Toni Bentley – The Dancer Whom Writing Liberated

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Toni BentleyTo break Toni Bentley’s life down into factual slices is to strip it of its most remarkable quality: poetry.

It’s unusual to call a life poetic – especially one built on the shoulders of grit, sweat and almost mind-numbing discipline – and yet Toni’s life has epitomised poetry in every aspect.

She took her first ballet class at age four, and at age ten entered the School of American Ballet where she spent seven years. At 17, she was accepted as a dancer at the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine – the legendary, maverick father of American ballet who ruled the American ballet scene for over 50 years.

To dance with Balanchine was to be at the top of your game and yet, the ten years she spent on the New York stage were only one aspect of her creative life.

Even as she was dancing Toni began her parallel career as an author that turned out to be no less successful than her stage self. Her first book, Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal was published when she was just 22 and was a diary of her life as a dancer under Balanchine’s rule. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, it garnered fabulous reviews, including in the National Review, that called it “quite possibly the most revealing book about the world of ballet ever to see print.”

She went on to write four more books and, if a few years later a devastating hip injury had not prematurely ended her ballet career, it’s hard to say in which discipline she would have been more celebrated.

As it turned out, she fulfilled the promise she showed as a writer in her first book with Holding On to the Air: the Autobiography of Suzanne Farrell (co-authored with Farrell), Costumes by Karinska about Balanchine’s great Russian costume designer and Sisters of Salome, a cultural history of the femme fatale – and the origins of modern striptease, for which she performed at a strip club in NYC as part of her research and earned $89 in tips, “more than I had ever made dancing Concerto Barocco” she laughed in an interview later.

But it is in her fifth – and most provocative – book The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir that Toni’s unique brand of literary prose and gritty subject matter hit the headlines again. A frank literary tribute to the joys of anal sex, the book shocked and seduced readers all at once with its graphic portrayal of a sexual practice that rarely makes dinner-table conversation. The New York Times likened it to an “old tradition of hyperbole and overwriting, the tradition of Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, which sees sex as an avenue to spirituality, to the mystical and sublime.”

She has continued to be a prolific writer, writing essays and reviews for the New York Times Book Review, LA Times, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Allure, Vogue, and The New Republic among others. She’s spoken at places as distinct as Harvard and at the Oscar Wilde Society in London, been a Guggenheim fellow, and had a short story, The Bad Lion, selected for the Best American Essays of 2010 by editor Christopher Hitchens.

In 2012, a one-woman play adaptation of The SurrenderLa Rendición – starring Swiss-German actress Isabelle Stoffel – premiered in Madrid and was then produced by the Spanish National Theatre in January this year at the historic Teatro María Guerrero in Madrid. The play had its English-language premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August, and will have its American premiere in New York City in January 2014.”

It seems like Toni’s poetic reinvention of her life – from dancer to biographer, erotic writer and now playwright – is far from over.

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