Rebel on PointeDean Speer

When my copy of Lee Wilson’s “Rebel On Pointe” arrived from the University Press of Florida, I eagerly opened it, sat down, and read it almost continually over a recent weekend. It is that compelling and engrossing of a memoir.

Thoughtfully organized and laid out, it is very well written. Wilson has a gift for telling stories. I enjoyed how she framed them and the book within the context of the social mores of the ‘50s and early ‘60s and was more than impressed with how observant she had been as a child and teen – realizing that perhaps her only way out of being cast as a future stereotypical suburban housewife was a career in the arts, where she could – in a very real sense – be her own boss.

I found two passages inspirational and was amused by the story of how the Marquis de Cuevas engaged in a dramatic duel with Serge Lifar (not over love but ballets!) – both characters and seemingly in character for both.

I was passionate about dance the way Dad was passionate about chemistry. I believed in dance both as a means of personal fulfillment and as a positive force in society….I believed then, as I believe now, that dance if a force for good….It unifies people of different races, creeds, and nationalities.

Ballet students thrive on corrections. It doesn’t matter if they are shouted, barked, or non-verbal. Corrections are proof that the student is worth teaching, and being ignored is the student’s nightmare.

And of Madame Pereyaslavec’s entrance – certainly one of the ballet’s more colorful characters and a legendary teacher:

…As footsteps approached the doorway, the pianist played a cadenza worthy of Horowitz for the grand entrance of Madame Pereyaslavec, who swept into the room as if it were the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. From the center of the studio, Madame Pereyaslavec surveyed the room.

Her description of someone who was one of my own teachers a baker’s dozen years later, Rosella Hightower, opened new doors for me on Hightower’s career and teaching life. I knew a fair amount about Hightower but adored reading the sections about her and how she helped Wilson, supplying us with great details and of her personality. The photo image of Wilson and Maina Gielgud taking class in the main studio was great and it also reminded me of where I stood at barre in that very room and of the (hard to see in the book photo) photos around the walls of the studio of Hightower demonstrating various ballet positions and poses – naturally all perfect. Often, I felt as if I were reliving my own experiences – including our very similar and parallel journey of having to make a long distance phone call to my parents from the local post office, due to the ancient French telephone system of the time.

Ballet jobs were even more scarce then as they are now and through Hightower, Wilson luckily found her first ballet performing experiences – first on tour with Hightower’s tribute to the Marquis and then with the ballet company in Bordeaux. The latter ended up being a strange and not entirely fruitful experience for Wilson as the conduct of rehearsals was done so completely differently to what she had been used to. Dancers were not allowed to watch others rehearse nor could they buy tickets to see their colleagues perform. Wilson was eventually invited and allowed to watch the opera evenings, though.

Back in New York, Wilson – who had early trained as a concert pianist (but gave it up as she found the preparation too dry) retooled herself as a ‘triple-threat’ Broadway performer who had many successes including important roles in “A Chorus Line”, among others.

“Rebel On Pointe” is one terrific read that fans of all ages will enjoy for its clear storytelling, historic perspectives and histrionic characters from someone who lived to see the status of women greatly elevated, and who was herself a part of that story.

Rebel on Pointe
Author: Lee Wilson
Published: University Press of Florida; September 30, 2014
ISBN 13: 978-0813060088
224 pages
Cover price $24.95
More details here.