Balanchine’s Steps

George Balanchine: Ballet Master

by Richard Buckle, in collaboration with John Taras
Random House, 409 pp., $29.95

Balletmaster: A Dancer's View of George Balanchine

by Moira Shearer
Putnam, 180 pp., $18.95

Dancing on My Grave

by Gelsey Kirkland and Greg Lawrence
Jove, 363 pp., $4.50 (paper)

No other European émigré artist of the 1930s had as great an effect on American culture and bequeathed as rich a legacy to it as George Balanchine. When he arrived in New York in October 1933, architecture was flourishing in the United States, conservatories and fine arts academies existed, and painters, poets, sculptors, and composers somehow survived. But in this country, classical ballet, that international transplant, indigenous nowhere, was not for certainty considered an art at all, much less a respectable one.

At the time of his death fifty years later, the émigré with, more truly than the author of the phrase, nothing to declare except his genius, had won recognition for ballet as a great art, trained a company of nonpareil dancers for whom he created many masterpieces, and established a school. His New York City Ballet was the one American artistic enterprise consistently welcomed and applauded abroad, while his version of the Russian ballet Nutcracker became an American institution, as much a part of our holiday seasons as turkey. Now, on the fifth anniversary of his death no memorial has been raised to this man who gave us so much, nor, as yet, has the essential drama of his life been captured, if it has been perceived, by biographers.

Richard Buckle’s George Balanchine is an affectionate portrait of the great choreographer. Though not the anticipated sequel to his Diaghilev and Nijinsky but a more selective, not to say sketchy, biography that deals briefly with well-worked subjects and avoids twice-told tales, his survey of the ballets seeks, not always successfully, to place them in post-Balanchine perspectives. Even so, this is the Balanchine book, at least to date, for those who will read only one.

Balanchine history is largely, inevitably, oral. He himself was a voluble interviewee, and the best lines in the book are excerpted from his talk (“music…I make dance that looks like it. I was born for that reason”). Though a nonwriter—only a few of the letters from his American period published here sound like him (“Please, no Sebastian,…a dreadful ballet, lousy music, stinking story”)—with no grammar, a limited vocabulary, a peculiar idiolect, an accent grossly misrendered in all orthographies, he nevertheless manages to be ringingly articulate.

Substantial portions of Buckle’s text derive from spokespersons for specific periods, including widows of both the never-quite-married-to-him and the never-quite-unmarried-to-him kind. In Buckle’s account of the early Lincoln Kirstein years, and again at times in the late Thirties and Forties, the voice is more Kirstein’s than Buckle’s. But no matter. The quotations from Kirstein’s writings, letters, and telegrams, together with those from “groupie” ballerinas—“He always made a dance with one person in mind and if another person were to dance it he would change the steps”—bring us nearer to the living Balanchine than any amount of third-hand description.

The short chapter on Balanchine in Russia (1904–1924) provides a smattering of political and cultural history, and as much as most readers will wish to know of his family background (half-Georgian,…

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