The Turning’s second season of podcasts, Room of Mirrors, takes a disturbing and liberating look inside the cult-like world of superstar ballet choreographers. By Louisa Lim.
The Turning’s Room of Mirrors podcast
The choreographer George Balanchine is dying. It is 1982 and he is 78 years old, prostrate in a hospital bed, when 26-year-old Wilhelmina Frankfurt visits to ask how to dance the role of the mother in The Nutcracker. Balanchine has a type of plum brandy called slivovitz in his bedside cupboard and he instructs her to take it out so they can drink together.
“Dear, come under the covers,” he says. She does. He tries to open her shirt, saying, “Just let me investigate a little.” To her, he is a father-figure. But he is dying and she loves him, so she lets him investigate. Just a little. “He didn’t get very far,” she says.
This opening scene in The Turning: Room of Mirrors (iHeartMedia, Rococo Punch) sets the tone for a podcast that never takes the obvious path. Host Erika Lantz, formerly of NPR, often withholds judgement and this restraint allows the dancers she speaks to – all formidably articulate – the space to express their complicated relationships with Balanchine and, ultimately, with ballet itself.
Sisterhoods are the preserve of Lantz and her producer and sister, Elin Lantz Lesser. In The Turning’s award-winning first season, The Sisters Who Left, they ventured inside another cult-like entity ruled over by a charismatic figure who also demanded mortifications of the flesh: Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
Lantz paints the church of Balanchine as a cult of coercive control, ruled over by one man. The dancers are based in a building without windows in the rehearsal rooms. “We don’t need windows because the outside world doesn’t matter,” one ballet dancer says. “We had our own universe.”
“What are you looking at, dear?” Balanchine asks one dancer, as she watches herself in the mirror. “You can’t see you. Only I can see you.” It’s a chilling moment, made more chilling by the realisation that the bodies Balanchine is examining are shaped to his desire, literally disappearing themselves to fit his mould.
One of his most iconic ballerinas, Gelsey Kirkland, even asks her dentist for buck teeth to resemble his favoured dancer at the time. But Balanchine does not approve of Kirkland’s body: he raps her sternum with his knuckles and says, “Must see the bones.” His order is, “Eat nothing!” He feeds her pills that turn out to be amphetamines. When she does become thin he repeatedly criticises her head, saying it is too big for her body. She ends up having silicone injections and getting her earlobes trimmed.
Dance is an art form that generally translates poorly to podcasting. Erika Lantz takes listeners right into rehearsal rooms that smell of satin, sweat and sweet glue. The podcast is elevated by sensitive sound design from James Trout, leveraging the classical soundtracks of ballet. I was so taken by Lantz’s linguistic arabesques that I searched for and watched several of Balanchine’s dances on YouTube, and realised she had primed me to understand dance in a way that I never had before.
Room of Mirrors provides many windows onto Balanchine: the womaniser, the lonely exile, the abandoned child, the bully, the visionary. He had relationships with six of his dancers, one of whom is said to have had four abortions. The dancers competed for his favour, even as prepubescent children, while the ballet mothers both desired and feared that he would choose their daughters to be, as one put it, “another Lolita in his ballerina gallery”.
Yet the dancers still talk of Mr B with reverence, describing themselves as being “christened” and “graced” by proximity to him. One of his most famous dancers, Suzanne Farrell, says being his muse was “the most humbling and beautiful place I have ever been” and calls him a feminist ahead of his time. This, even though she was cast out of the company unceremoniously after marrying a male dancer in secret. Even now, the dancers seem to agree that inspiring a Balanchine ballet was worth it.
Room of Mirrors is at its strongest when it holds its spotlight steady on Balanchine. In Episode 5, it moves to his successor at New York City Ballet, Peter Martins, who retired in 2018 after allegations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse. There’s a misstep at Episode 6, when host Lantz is interviewed by her sister, discussing her childhood dedicated to ballet and the psychological fallout of her failure to go professional. Though the conversation is revealing, this radical change in format disrupts the podcast’s rhythm and would have been better placed as a bonus episode. There are a couple of those too, but these feel like material hoisted from the cutting room floor and serve as a cautionary tale for podcasters that less is more.
The series recovers when Lantz casts the net wider, probing ballet’s racism, sexism and gender imbalances. Dancers were repeatedly told their skin should be as white as the flesh of a freshly cut apple and heteronormativity was until recently seen as a precondition to job security. Queering ballet is a tough task, as illustrated in an episode about the revolutionary act of choreographing a gay pas de deux, with choreographer Adriana Pearce. This was an unsettling listen: it exposed how many of my own assumptions about ballet are deeply gendered.
“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male,” wrote the classics scholar Mary Beard. “You have to change the structure.” This turns out to be true of the ballet world: even though it is largely female, its institutions have historically been controlled by men, who have also choreographed its most famous ballets.
One impact can be seen in the onstage passivity of ballerinas, who are so often the objects of male pursuit: props to be lifted and twirled, lacking agency of their own. Its toxicity is such that there have even been two ballets – by Kenneth MacMillan and Alexei Ratmansky – portraying acts of gang rape onstage. The latter wrote in a Facebook post, “sorry there is no such thing as equality in ballet: women dance on point, men lift and support women … and I am very comfortable with that”.
Lantz ends with an episode on ballet’s unspoken curriculum, which she sees as a metaphor for womanhood. Little ballerinas are trained to smile, to be compliant, not to complain and to make what they are doing look easy. “If you show the work, if people know how hard you’re working to make this perfect, flawless, ethereal, highly feminine thing, you’ve failed,” says Chloe Angyal, the author of Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself.
I haven’t been to a ballet class since I was six, but listening to Room of Mirrors made me realise how ballet’s rules still dictate my behaviour and how I use my body. I sit in public with my legs demurely closed or crossed, even when wearing trousers. As I listened, I opened my legs wide, manspreading for all my worth. Even though I was inside my own house, I looked around instinctively to see if anyone had spotted my breach of decorum. It felt liberating, powerful: the tiniest act of rebellion against an unspoken curriculum I’d been schooled in without even noticing.
THEATRE Yes Yes Yes
Home of the Arts, Yugambeh Country/Gold Coast, August 28-29
FESTIVAL Brisbane Festival
Venues throughout Meanjin/Brisbane, September 1-23
MUSICAL Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Regent Theatre, Naarm/Melbourne, until December 31
VISUAL ART Breathe
Salamanca Arts Centre, nipaluna/Hobart, September 1-30
EXHIBITION The Antipodean Manifesto
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, until February 18
EXHIBITION Feared and Revered: Feminine Power Through the Ages
National Museum of Australia, Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, until August 27
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "En pointe".
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