Posted by Rebecca King on 01.17.2011
I have spent the past few weeks reading Allegra Kent’s autobiography, Once A Dancer. Right off the bat, I was intrigued by her story. The triumphs and hardships she experienced in her life captivated me through to the end. I don’t wish to give you her whole story here, as I highly recommend her book. However, I do want to share with you a little bit about her, as well as some moments from the book that were highlights for me.
– Allegra Kent was born Iris Margo Cohen on August 11, 1937. Iris’ mother, Shirley, changed her children’s last name to Kent when Iris was 2. This was Shirley’s way of rebelling against her husband. When Iris was eleven she decided to follow in her sister’s footsteps by changing her name. “I’d become Allegra. I would be transformed into a new creature… [The] music of Allegra was hypnotic.”
-Shirley sent Iris and her brother off to a boarding school in Ojai, CA. Iris hated the school and wanted nothing more than her mother’s undivided attention and love. In school she took folk dancing classes, where she realized that she loved to dance. “I had found my way to freedom. It was of the upmost importance to me never to return to this school.” She wrote to her mother telling her that she wanted to become a ballerina. Her plan worked. Shirley responded saying that she would immediately leave school and begin ballet classes. “Now, through me, Mother could still dance. She would participate in my career, and we could both be ballerinas.”
-Iris, now Allegra, loved her ballet training. She loved to jump and fly across the room. Ballet would become her life; “I was going to make a profession of this joyous romp. I would bypass real work and do this child’s play all through my adult life. What could be better?” (On a personal note, this is by far my favorite quote of this book.)
-When taking classes from one of her first teachers, Bronislava Nijinska, she learned many lessons which she would take with her for the rest of her life. Nijinska would encourage individuality, saying, “We are born originals, we die copies.”
-Shirley had decided to take Allegra to New York, where her ballet career could really get off the ground. Allegra stepped into the School of American Ballet studios to audition at the age of fourteen with a mere three years of ballet training. After her acceptance, Balanchine would observe her in class in order to evaluate her dancing. The forty-eight year old George Balanchine came into the studio and would watch Allegra dance for the first time. Allegra says that he stood watching her for about five minutes, with a straight face, then walked out. She felt completely confident while he was in the room. “His presence didn’t intimidate me, because I had no real sense of who this man was.” After class, she learned that she had received a scholarship and would be moving to the advanced class.
-In 1952, Balanchine sent word to Allegra through his staff that she would be joining the corps de ballet. Shirley had been told that Balanchine was “very interested” in her daughter’s dancing. She said, “I would become a real dancing girl.”
-Balanchine would create a handful of ballets just for Allegra, beginning with “The Unanswered Question” section of Ivesiana in 1954. Allegra had just turned 17 and had been in the corps for two years. She says of Balanchine, “He was a casting genius who knew what I could project and what I could do long before I did. He was a lie detector who would see right into my soul.”
-Allegra’s career at New York City Ballet was taking off. While on an European tour in the fall of 1956, she would write to her mother, “As you know my schedule is harder than most anyone else’s. I certainly have more new ballets, more ballets per evening, and more substituting for people who were out than any other dancer. I love every moment of it.” One day while eating at a German cafe, Balanchine’s secretary, Barbara Horgan, approached Allegra, bringing her great news, “Allegra, Mr. B is going to make you a principal next season.” With that, Allegra would go straight from the corps de ballet to the principal rank.
-Allegra’s quick success was not met without friction from other company members. One instance of hazing toward’s her occurred in Sydney, Australia. Allegra was sitting in silence with Melissa Hayden in the dressing room that they shared, when the ballet mistress walked in. Melissa informed her that she was not feeling well and would not be able to dance Stars and Stripes that evening. Hayden suggested that Allegra learn the ballet since no one else knew the part. Allegra panicked, realizing that in a few hours she would have to dance a part that she felt was too challenging for her at the time. After an hour of learning the ballet with the ballet mistress, they decided to go check on Hayden. Melissa asked if Allegra knows the part. The ballet mistress replied, “Yes, she knows it.” Hayden smiled and said, “Well, I think I can do it.” The company’s executive director told Allegra that she should not allow Hayden to treat her in this manner. “But my response was that I wanted to learn these parts anyway and wasn’t going to be fussy about where or when.”
-Balanchine clearly took a liking to Allegra. She was one of his muses at the time; inspiring him to create masterpieces. “I think he was in love with me then.” She says that people outside of the company assumed that she and Balanchine were in a relationship. “Everyone in the company knew the truth however. Balanchine was married to [Tanaquil LeClercq].”
-In “Once A Dancer,” Kent speaks very highly of her fellow dancers, including Violette Verdy, who joined New York City Ballet in 1958. “It was interesting to see how a dancer who didn’t have everything- not over-the-rainbow extension or the height of the ideal Balanchine dancer- could really turn herself into something completely distinctive and original. Her musicality as well as her turnout went deep. She could extract the utmost charm and humor from her movement.”
-When talking about New York City Ballet, she says, “We were one of the youngest major ballet companies around, not over one hundred years old, but only twelve. The New York City Ballet was not even a teenager. Of course we had something none of them had- Mr. Balanchine.”