Back door ballerina
The Ballerina Who Bent
by Alexandra Jacobs
On Sunday afternoon, former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley glissade’d into the garden of the Chateau Marmont to discuss her new memoir about sodomy.
Specifically, butt sex. The Surrender—Ms. Bentley’s annals of anal, her tract about her tract, her literary end-all be-all (it becomes hard to stop)—will be published by ReganBooks this week, and the author, hiding behind dark prescription sunglasses and a veil of Chanel No. 5, seemed both proud and petrified: a brittle twig amid the eternally, depressingly green West Hollywood foliage.
"I’m certainly not proselytizing," she said. "I’m not trying to get everyone to do this act—in fact, I think most people shouldn’t do it. I’m completely laissez-faire about that. But I also feel that I can’t be entirely alone."
Indeed, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The thing that makes Ms. Bentley’s new sex confessional extraordinary is less its content—sex confessionals aren’t exactly hard to come by these days—but her curriculum vitae. A New Yorker since the age of 4, she spent a decade dancing under the direction of the legendary George Balanchine in that great Turning Point era when ballet was more than just high art to the city, when it seemed as if every little girl in Manhattan owned a pair of Capezio slippers (pink for the Upper East Siders; black for the Village "bohemians") and a gleaming cellophane-bound copy of Jill Krementz’s book A Very Young Dancer.
Reading Ms. Bentley’s most recent opus, which is certainly not for the faint of stomach, it’s tempting to draw a parallel with the current best-seller, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson. Both authors are published by Judith Regan, with the latter’s signature scrapbook-like chapter structure and spastic typefaces. (Is it just one’s imagination, or do Regan books even smell different as they roll off the presses, sort of like burnt popcorn?) Both have queasy New York Times connections (Ms. Jameson famously got a little help from former Times music writer Neil Strauss; Ms. Bentley has freelanced for the Arts & Leisure section—"an honor," she said). Both reserve the honor of anal sex for the special men in their lives ("I’ve only given that up to three men, all of whom I loved," writes the bodacious Ms. Jameson; Ms. Bentley "surrenders" to two). And both have put in time as strippers.
The porn star’s book, more of a multimedia affair, includes an illustrated interlude entitled "Jenna Jameson’s Stripper Dancer Injuries 101" (bunions, lower back pain, ruptured breast implants)—hard knocks of life after logging nights at the Crazy Horse Two in Las Vegas.
The ballerina followed a different track to taking it all off: Tiptoeing after Mr. Balanchine to one of his favorite hangouts, the original Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, in 1980 ("I thought, ‘Oh my God, these girls are just like us’"), a seed was planted which bloomed years later when, no longer dancing with NYCB, Ms. Bentley performed a choreographed burlesque of her own at the now-defunct Blue Angel in Tribeca. "Part of my coming-out," she said, adding, "I still have the money I made—$89."
The Surrender takes some care to hide that it is sex writing; it comes sheathed in a black cover with a keyhole opening; underneath, there’s a painting by the late John Kacere of an anonymous odalisque’s posterior in sheer panties. "Everyone is going to be asking if that’s me," the author sighed. In fact, the image was also used in the opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s much-ballyhooed 2003 movie, Lost in Translation. "It all kind of happened at the same time, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s the Year of the Ass,’" Ms. Bentley said, giving a prim little laugh.
The book, thank God, is not without humor, intended or otherwise. The narrator describes why she was drawn to ballet as a physical activity ("I had an outright terror of balls of any size heading in my direction"); tells of an affair with a masseur ("The massages were paid for by insurance," she notes); and declares Dr. Ruth–ishly that "you can’t half-ass butt-fuck." A plucky chapter on crotchless panties adds to the occasional advice-column feel. Freud shows up on page 53; Proust’s "madeleine" 99 pages later; Eve Ensler is sandwiched somewhere in between.
There are more than a few swipes at feminism. "Oh my goodness," Ms. Bentley said, with some exasperation. "Basically, feminism is a fantastic thing. Feminism made it possible for me to write this book and have it published, O.K.? That’s the bottom line. Within the scope of things, if feminism means pro-women in every way, I’m the ultimate. But I do not call myself a feminist necessarily. It’s not a label I use."
She went on: "Obviously, I believe in equality, whatever that is. I think that men and women are equal. I mean, equal pay, that’s such a given—but going beyond that? Sexually? Even-steven in the bedroom? That’s not really interesting."
Alas, it is not particularly more interesting to learn that Ms. Bentley has saved the detritus of her anal lovemaking (with a fellow known simply as A-Man) in "a beautiful, tall, round, hand-painted, Chinese lacquered box." Hundreds of used condoms and K-Y: "My treasure," coos the narrator. One woman’s treasure is another’s trash, honey.
Nor, perhaps, was it wise for her to write, after A-Man penetrates her for the 220th time, that "I want to die with him in my ass"—for at that point, the reader is tempted to agree.
The Surrender’s many sex scenes are graphic, unrelenting, explicit—full of four-letter words and the occasional multiple-partner exertions. It might not be porn in the Supreme Court’s "I know it when I see it" sense—i.e., meant to titillate—but it certainly shares a narrative resemblance to porn: pseudonymous principals, thin story line, jumpy sex scenes.
"Obviously, what we were doing was very technical," said Ms. Bentley. "I’m not going to deny that I wanted to be totally graphic. Which I would align very much with my dance training! You know, Balanchine was the most spiritual, most soulful choreographer ever, and he never talked about that. It was technicalities: If you do three million tendus, you might get it right, and then chances are your soul might show onstage. So to me, this is the same thing."
Early critics are gushing like Astroglide, including Publishers Weekly ("wonderfully smart and sexy and witty and moving," wrote the reviewer, adding a star) and The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, a noted balletomane who received the galley from noir balladeer Leonard Cohen (a mutual friend whose song "Waiting for the Miracle" was chosen by Ms. Bentley as her stripper music).
"I think it might be a small masterpiece of erotic writing," Mr. Wieseltier said in a phone interview. "I admired its lucidity, the tone is true and unsentimental, and it’s so natural—the explicitness is so completely unaffected. It’s not a cold book, but it’s not a moist book. In a funny sort of way, you come away with a feeling more for Toni’s mind than for Toni’s body. I had a feeling of regret when I read it, that it fell to Judith Regan to publish it. I miss the austerity of the old Olympia Press. I miss the days when pornography used to be published austerely."
Is The Surrender pornography, then? "I fear that her publisher thinks it might be pornography," Mr. Wieseltier said sharply. "It’s not pornographic at all. It’s an account of an experience, not an account of a pleasure or an account of a sin or an account of a crime. ‘Serious writing about sex’ is what I’d call it.
"It’s a miracle that a trade publisher did this at all," he added. "Other New York publishers were simply cowards."
posted by Steve @ 1:27:00 AM