Rebel On Pointe

3 Jan

Wilson, Lee, Rebel on Pointe
Gainesville FL, University Press of Florida, 2014
ISBN:978-0-8130-6008-8, 215 pages, illus., $24,95

Lee Wilson spent her childhood in Delaware, getting involved in dance classes, starting at age four. Lee’s pediatrician advised her mom that dance classes could correct Lee’s pigeon-toed condition. Nothing was mentioned about the difference in the length of inner and outer thigh muscles. A year later it was ballet; tap had not corrected the toed-in position. She describes vividly the process of learning to toe out, the small school recital, she and her brother Trick tap-dancing, and its enlistment of mothers as seamstresses.

Before she starts to talk about acquiring Capezio’s Duro-Toe shoes her second year, she recaps the background of her father, a chemist with Du Pont, and the housewife routine of her mother. Late in her life, her mother told Lee what her pre-marriage, World War II life had been; in U,S. Army Intelligence she was a code breaker, gifted with facility in three languages plus Latin and Greek. Clearly, that skill was funneled into home schooling and assiduous support of dancing classes.

Lee outgrew, literally, her classes in Wilmington, Delaware and started a commute to Washington, D.C., where she studied until the teacher told her she had outgrown the school and pointed her to Saturday classes in Philadelphia with Maria Swoboda. Here Lee encountered a fixed barre, but a revelation in center work. She learned efface and ecarte positions, moving  behind one set of dancers and in front of another. Her description gave me the feeling of being in the class, enhanced by my own brief experience with Mme. Swoboda in New York City in 1951. She started commuting when the  Philadelphia train trip from Wilmington cost sixty-five cents.

Lee writes clearly about the social mores of the time, the norm of women being homemakers and her determination to be able to rely on herself, not being caught in the repetitive and non-creative chores of wifehood. Julia Child was yet to come upon the scene as well as Martha Stewart.

She writes about the understandable argument about earning a living [Dad] and weight [Mother], plus her growing awareness of the dance world, thanks in part by the purchase of a television set by her father.

At the Philadelphia Dance Academy, Lee encountered Alfredo Corvino and James Jamieson, for whom she executed 16 fouetees right and left. Fortuitously, he opened a school in Wilmington, Delaware and placed Lee in his advanced classes. His criticism of her in his first Wilmington class and her realization the work she needed to do convinced her mother she had the grit to become a professional.

Urged on by Jamieson, at thirteen she competed in Highland dancing, eventually winning bronze, silver and gold medals in various competitions.

Lee’s mother saw to it that she attended a private school so her dance training was not interrupted; Lee took classes with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and was considered company material. Her mother pushed her into college entrance exams so she would leave home.

Lee auditioned for Juilliard, aced the dance audition, got a so-so for the piano and was told she was too young to live alone in New York City. Her mother enrolled her in the Professional Children’s School and Lee found herself taking classes with Valentina Pereyaslavec Her description of the floor, the room, the procedures evoke one’s knowledge of what it means to be in a class and trying to establish one’s capabilities. She writes simply and wonderfully about the ambiance, the expectations, and the New York City of 1961, complete with the Automat, even with her academic courses.

She touches on working in commercial shows as well as the nomadic life of dancers, particularly those who have moved from ballet to musical theater. She talks about physical size, what it means in partnering, and how the constant use of toe shoes is the only way to harden one’s foot for that precarious, easily outworn footwear. Her comments includes mention of professional unions, their dues and pensions, although the dollar sign is omitted.

Lee devotes space to joining Mme Persyaslavec’s Professional Class and who she shared class with, with an interesting description of Margot Fonteyn and her method of working to maintain her technique at 40. She also discusses seeing Lucia Chase and the process by which hiring choices are frequently made.

In 1962, however, Lee’s father was posted to Du Pont’s Geneva office for a three year term, and Lee had to decide whether to remain in New York or accompany her family, sailing on the S.S. United States. Lee’s assessment of the dance company situation the year the Ford Foundation made major training grants and New York City Ballet was poised to move to Lincoln Center is excellent.

The next section of the book is devoted to Lee’s relationship to Rosella Hightower, how Hightower encouraged her, and guided her into job openings.

Lee recounts her penury while her family lived in Geneva and her mother reveled in being in Europe, able to travel, freed from the domestic routine back in the United States. It also includes meeting Erik Bruhn and the relationship of Bruhn and Nureyev. It finishes with Lee’s two years as a principal dancer at the Opera in Bordeaux where she met Carlos Carvajal and danced in a pas de deux he created and danced with her.

When she returns to the United States, the Joffrey Ballet had temporarily disbanded; through class with Anthony Tudor she learned that Dame Alicia Markova was taking over the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Lee joined the company in the fall. She writes of her first experiences auditioning for Broadway musicals, getting to be replacement in Hello Dolly and knowing musical theatre was where she belonged.

Lee’s memoir is well-written, excellent in its information, memorable in its capacity to engage you in her career and her perceptions. I highly recommend it.

 

 

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