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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 at the State Theater a Tiepoloesque flight into heaven. Ordinary life seemed not to exist for George. Olympian in his simplicity, he cooked his Russian food, he ironed his own shirts, he planted flowers and trees, he trained his cat to jump—all with the concentration, the dispatch, the single-mindedness that he gave to his choreography.

If his work gave him trouble no one was aware of it. A religious believer, he trusted the immense talent God had given him. Balanchine never tried consciously to create a masterpiece. He made masterpieces by combining his unique knowledge of the dance and a profound emotional instinct with an absolute honesty about the music he was working with. His nose would quiver with characteristic disdain at the word “inspiration.” But how he inspired others! He could transform the dancing of Tanaquil Le Clercq or Suzanne Farrell with the severest, gentlest love and make them dance like angels.

We who have known Balanchine for almost forty years never failed (when he had time for us) to ask his musical advice. The essentials—rhythm, tempo, phrasing, and structure—were what he spoke of. Whenever expressiveness was mentioned he would say, “That you find in the music.” Then with his enigmatic smile he would add, “And if you’re lucky, in here,” pointing to his heart.

His musical gifts were extraordinary. He could play anything at sight. In the early days of the New York City Ballet he would occasionally slip into the orchestra pit, unannounced and largely unnoticed, and conduct one of his ballets. Especially impressive was his ability to transcribe, to make piano reductions of complicated orchestral scores—Webern or Schoenberg—in order to study them before beginning to choreograph. In the slow movement of Concerto Barocco the soaring lifts of the ballerina follow the rising arch of the melody while the corps de ballet mirrors the mounting intensity of the harmonic progression—a breathtaking example of Balanchine’s ability to make one “see the music and hear the dance.”

Balanchine’s own theater is only a step away from Broadway, for which he worked, and which, with few exceptions, deals, like a shifty croupier, in false coin. Close as they are they seem planets apart. For in his theater Balanchine created a cultural haven for those who can say the word “beauty” without shame. His standards were chivalric and unrelenting. He demanded nothing from his audience, expected little understanding from them, was happy if they appreciated his pretty girls and pleased when they seemed to grasp the true spirit of his work. He had little use for “highfalutin” appreciations, and dreaded the search for hidden meanings in his ballets. Poetic and metaphysical insights seemed only to startle him. And unlike Diaghilev, he was bored by the rich and the powerful.

Balanchine married Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil Le Clercq. Each in turn became his muse; each showed him new ways to perceive love, the human spirit, and the body in motion. There were two other marriages in Balanchine’s life; each lasted about fifty years and changed the course of ballet history. One was his long association with Lincoln Kirstein, the young visionary who presented Balanchine to America with such foresight, imagination, and princely dedication. The other was his creative alliance with Igor Stravinsky. From his young days in Saint Petersburg to his later years in New York he was the composer’s partner in art, the artist closest to the spirit of Stravinsky’s work.

Balanchine’s personality, his quiet, aristocratic ideals of behavior, moral and physical, affected everyone near him. At his private burial each of his dancers, his associates, and his friends was given a rose to add to those that lay on the grave. As we watched them, each in turn, step forward to place their roses on the coffin, it seemed to us that they shared a grace, distinction, and nobility that were Balanchine’s own, and that there had never been, and never again would be, another choreographer of George Balanchine’s stature.

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