BWW Book Reviews: THE CAGE: Dancing for Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, 1949-1954 by Barbara Bocher and Adam Darius.
Barbara Bocher answers that question in her memoir The Cage, named after one of Robbins' most noted ballets. If any ballet could serve as a metaphor for her brief career, The Cage would certainly be it.
Bocher was the youngest dancer to ever join the New York City Ballet, being only fourteen and a very innocent, polite and malleable teenager from Oklahoma City. She came to New York to study at the School of American Ballet, having the luck to be taught by Muriel Stuart, a dancer who had performed wth Anna Pavlova's troupe. Stuart was highly impressed with Bocher and passed the word on to Balanchine, who took notice of Bocher's talent right away and invited her to join the company.
For a 14 year old this was a chance of a lifetime. She was not only to dance in the works of a great choreographer, she would tour throughout the United States and Europe, sharing luncheons, receptions and conversations with Lord Mountbatten, Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn and Claire Boothe Luce; having her face painted personally by Cecil Beaton for a Frederick Ashton ballet; performing under the batons of Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, sharing the stage with Maria Tallchief, as well as being called upon to dance demi-soloist roles as well as principal roles.
This sounds like heady stuff for anyone and Bocher was overwhelmed by that feeling we have all experienced when the world seems to be turning around us. Unfortunately, the realities of life in any ballet company, then or now, bring company members down to a very realistic plane, and Bocher fell with a thud.
Until she left the company Bocher danced not only Balanchine, but the ballets of Jerome Robbins as well. Bocher writes of Robbins' rudeness, nastiness and his penchant to curse at his dancers. He would repeatedly ask them to perform the same steps time and time again; give roles and then take them away; and have dancers learn different versions of his ballets, which they were then expected to perform at whim. This will come as no surprise to those who know about Jerome Robins, but Bocher was shocked and outraged at such behavior, compared to the relaxing conditions she encountered when rehearsing with Balanchine.
Bocher tries to analyze Robbins' behavior; she senses that it might have sprung from many sources: hatred of his parents, disgust with Judaism or self abhorrence because he was gay and tried to hide it, even though everyone knew about it. There was also the matter of his testifying before HUAC because Ed Sullivan threatened to personally out him if he did not do this. So Robbins appeared before HUAC and named several friends, whose careers were to be stalled for many years. And then there was Bocher herself who bore a resemblance to Rose Tobias, a fiancée of Robins who broke it off when she found out that Robbins was having an affair with Montgomery Clift. Bocher thinks that this might have annoyed Robbins the most, since it reinforced his feeling as a failed heterosexual.
But even after the most outlandish behavior Robbins would suddenly befriend you, albeit many times with a plan in mind. Robbins would call Bocher in after rehearsals and have her work on or demonstrate steps Robbins later appropriated for The King and I and Peter Pan on Broadway. But never was there a word of thanks or even a mention in the playbill of her contribution.
Another time when Bocher was alone with Robbins she asked him if she would ever become a ballerina and his answer was "Yes, in a different company." Does that mean that through his cruel treatment of her he did discern talent? Or was it the old adage that Robbins loved to repeat: break them down and build them up into something you want?
Bocher expected Balanchine to come to her assistance, knowing of her situation with Robbins, but he never did. He just put himself to one side and let things go on as they were. Bocher begins by presenting Balanchine as a true cavalier, bearing himself like a gentleman of the old school. But it later became apparent that Balanchine was a mere mortal whose love mainly extended to his ballets and the muses who inspired him. But once the muse was no longer needed, she would be ignored or dropped. As Bocher matured and became more perceptive about Balanchine she came to a realization that perhaps his ballets "lacked soul... there was an abundance of steps, but a paucity of communication," a statement that can be debated a million times over-and has been--but this is not the place to do it.
Bocher continued to dance for the New York City Ballet until she was 18. By that time her ego and self-worth were at a low ebb. She left to marry an Episcopalian minister, although she continued to teach dance for a number of years. A very touching moment in the memoir comes with Bocher's last appearance with the New York City Ballet, the same day of Arturo Toscanini's final performance at Carnegie Hall. What a coincidence: a force of musical nature and what might have been a force in the dance world retiring together!
The most important thing I find in Bocher's book is the statement about Balanchine looking down his nose at Robbins' choreography. How did she know that? There is no mention in the book of Balanchine ever speaking to Bocher until the time she came to tell him she was leaving to get married. Perhaps it was something that Bocher sensed. Whatever the real source, she's not telling us.
To sum it up, Bocher's book is definitely worth reading for all those interested in the New York City Ballet, but beware: the prose can be extremely purple at times and there are many factual errors that were not checked before the book went to publication.You'll be wondering why Bocher talks about the gestation of the musical Gypsy, since the idea for the show was broached long after she left the company. There will be complaints in other areas as well. I wish Bocher had been more careful with the manuscript. Didn't someone proofread for errors?
But you can look at it in another way: the story of a teenager whose comprehension and insight of the ballet world, while burgeoning during her tenure with the company, would come many years later. Had she stayed around Bocher might have become a principal dancer, telling Robbins what she thought about him without his retribution. Perhaps they may have reconciled. After all there are many who speak highly of Robbins and praise him for his dedication and inspiration. But we will never know.