Language, like dance, can disguise and elide- it can aestheticise horror, turn sorrow into plenitude, find consolatory meaning in chaotic aftermaths. And more often than not, in dance memoirs, effort and pain is turned into an introspective trope, proof of the self’s sublimation to art.
Georgina Pazcoguin’s recently published memoir, Swan Dive, offers an altogether different read. Pazcoguin, a soloist with the New York City Ballet, writes with eviscerating directness and a fiendish sense of humour. Perhaps humour offers her a certain kind of distance from the darkness of her material; a thin fireproof layer that coiled tightly around its unsettling core allows one to turn horrible things to the light without being burnt from that effort.
Writing about prolonged workplace abuse perhaps is a little bit like a moth flying close to the flame: to do it justice you have to fly close to the flame, but to reach too close to full illumination is to risk being incinerated. It is a challenging task but what is remarkable is that in Pazcoguin’s account, humour is a feint, a protective shroud that, paradoxically, instead of distorting her material, clarifies it. The staccato-like inflection of her writing, its disavowal of decorative phrases, its active working against lyrical conventions, rips bare dance’s surface glitter. It leaves you little wiggle room but to stare at what is underneath, and what you find won’t be pretty.
Pazcoguin alleges that a co-worker (specifically, Amar Ramasar) used to ‘greet’ her during company class by “tweaking my nipples.” On why she didn’t report him, she writes simply, succinctly, and to me, sufficiently, that it would have been like, ‘Complaining to Satan about his brother, Hades” (Satan refers to the then artistic director of NYCB, Peter Martins).
In another episode, a ballet master rehearsing Jerome Robbins’ The Concert muses, “It’s amazing more women aren’t raped these days.” The same ballet master, now rehearsing another Robbins ballet, Fancy Free, plants an unsolicited kiss on principal dancer Tiler Pecks’ mouth. These examples are damning. They point to patterns of institutionalised misogyny inked so deeply in the company’s everyday operations that they become simply part of the job. Groping at the barre, sexualised jokes at rehearsal.
Pazcoguin’s relationship with Peter Martins is a battle of wills that ends with her screaming down NYCB’s hallway. She uses the word ‘duel’ to describe their relationship, and the pugilistic metaphor fits insofar as capturing its combative nature. But it is limited in capturing the tragic unevenness of their one-upmanship. Adversarial workplace relationships can, and sometimes do, from the outset seem like staged melodrama where both protagonists are willing actors. But often its drama stems from a pretty simple dilemma: someone in a position of power makes an unreasonable demand or has a history of being unreasonable. You are faced with two choices: you either accept and give in; or you stand your ground, in doing so turning your boss, the one person who has your career in his hands, into an adversary.
It seems to me that Pazcoguin’s refusal to capitulate fully to Martin’s demands or to let him dictate to her the terms of her career is really the preamble to all that follows. The thing about toxic workplace relationships is that to be locked, often unwillingly, into rounds of shadow pugilism with somebody whose approval you desperately need often extracts so much energy that there is not much left for anything else. Peripheral vision is dangerously narrowed, sightlines collapse until all that remains is the ruins that stand between you and your shadow. Often, the only way you survive in a ring with a bear is to dodge, to deflect, to be agile with your slender means and to tilt at the right moments. All this comes at extraordinary psychological and emotional cost. When work relationships are turned into rounds of mismatched jousting, when a woman is asked to manage both her own career and the ego and needs of a boss that demands unreasonable things in the name of ‘commitment’ or ‘loyalty’, it isn’t so much a duel as gaslighting and abuse.
If the world Pazcoguin describes feels like it’s working on steroids, it is worth remembering that toxic, incredibly turbulent workplaces thrive on distorted views of normalcy. I think the task when reading her book is to not miss the forest for the trees. In other words, the interpretative and empathetic labour Swan Dive demands of us, is to imagine what sort of distortions needed to be possible for the many eye-popping details in her book to feel normal. So normal that Martins reigned over New York City Ballet for over three decades.
To give one example, after being subjected to multiple ‘Fat Talks’, Pazcoguin went for a liposuction on her thighs. You wonder. In what world would a liposuction to the tune of ten thousand dollars feel like the most logical, even the healthiest option? Perhaps when the other alternative, rapid weight loss, was both ineffectual and dangerous. No way could she spot-lose weight on her thighs, and it would be a sure path to destructive eating habits. Maybe our task when confronted with many of her revelations is not to gawk but rather to ask what sort of culture demands that people, women especially, have to make choices like these to progress in their careers.
Swan Dive comes in the wake of the Alexandra Waterbury scandal. An apprentice with the New York City Ballet, she was dating Chase Finlay, then a principal with the company. Without her knowledge or consent, he took intimate, sexual photos of her and disseminated them among his colleagues including two other male principal dancers (Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro) and a male donor. The photos were accompanied by a string of vile text messages that included one fantasising about abusing women “like farm animals.”
In some ways, Swan Dive acts as a prelude, an explainer for why things unfolded the way they did. It shows how petty, random acts of cruelty snowballed into larger acts that unchecked, reached a final denouement in the form of the Waterbury scandal. This reading might afford some closure. After all Martins and the three men who were implicated in the scandal have since left the company or retired (though they are still free to pursue careers elsewhere). But it is a lazy one. NYCB might be a particularly egregious example, and Martins a particularly cultish leader, but much of what Pazcoguin alleges is not new (see Gelsey Kirkland’s book Dancing on my Grave) or confined to NYCB (see Luke Jennings’ essay Learned behaviour in the London Review of Books or Chloe Angyal’s book Turning Pointe).
All this is to say that those seeking assurances about the redemptive qualities of ballet will be disappointed by Swan Dive. But Pazcoguin writes from a place of deep care. To have kept faith with this art form for as long as she has, and through everything she has seen, takes real commitment. She writes in part because she believes that ballet can be made kinder and better; and this very belief is an act of love.
Her advocacy through the Final Bow for Yellowface initiative for “more positive and nuanced representations of ‘Asians in ballet’ also suggests someone committed to using her personal experiences as an Asian-American dancer to shape her art form for the better. Pazcoguin certainly has the spirit for it. The other thing about humour is that it’s rhythmic impulse even, or perhaps especially, when punctured by expletive rage (and the book is liberal with them) has a propulsive drive. As opposed to spinning melodic webs, sentences ring out with emphatic purpose; less of a hymn and more of a rallying cry. It is much needed.
Author: Georgina Pazcoguin
Published in the UK by Picador; October 14, 2021
Hardback, 272 pages
Note: In view of some of the topics covered, Swan Dive is recommended for 18+ only.