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Published: Sunday, 2/16/2014

BOOK REVIEW

‘Cowboy’ writes of life in the world of ballet

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

It is possible that in some remote storeroom of the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, a battered dancer's valise —stuffed with shoes, tights, weights, makeup — waits, dusty and untouched, for discovery.

Abandoned there in 1983 by Frank Ohman, author of a very personal yet informative autobiography, Balanchine's Dancing Cowboy, the theater case was a final token of farewell, not just to a company, but to George Balanchine (1904-1983), who had instructed and inspired the author for two decades.

Ohman’s gesture marked his separation from New York City Ballet, where he had danced from 1962 to 1983, the professional home where he reached maturity as a dancer and as a man.

Throughout the book, Ohman describes his relationship to the great Balanchine, America’s first major classical choreographer, visionary, and teacher.

“Mr. Balanchine had also bestowed on me the gift of understanding what it means to be a true artist,” writes Ohman. “To be a great artist, one must care deeply and completely about something, and to work devotedly to contribute that artistry to the world.”

Born in 1939 and raised in the Southwest, Ohman was introduced to dancing through his mother, grandmother, and an older sister, Eloyce, who would die far too early.

Like a seed planted in fertile middle class soil, the notion of becoming a professional dancer took root in Ohman’s young soul. Supported by his mother, Irene Ohman Phillips, he studied steps, combinations, and music. He took lessons. And he dreamed big.

After high school, Ohman worked to pay for lessons in Los Angeles. Still, his goal lay on the other coast, New York City, America’s beating heart of ballet.

A 1957 trip to the School of the American Ballet, also founded by Balanchine (pronounced BAL-un-cheen) and Lincoln Kirstein, fueled his ambitions.

Not ready for the leap, Ohman returned to California, moving to San Francisco a year later to study with former Balanchine dancers Lew and Harold Christensen.

He was accepted into their San Francisco Ballet, moving through the ranks from corps de ballet dancer to soloist within a few years.

After a stint in the U.S. Army reserves, balanced by continued performance with that company, Ohman felt ready to move to N.Y.C. and Balanchine.

Accepted into the company in 1962, Ohman met his comeuppance when the man he idolized relegated him to company roles, and drove him to perfect his techniques.

“It was a confusing transition in the beginning,” Ohman writes. “Mr. Balanchine made us do more repetitions of everything and each class was different, focusing on one area.”

But Ohman was taking class with ballet stars including Jacques D’Amboise, Allegra Kent, Arthur Mitchell, and Melissa Hayden. He was giving corps parts his best effort.

Balanchine, who loved the American West, called Ohman his “cowboy.”

Apparently sensing the young man’s bewilderment, he began offering advice on personal, career, and spiritual matters. This relationship lasted until Balanchine’s death.

“Like a caring father figure, he seemed more concerned about my character than my dancing,” writes Ohman.

With the company, the quiet “cowboy” was exposed to sophisticated life in Europe on company tours. He visited Balanchine’s birthplace in Tblisi, plus Moscow and Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg).

In the 1970s, Ohman added choreography to his studies. He discussed this ephemeral art form with the master. Balanchine created more than 400 ballets during his career; 100 are still performed today, including The Nutcracker.

And he became a student of his mentor’s distinctive teaching methods.

“Each class was like a unique small-scale work. It was a study, in the classical tradition, which magnified, clarified, and personalized his ballet precepts,” writes Ohman.

Ohman remained loyal and supportive during some of Balanchine’s dry periods in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when critical reviews were sharp and reports circulated of Balanchine’s sometimes predatory behavior toward his dancers.

Urged by Balanchine to consider his future while still active with the New York City Ballet, Ohman formed the New York Dance Theatre, choreographing and touring.

This became groundwork for the life the author fashioned post-1983, when he founded his eponymous company, now based in Commack, Long Island.

Ohman’s connection with Toledo happened when Cassandra Macino, a talented and ambitious high school student, went to the Big Apple to study at the American Ballet School on a Ford Foundation grant. Suzanne Farrell was her major contact and through her and others, she met and worked with Ohman.

Macino founded her studio, the Cassandra School of Ballet, in 1972. She regularly brings Ohman to Toledo to set ballets for her own company. This year, he is creating a new work for her company and will be in town Monday through Saturday.

Macino will hold a book-signing for Ohman from 5 to 6 p.m. Saturday in her studio, 3157 W. Sylvania Ave. The book-signing is open to the public. A limited supply of copies will be on hand. Advance copies are available from Amazon.



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