of notable years performing ballet in Britain before retiring from active dancing.
She has been a highly-sought out ballet teacher ever since.
In the end, it is obviously very difficult to tell what is “self-destructive behavior” (bulimia and cocaine addiction) and what is “intentional self-destructive behavior” (forced weight loss through vomiting), but for now, at least, I’ll give Kirkland the benefit of the doubt – it’s not like “I intentionally made myself dangerously sick so that I wouldn’t have to do a movie” is exactly behavior to be PROUD of, after all.
DANCING LEGEND: Marie Taglioni was the first ballet dancer to dance en pointe.
En pointe is a form of ballet that involves presenting the ballerina on the tips of her toes. Ballerinas wear specialized shoes to support this maneuver, which, as you might imagine, can be practically devastating to a ballerina’s toes and feet.
Like I mentioned in the Cunningham legend, this is one of the more notable parts of ballet that requires a large amount of training to make the body capable of doing such a maneuver.
The invention of the en pointe in ballet is often credited to Marie Taglioni, a legendary ballet dancer of the 19th Century (she was born in 1804 and died in 1884).
Taglioni danced en pointe in 1831.
That is often credited as the first ballet performance using en pointe, but really, it is generally a case of the more famous person getting credit instead of less famous people.
Genevieve Gosselin and Amalia Brugnoli BOTH danced ballet using en pointe before Taglioni.
However, Taglioni certainly POPULARIZED the technique, and heck, you might give her credit for developing the technique, as the previous uses of the maneuver were done more for “wow, look at that!” rather than as it is used today, as a graceful extension of the overall aesthetic beauty of te dance, which is how Taglioni used it.
But you’ll often read that she was the FIRST dancer to dance en pointe (a quick search brought up “Marie was the first person on pointe ever”) and that’s simply not the case.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments, particularly other themes for future grab bag Mondays! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org