5 New Biographies and Memoirs for the Dancer in Your Life

December 17, 2021

There’s no fighting it—winter is coming. And whether you’re looking for the perfect holiday gift for your favorite dancer or for a good excuse to curl up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate, we have the book for you. Five new ballet biographies and autobiographies are now available for either purchase or pre-order, covering the lives of luminaries ranging from Balanchine muse Tanaquil Le Clercq to groundbreaking modernist choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. Read on for a sneak peek into each title, and prepare to fall down the rabbit hole of ballet history.

Dancing Past the Light: The Life of Tanaquil Le Clercq, by Orel Protopopescu

The photo shows the book cover of "Dancing Past the Light: The Life of Tanaquil Leclerq" by Orel Protopopescu. The book title is shown in the top half of the cover in cursive lettering. A black and white photo of Tanaquil LeLerq in costume, sitting on the floor backstage and adjusting her pointe shoes, is on the bottom half.
Courtesy University Press of Florida

In 1948, at the age of 19, Tanaquil Le Clercq became a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, making waves as the ideal “Balanchine ballerina.” In 1952, she married George Balanchine, becoming his fourth and final wife. And in 1956, at the age of 27, she contracted polio while on tour with NYCB in Europe and became wheelchair-bound, never to dance again.

In this new comprehensive biography, writer Orel Protopopescu provides an intimate portrait of the 20th-century icon, including her stage career, relationship with Balanchine, and later work as a teacher, coach, writer and photographer. Protopopescu also explores Le Clercq’s close friendships with figures including Jerome Robbins, Jacques d’Amboise and Arthur Mitchell. Dancing Past the Light ($35, University Press of Florida) is a visual feast, including a trove of previously unpublished photos, letters, and sketches by Balanchine, and ultimately answers the question that plagues so many dancers: If you can no longer dance, who do you become?

Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, by Martha Ullman West

Photo shows the cover of the book "Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet" by Martha Ullman West. The book cover is maroon with two inset black-and-white photos, one of Todd Bolender dancing in black tights and a white T-Shirt, and one of Janet Reed in a diaphanous gown pressing over her pointe shoes and lifting her arms.
Courtesy University Press of Florida

In Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet ($45, University Press of Florida), arts writer Martha Ullman West unpacks the influence of two dancers—Todd Bolender and Janet Reed—on the direction of 20th-century American ballet. West argues that these two lifelong friends had just as great an influence as Balanchine or Robbins, particularly on ballet outside of New York City. Having danced for choreographers including Lew and William Christensen, Eugene Loring, Agnes de Mille, Catherine Littlefield and Ruthanna Boris, these “unsung trailblazers” had sweeping careers beyond the stage as teachers, directors and choreographers. Bolender and Reed are responsible for laying the foundation for Pacific Northwest Ballet in the 1970s, and, shortly after, Bolender worked to raise the status of ballet in the Midwest, transforming Kansas City Ballet. In this new joint biography, West fleshes out the full expanse of American ballet from coast to coast.

Built for Ballet: An Autobiography, by Leanne Benjamin, with Sarah Crompton

Book cover of "Leanne Benjamin: Built for Ballet" by Leanne Benjamin with Sarah Crompton. A photo of Benjamin in profile balancing on both point shoes, hands on hips, and wearing a black tutu and burgundy leotard. Above her is the book's title in maroon lettering.
Johan Persson, Courtesy Melbourne Books

Need a break from historical biography? Then look no further than former Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin’s new autobiography Built for Ballet ($42.27, Melbourne Books), co-written with British dance critic Sarah Crompton. Born in Australia, Benjamin moved to London at the age of 16 to attend the Royal Ballet School and started her whirlwind professional career just two years later; she retired from the stage at age 49. In addition to her 20-year tenure with the Royal Ballet, Benjamin danced for English National Ballet and Deutsche Oper Berlin, and now travels the world as a sought-after coach, judge and speaker. In Built for Ballet Benjamin passes on the lessons she’s learned from those who came before her, and dives into the pressures of fame, dealing with injuries and childbirth, and how she’s coped with the ups and downs of a storied career. Available for U.S. readers from Book Depository or wherever books are sold.

La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern, by Lynn Garafola

Photo shows the cover of the book "La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern" by Lynn Garafola. The book title is in large yellow lettering over a black and white photo showing NIjinska in a chair, working with a male and female dancer as they practice a lift.
Courtesy Oxford University Press

A celebrated dancer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Bronislava Nijinska went on to have a remarkable 45-year choreographic career, creating works for companies around the world, most notably her 1923 modernist masterpiece Les Noces. Yet her accomplishments are regularly overshadowed by the fame of her brother, Vaslav Nijinsky. In La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern ($39.95, Oxford University Press), out February 2022 and available for pre-order, premier dance historian Lynn Garafola returns Nijinska to her rightful place in the annals of dance history.

In this first biography to document the full scope of Nijinska’s work, Garafola tracks the choreographer’s journey back and forth between Russia and France and then, before the outbreak of World War II, to Southern California, where she remained until her death in 1972. La Nijinska not only explores the world of 20th-century modernism, it reveals the sexism in the ballet world that until now has denied so many female choreographers their due.

Balanchine’s Apprentice: From Hollywood to New York and Back, by John Clifford

Book cover of Balanchine's Apprentice: From Hollywood to New York and Back" by John Clifford. The cover shows a black and white photos of Clifford kneeling on the ground and reaching his right arm up and looking at the camera. The book's title is in the upper left corner in yellow lettering.
Courtesy University Press of Florida

Many dancers can claim the influence that George Balanchine had on their careers, but for John Clifford, those ties run long and deep. Balanchine first spotted Clifford at the young age of 11, casting him as the Prince in a touring production of The Nutcracker. Not so many years later Clifford joined Balanchine in New York City, where he went on to become a principal with New York City Ballet, leading the company in a vast repertoire of 47 ballets from 1966 to 1974. Balanchine also gave him his first opportunity to choreograph on the company at age 20; he’d go on to create seven more works for NYCB.

In his new memoir Balanchine’s Apprentice ($30, University Press of Florida), Clifford analyzes his close relationship with Balanchine, as well as his childhood raised in Hollywood by vaudevillian parents, and his later founding of Los Angeles Ballet, which he helmed until its close in 1984. This is a colorful portrait of mid-20th-century dance from someone who lived through it.