REVIEW: ‘Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century’
At the age of nine George Balanchine (ne Georgi Balanchivadze) was entered by his mother as a student at the Imperial Dance School in St. Petersburg. The boy Georgi felt no special affinity for dance, and, had he his druthers, would have become a cadet in the Tsar’s army. "I hated the school," he reports of his first year there. "I was certain I had no aptitude for dancing and was wasting my time and the Tsar’s money." He hung on, and in his second year was hooked after dancing with the male corps de ballet on the stage of the famous Mariinsky Theatre. By the age of 16 he had choreographed a short ballet to Rubinstein’s La Nuit. He would go on to become one of the three great choreographers in the history of ballet—the other two being Marius Petipa (1818-1910) and Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942).
George Balanchine choreographed some 425 ballets, many of which have been lost. Some of his earlier ballets appeared before they could be recorded on video; but, even those that were recorded, he fairly regularly tweaked, sometimes changing them radically. He didn’t believe in the usefulness of dance notation. Early in her recent biography of Balanchine, Jennifer Homans lists four of his youthful light ballets, then notes: "All these dances are gone." Other ballets, she reports, "have since disappeared." How many great ballets have been lost cannot be known with certainty. The point is the ephemerality of much ballet.
Mr. B, Homans’s biography, weighing in at nearly 800 pages, is as thoroughgoing, not to say definitive, a biography of George Balanchine as one might wish. Formerly a dancer who has performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Homans has been the dance critic of the New Republic and is currently the dance critic of the New Yorker. She writes well, with precision and wit, authority and insight, on ballet, a subject not always available in its rich intricacies even to those who think themselves balletomanes. No biography of a great artist is ever the last word on its subject, but Homans’s Mr. B, nicely balanced between George Balanchine’s personal and professional lives, is unlikely to be superseded for a long while.
Born in 1904, Balanchine was 10 when World War I broke out, 13 when the revolution changed just about everything he had known in Russian life. Homans writes: "He was too young to belong to the generation at the revolution’s forefront and too old to belong to those of its aftermath." The Imperial Ballet School, oddly, survived the havoc of the revolution; I write "oddly" because ballet before the revolution was clearly aristocratic in its impulse and audience both. Its survival, Homans reports, was owing largely to Anatole Lunacharsky, commissar of education, whose tastes were European and many of whose friends were poets (Alexander Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky) or worked in the theater.
These years both destroyed Balanchine’s health—during them he acquired the tuberculosis he would never quite shake off—and formed his lifelong conservative politics. He would be a strong anti-Communist all his life; when he moved to America he became an Eisenhower Republican and was perennially suspicious of all left-wing activity. Balanchine was repelled by the 1960s, and, as head of the New York City Ballet, would not allow beards or long hair on any of his male dancers. Religious, he once remarked that "the first subject of art was the love of God."
Music was always of central importance to Balanchine. At 16, he enrolled in the Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg. He was said to be able to read music with the ease the rest of us read prose. He felt, in Homans’s words, "music was not only a divine art; it was also a metaphysics and, more concretely, a place. It was a place he could live, a place that took him out of himself, an escape from the intense dislocation of exile and loneliness that were his constant companions." Dance, Balanchine said, "is music made visible." As for the connection between music and dance, he remarked, "See the music, hear the dance."
With a company of dancers Balanchine helped organize a group known as the Young Ballet, which had its first performance in 1923. The Young Ballet performed traditional ballets, but also new ones, including those by Balanchine. The company’s program notes carried the tagline, "From Petipa, through Fokine, towards Balanchivadze." The only revolution Balanchine admired was that in the arts, in which he was slowly himself becoming a noteworthy figure. The roll of revolutionary artists of that day included Wassily Kandinsky, Walter Gropius, Max Reinhardt, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Paul Hindemith, and many others. Weimar culture was in full bloom. "My first influences were in the twenties and they were German," Balanchine noted. "German cabaret performers, German films with stars like Conrad Veidt—you know, elegant and decadent."
A figure of great importance for Balanchine was Sergei Diaghilev, the head of the Ballets Russes and the greatest impresario the arts have ever known. Balanchine met Diaghilev when he was was 20, Diaghilev 57. Henri Matisse called Diaghilev "Louis XIV." Homans notes that Diaghilev’s "taste was as wide-ranging as his knowledge of culture and art, and he boldly lifted ballet out of its prim, courtly isolation and into the expansive and vital world of contemporary Russian music and art." Twenty years after Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine wrote: "Diaghilev had the capacity to see not only the potentialities inherent in an artist, be he choreographer, composer, designer, or dancer, he also knew what work, what style, what period suited that artist best. Great though it was, his genius for discovery would not have been so overwhelming had he not had that innate and cultivated taste which alone distinguishes true artistic quality from a sense for novelty and craftsmanship. … If I were to describe Diaghilev simply, I should say that he was a man of high culture."
Balanchine met Diaghilev in 1924. He it was who suggested Balanchivadze change his name to Balanchine. The producer Martin Beck, who featured the dances Balanchine choreographed with Katherine Dunham in Beck’s theater, called him "Mr. Ball-an-chain." The name might have fit nicely in other circumstances, for, as a teacher of his dancers, Homans notes that Balanchine "was demanding and could be harsh—sadistic … in pushing the dancers relentlessly, through exhaustion and tears."
Diaghilev soon enough recognized that in Balanchine he had discovered another rare talent. Balanchine did not take much longer to recognize that so powerful a figure as Diaghilev would smother his originality. "Etonne moi," Diaghilev used to say to his artists, but Balanchine was only interested in astonishing himself. Homans puts it best: "He had been dropped into Diaghilev’s world, played in Diaghilev’s theater, tried many things, and learned enough for a lifetime, but he had lost, or not quite found, his own voice." Time to move on.
At one point, Balanchine’s knee gave out. A blessing in disguise, it allowed him now to concentrate fully on choreography. Not long after he met Lincoln Kirstein, a scion of the Boston Filene’s Department Store family, with whom he would soon after depart for America and in partnership with whom in 1934 he would found the American Ballet Theatre and, later, in 1948, the New York City Ballet. "He believes the future of Ballet lies in America as do I," said Kirstein of Balanchine.
Balanchine did a fair amount of freelance choreographing in America. In 1935 he was named ballet master of the Metropolitan Opera. He choreographed in Hollywood and on Broadway. He was much taken with America, where he met and much admired Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Cole Porter, was fascinated by jazz, tap, and black dancers, among them Katherine Dunham, whom he cast in a lead role in one of his own dances. He said of Fred Astaire that "he is terribly rare. He is like Bach, who in his time had the greatest concentration of ability, essence, knowledge, a spread of music. Astaire has that same concentration of genius; there is so much of the dance in him that it has been distilled."
How does one choreograph? "Dancers are like instruments, like a piano the choreographer plays," Balanchine said of his own choreography. Homans writes that Balanchine "could only compose with flesh and blood before him like a sculptor with clay, putting off here, taking on there." She adds that, in the only written evidence we have of his thoughts on dancing, "they show a self-consciously analytic and philosophical, if idiosyncratic and religious, mind and a man engrossed in the relationship between dance, time, and God."
We do have some of his basic views on ballet. Perhaps first among them is that "the ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener." There have been great male dancers—Nijinsky, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, and others—but the true subject of ballet is woman. "In my ballets," Balanchine averred, "woman is first. Men are consorts. God made men to sing the praises of women. They are not equal to men. They are better."
Women were also central to Balanchine’s personal life. He married no fewer than five times, but left no children. (Ah, so many are the artists who failed to enrich the international gene pool, departing the planet childless: Anton Chekhov, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, et alia.) His last great love was for the dancer Suzanne Farrell, consummated neither by marriage nor, so far as is known, by coitus. Women, Balanchine claimed, soothed him. Others claimed that he needed them as muses. "Without love and eroticism," Homans writes, "he would shrivel up inside and die. … Love of a woman was his breath, his inspiration."
Women in any case are at the center of Balanchine’s best ballets. These ballets, as Balanchine allowed, are generally without stories. "Comparatively few of my ballets, it is true, tell stories in the usual sense," he said. He added that "there are not mother-in-laws in ballet." For him "in ballet a complicated story is impossible to tell. … We can’t dance synonyms." And: "Put a man and girl on the stage and there is already a story; put a man and two girls, there’s already a plot."
One thinks of the distinction between opera and ballet. Opera has its unfailingly preposterous plots—a fat woman stabs herself, then delivers an aria—whereas ballet, shorn of language, provides the spectacle of lovely bodies cavorting to beautiful music. "To appreciate it [ballet] you have to watch it, not think about it," Balanchine said. In his own ballets, many of them stripped down to pure music and dance, there is much to watch without the distraction of plot. Don Quixote, his most carefully plotted ballet, though he worked and reworked it over the years, never quite came off. Words, Balanchine felt, were useless to describe the revelations that dance provided. Ballets themselves are often equally difficult to describe.
Homans captures Balanchine’s contribution to ballet in the following brilliant paragraph:
He did ballet, yes, but it was a new kind of ballet that ranged far and wide from the base, and many of his dances … were made of steps that have no names and no past. It is often said that he made ballet abstract, or neoclassical, which is true but too narrow. He saw himself as a "progressive"—all is new—but he was also deeply conservative, a genius who borrowed from everything he knew and transcended it all. He picked and chose "what I like" from dance, music, art, light, and the sights, sounds, smell, taste, and feel of the changing world around him. "What I like" was an aesthetic, and it was an aesthetic above all of women, because women were beautiful and had more flexible bodies that could do more things. They were more sensitive instruments, easier for him to "wake up," and there was also eroticism to it.
After a long string of illnesses, Balanchine died on April 30, 1983, at the age of 79."He existed to make dance, that’s all," Homans writes. "His entire life was ballet." He was the complete artist, George Balanchine, a composer of moving bodies and the last indisputably great artist the world has known.
Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century
by Jennifer Homans
Random House, 784 pp., $40
Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.