‘WILDE TIMES’: PATRICIA WILDE, BALANCHINE, NYCB
By: Hal de Becker
As a biographer of ballerinas, Joel Lobenthal is possibly today’s best. His knowledge and insight into the art of dance, the world of dance and the personalities inhabiting it are extensive and unique.
In his 2016 biography of Russian ballerina Alla Osipenko he explored not only the subject’s life but the struggles and challenges many Russian dancers experienced during the Soviet regime’s politically motivated intrusion into their personal and professional lives.
The subject of Lobenthal’s latest biography, ‘Wilde Times’, is Canadian born Patricia Wilde who, unlike her Russian counterparts, was able to practice her art in a free society.
As a teenager in the 1940’s until her retirement in 1965 to direct Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Wilde had been one of George Balanchine’s and the American public’s favorite ballerinas.
As the author conveys, the ballet dancers of Wilde’s period were responding to a call: Fame and fortune wasn’t expected, just doing it was the reward for years of grueling daily exercises, painful injuries and short careers.
Wilde candidly responds to the author’s informed questions, and consequently the reader is treated to a real behind-the-scenes view of the people and events that shaped the ballet world then and continues to influence it now.
Virtually every prominent dancer, choreographer and teacher of the mid-20th century is discussed in the book, often in fascinating detail. Many of them, including Danilova, Massine and Robbins are now legends, while others, such as Eglevsky, Magallanes, Moylen and Diana Adams are frequently neglected. In ‘Wilde Times’ all are in the spotlight again.
George Balanchine, master choreographer and co-founder of New York City Ballet, played an important role in Wilde’s life and career and is therefore a major figure in her biography.
His appreciation of Wilde as an accomplished dancer, serious artist and important member of his company is clear from his own statements as quoted in the book. And like most of his female dancers she affectionately admired him – most of the time, at least.
She describes the thrill of being in Balanchine’s classes, rehearsing and performing his ballets and just having casual conversations with him during that early period when he was surprisingly accessible.
However, her respect for Balanchine the teacher and choreographer doesn’t cloud her objectivity about the man. One of the book’s many insider revelations describes Balanchine deliberately undermining the performance of a star he felt had been foisted upon him, by changing the choreography at the last minute.
His attachment to Suzanne Farrell is described as an obsession that enabled her to manipulate and exploit him to her benefit. We are told he even re-structured his classes, often eliminating plies and jumps, to accommodate his muse’s technical weaknesses.
Wilde’s worldwide triumphs with NYCB and other companies are vividly chronicled, as are her ups and downs as PBT’s artistic director and in her personal life.
But what pervades the pages of ‘Wilde Times’ even more than triumphs are the comradery and shared love of ballet that motivated and sustained Wilde and her colleagues through sleepless bus tours, shabby hotels and exhausting rehearsals.
This rich and very readable book will enlighten younger readers about the not-too-distant past of ballet and enable those who do remember it, to re-live it.