The Unknown Young Balanchine

Saint-Petersburg State Museum of Theater and Music
George Balanchine, seated, and other members of the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, Petrograd, circa 1921

George Balanchine had a hidden childhood. When he left his native Russia for Europe and the United States in 1924, his entire family stayed behind, and even letters between them were unreliable. Judging from what he later told friends and biographers, he didn’t remember much, though what he did recall fit neatly, perhaps a bit too neatly, in two halves. Balanchine thought of his early family life as mostly warm, even happy, and he recalled with nostalgia a lost imperial world. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1904, and his father was Georgian, charismatic, a composer; his mother was Russian, and she played the piano and made wonderful food; they were Orthodox and he loved church ritual. Ballet, and his training at the Imperial Theater School, were part of his sensual memory; he longed for the smells, sights, sounds of old Russia.

The break came with war, revolution, civil war, and the collapse of everything he had known. He was still a child—just thirteen years old in 1917—and he was cold and alone as his family moved back to Georgia while he stayed in (then) Petrograd, dancing in freezing temperatures, performing at Communist meetings, in cabarets and clubs, and was pulled into the vortex of revolutionary movements in art. He left the country with memories of imperial light and revolutionary darkness, formal beauty and its violent undoing. He loved Russia and hated the USSR.

In subsequent years, Balanchine rarely spoke of his family. Yet there were shadows: a picture propped on his bedside table in New York in the 1950s of his father, who had died in 1937; his overwhelming emotion in 1962 when his New York City Ballet toured the USSR, and his difficult reunion with his brother, the only surviving member of his immediate family. Not to mention the letters from his mother, who passed away in 1959, which he, a man who kept little, privately stowed away until his own death in 1983. But mostly he held his family at a distance. It is fair to say that he hardly knew them.

Until now. Elizabeth Kendall has unearthed the world of Balanchine’s childhood. For this alone we owe her a great debt: she has had to dig long and hard to come up with new official documents, invaluable family letters, and revealing and previously unknown facts. She has sought out every living member of the family and immersed herself in their lore and examined the scant sources from every possible angle. Where the facts fail, as they often do, she raises questions and fills in the picture with history. This is her real strength: at its best, her book is not only a portrait of Balanchine’s youth, it is a portrait of Russia in collapse—of the world that was…

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