Two new books about master choreographer and dance teacher George Balanchine were published in November 2004. They are Wall Street Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout’s All in the Dances A Brief Life of George Balanchine, and New York City Ballet board member and New Yorker Magazine editor Robert Gottlieb’s George Balanchine the Ballet Maker, for Harper Collins’s Eminent Lives series. We might wonder how these additions to the growing Balanchine library can really be useful. Good biographies are available already, Bernard Taper’s Balanchine, for example. Then there are the catalogues, critical collections, and memoirs of dancers Toni Bentley, Suzanne Farrell, Tamara Geva, Allegra Kent, Peter Martins, Maria Tallchief and Edward Villella.
All, including Teachout’s and Gottleib’s new books, tell variations of the same story. The child that would become the greatest choreographer of the 20th century is abandoned by his family at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. After suffering years of privation caused by the Revolution, he escapes to the west, is hired by Diaghilev as a composer of opera ballets, and at 21, is made ballet master of the world’s finest, most innovative company, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Diaghilev’s theatre became a sort of training ground, where Balanchine developed neoclassicism, dance that is grand in manner, inventive, lucid, witty, sometimes poignant, but never pompous or
sentimental. He composes ballets that differ radically from one another in scope, style and theme, and makes them one following another, sometimes in a matter of weeks.
At NYCB, Balanchine shared artistic directorship for 20 years with Broadway giant Jerome Robbins, and gave him tremendous support during the composition of his ballets, offering not only the raw materials – dancers and space – but educated interest and encouragement. Greg Lawrence, in his Dance With Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins (2001) quotes Balanchine’s longtime administrative partner. “Here I was, just a young choreographer, and there was the master of our age bringing in props to help me, as if he were some fourth assistant to the stage manager,” Robbins reported with amazement. But he learned from Balanchine the key to satisfaction in the creative life. “He made me see that the work was more important than the success, that work in progress was what mattered most.”
What conflicts occurred seem to have been spawned by differences in values between dancers who cared for themselves first, and Balanchine who was interested primarily in work. In Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic (1998), Edward Villella illustrates this friction. Villella was rehearsing Donizetti Variations, frustrated with the part, with the time he had to learn it, all compounded with his chronic hip pain. In fact, the only aspect of the piece he felt happy about was his handsome costume. One afternoon, Balanchine summoned Villella to the basement of the State Theater, and began to dig through the wardrobe. At last he resurrected a bright orange tunic and a pair of yellow tights, “the color of baby vomit.”
“Put these on,”
Villella, already slight of stature, appeared to be cut in half by this outfit. He looked as though he were dancing on his knees.
“Perfect!” Balanchine announced with a flourish, and strode away, leaving the humiliated Villella to absorb the lesson: If you’re going to play the fool, why not dress like one?
Villella saw the episode as an exercise in domination, Balanchine beating his chest and demonstrating his power.
But we see at the heart of their conflict a debate about what is most important. For Balanchine, the answer was always, even during the well-publicized debacle with Suzanne Farrell, dance. Dancers who threatened to quit were told some version of: “I’m glad you’ve decided. Go in peace.” As Peter Martins relates from his own surprised experience, in Far From Denmark (1982), those who failed to appear in company class or rehearsal simply were not cast. Balanchine’s “do-it-now” attitude and rhetorical, “What are you saving yourself for?” were a revelation to Martins. But all the dancers who have published memoirs, and this is a failing that most strongly marks their descriptions of Balanchine, saw him through the necessary prism of their self-absorption. All can tell what happened, their side of the story, but they can’t tell why, not convincingly for readers, because each of their accounts is filtered in personality: Villella’s macho insecurity, Martins’s European-bred expectations (which he slowly un-learned), Farrell’s naïve imperviousness, Tallchief’s brass-tax practicality.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Balanchine’s most important relationship was with someone he could communicate with on another level – through music – Igor Stravinsky. Their dynamic repartee and shared vision overflowed into the composition process. For example, Taper relates, during the creation of Orpheus, in 1948, Stravinsky asked Balanchine about the length of the pas de deux.
“Oh,” Balanchine replied, “about two and a half minutes.”
“Don’t say ‘about,’” Stravinsky corrected, reprovingly. “There is no such thing as ‘about’. Is it two minutes, two minutes and fifteen seconds, two minutes and thirty seconds, or something in between?”
Balanchine’s understanding of music freed him from what Stravinsky called, “the tyranny of the beat.” He was able to demonstrate, without dancing a part full out, the essence of a movement, so that dancers would mourn their inability to reproduce the elegance, the gusto, the earthiness – whatever the part required – that Balanchine showed in the studio. He believed that if ballet is any good, it doesn’t need program notes or other explanation. “The curtain should just go up and if the spectators understand what’s going on it’s good, and if not, not.”
So what can Teachout’s and Gottleib’s books add to all this?
Gottleib’s work as part of a series of biographies aims for authority. It winnows out gossip, scandal and drama, presents conflicting accounts evenly, and adds to the story in two previously unexplored dimensions. One, he talks about Balanchine’s relationship with his family and with Russia. Tallchief, Villella and Farrell all remember the 1962 NYCB tour to the Soviet Union with approbation.
They talk about the shabby accommodations, the lousy food, the sense of being trapped. Especially they remember their dismay when Balanchine suddenly abandoned them, took off for New York and was gone for a week, right in the middle of the tour. Gottlieb tells this story from Balanchine’s point of view. We see the pain and discomfort Balanchine felt dealing with family and friends from the past, with loss, with the high-pressure Soviets who seemed to be using the tour to prove something. So he went home and ironed shirts, tended Tanaquil LeClerq, spent an evening telling baudy stories and singing songs, a full one hundred of them that had been listed in the Times as the most popular of popular songs. It was a necessary and healthy break.
ttlieb unlike other biographers, presents Lincoln Kirstein as more than moneybags, more than a tool that moved Balanchine from Europe to the States. He writes compellingly of Kirstein’s frightening mental illness and misguided belief that he was superfluous to Balanchine and to the company. The truth is, Kirstein made tangible differences: in developing the repertory, attracting funding and creating liaisons with artists working outside of NYCB.
Teachout’s new book is important, too. It stands over and above the others, first, for the quality of the writing. We believe what he has to say because he tells us how he knows. His speculation is careful, and he has an instinct for development – he knows what details to leave in, what to throw out. All in the
Dances is the only published biography that separates awed understanding of Balanchine’s artistic achievement from a clear-eyed, sometimes unflattering view of the man. Teachout tells frankly about Balanchine’s womanizing and affairs. He condemns his pursuit of Suzanne Farrell as “inappropriate,” and presents a dismaying account of Balanchine’s treatment of LeClerq. Most shocking for those of us who have been weaned on our perception of Balanchine’s all-embracing multiculturalism, coming as it did before there was a word for it, is the great choreographer’s unworthy stoop to conquer: he calls Jerome Robbins “Jerry the Fairy.”
Both Gottlieb and Teachout explore the question of the future. With Balanchine and someday even his students no longer around to set and exceed the standard, how will his choreography survive? But Balanchine, who lived his life very much in the present moment, may have sniffed, “Who cares?” Certainly he claimed to have little concern for the fate of either his choreography or for NYCB after his demise. “Apres moi, the board,” he said, characteristically.
But anyone who observes the offspring companies – Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre, among many – sees his influence as so profound that it is difficult to conceive of American dance, indeed the dance world without it. He offered loving tribute to the past (as in the Nutcracker and Swan Lake) while at the same time translating American culture to a performance milieu that shows us a broadened vision of humanity