George Balanchine (1904–1983)

There was a star danced, and under that was I born.

Much Ado About Nothing

George Balanchine liked to say, quoting Mayakovsky, “I am not a man, but a cloud in trousers.” And now the luminous cloud has floated off, leaving us with a loss far deeper than the grave. Balanchine spoke for all of us. Diffident as he was in private life, in his ballets he shared his daydreams, his joys, his troubled loves, his fears, his instinct for elegance and order, and his passion for youth with those who admired his work. He has been a poet for poets, a musician for musicians, and a dramatist for anyone who wishes to understand the human heart. Reality for him was the stage and he gave us stylized visions that seem truer than life. His genius was multilingual. A couple in love walk slowly onto a twilit stage, music of Fauré is heard, and the perfume of French poetry lies lightly in air. The Four Temperaments and Kammermusik speak perfect German. Agon—cool, sarcastic, analytic, probing—is Sixties America. Stravinsky said when he first saw Movements for Piano and Orchestra, “George shows me things in my own music that I didn’t realize were there.”

W.H. Auden said of Balanchine, “He’s not an intellectual, he’s something deeper, a man who understands everything.” And indeed, he has given us a history of manners, music, and the dance, as seen by a twentieth-century master. Through his eyes we saw gods and mythical creatures move in limitless space. Apollo (and could this be the twenty-four-year-old Balanchine’s youthful aspiration?) harnesses the muses and controls their destinies—controls them with godlike tact and tenderness. Balanchine’s genius is unclassifiable. He can be a neoclassicist for Stravinsky, a romantic for Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze and Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. For Ravel he has been a classicist in Le Tombeau de Couperin, a Proustian in Valse Noble et Sentimentale, and an Edgar Allan Poe in La Valse. Delight, pleasure, and charm do not seem to be twentieth-century preoccupations until we see Valse Fantaisie, Bourrée Fantasque, Square Dance, or Nutcracker for that matter. Gothic romance as an art form was forgotten until La Sonnambula, whose quickly sketched intrigante plotting evil as she dances the polonaise is a masterpiece of characterization. In the same ballet, we are bewitched by the somnambulist as, candle in hand, she makes her way around the stage en pointe, blindly seeking her destiny.

Balanchine’s genius in dance innovation was limitless. His revolutionary use of the elements of ballet—speed, balances, steps, lifts, gestures, partnering—made us see them anew. As with Mozart, his inventions came to us as inevitable extensions of his art. Creation was his life, inventiveness his toy. He could transform everyday life into an unexpected fete.

“We’ll be late for the theater,” we said one evening after an early dinner. “Let’s find a taxi.”

“No, no,” he said, “subway much better.” And like a mythical guide he made the dingy steps, the sinister train, the underground arrival…

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