Peter Shelton

A World of Pain and Magic

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on January 3, 2013

Yesterday, Dec. 29, was my sister Polly’s birthday. She would have been 62.

Today, an article in the Sunday New York Times took me back to 1972 and a year I spent in New York, during the time Polly was a dancer with the incomparable New York City Ballet.

The Times piece was about a Swiss photographer, Henry Leutwyler, and included images from an ongoing show, on the Lower East Side, of his dance photographs.

The first image showed the feet of a ballerina en pointe, one encased in a pink toe shoe, the other naked, the toes deformed, bandaged, discolored. It hit me like a visceral déjà vu; I remembered feet like that, brutal sacrifices to art, Polly’s included.

Leutwyler had obviously gained the trust of NYCB dancers, and of its director, Peter Martins. He took lots of candid pictures backstage, in rehearsal, in class. I had a rather extraordinary look behind the scenes myself, as Polly’s brother. While she wasn’t a soloist, or a principal dancer – in fact, like most of the girls and boys in the 100-strong company, she never made it beyond the corps de ballet – my sibling cred got me into some intimate situations. I remember standing in the wings, stage left, during a performance of The Nutcracker, when Edward Villella came flying off-stage after a solo – huge roar of appreciation from the audience – whereupon he crashed to the floor in a fetal position, clutching his feet in agony, his charismatic grin replaced with a silent scream.

A minute later he was back up and leaping out from behind the curtain.

It wasn’t exactly Black Swan, the movie, but it was close. I saw blood backstage as well. Villella’s 1998 autobiography is called Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic.

Balanchine, of course, was the company’s genius founder and choreographer, who ruled from the 1940s until his death in 1983. He was an absolute dictator, benevolent to some, a destructive force (mostly by omission) in the lives of others. If Mr. B saw something special in you, he made you a soloist, created dances for you. He married five of his ballerinas; they were his muses. If he didn’t choose you, you were little more than a cog in his brilliant physical abstractions.

Balanchine must have seen something in Polly; he invited her into the company as a 17-year-old. She was beautiful, musical, and willow-thin enough to be a “Balanchine dancer.” But somewhere along the line, somewhere around the time I was in New York, or soon after, Polly began to live with the fact that, at 20 or 21 years old, she wasn’t going to be one of the chosen.

She was tough, one of the few dancers who didn’t get sick on an extended tour of the Soviet Union. She was a quick study; she learned her roles and the roles of other dancers for whom she filled in. She was a trooper. But, when Balanchine looked, he didn’t really see her. It was the central disappointment of her life.

One of Leutwyler’s photographs shows a group of young dancers milling around backstage, smiling, sharing a light moment. His comment reads: “For a moment they have forgotten that they are preparing themselves for perfection, and that they have a limited amount of years to try to achieve this.”

Polly struggled with perfection. She became anorexic, trying subconsciously for a modicum of control in a life, in an artistic system, where she had very little. And trying, I imagine, for what she thought might be an even more perfect Balanchine body.

She stayed in New York a few more years then made a move, with other NYCB company ex-pats, back to her native Southern California, to Los Angeles, where they formed the short-lived L.A. Ballet. She had started ballet at age 5; she was done dancing before she turned 30.

Leutwyler’s collection includes many photos of gorgeous, ethereal moments, moments when the dancers light up with the magic Villella rightly contrasted with the pain, magic Balanchine fashioned out of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky and his unique ability to make lithe, brave, super athletic, nearly superhuman movement an additional dimension of the music.

Polly lived that and treasured it. The impossible balancing en pointe. The spinning, the floating, the patterned twining of limbs and torsos while the orchestra soared at their feet.

She did not succumb to bitterness. She did succumb to the addictions she probably thought, in the beginning, would help her, the anorexia/bulimia, and a long, intractable affair with a vodka bottle in the freezer.

Leutwyler wrote of one of his backstage images: “This is no art statement here. It’s like documenting war, just what it is.”

The anniversary of Polly’s death is coming up. She died of massive organ failure in early January 2007, at age 56.

8 Responses

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  1. Sister Wendell said, on January 3, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    RIP, Pol.

  2. Ann said, on January 3, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Aquaint. of Wendy and Eliza. Tried to find hope and solace in our lives with struggling siblings. I lost my brother to alcolhol related complications at age 43 in 2002. Polly was in our lives for a very short period while living with Wendy. Painful to watch moths at the flame. Love to you and your family. It is never easy. Ann

  3. Paul Pastor said, on January 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm


    Hard and powerful.

    Paul Pastor

  4. Kayla Manzanares said, on January 3, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for sharing a bit about Polly here for us all to read and remember her.

  5. Heidi said, on January 3, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    We saw her perform several times with the New York City Ballet and treasure those memories. She was everything a dancer should be and did stand out for us each time.

  6. Merlin Spillers said, on July 5, 2016 at 7:42 am

    I’m sad to read this. I saw her dance quite a number of times in L.A. and thought she was better than wonderful. I still remember specific moments of her dancing. So at least in L.A. she achieved her dream for awhile of giving absolute magic to audience members. She did it for me.

    • pshelton said, on July 5, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      Merlin, thanks. A lovely comment.

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