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Beliefs of a Master

for Father Adrian

1.

When George Balanchine set foot on Manhattan in the autumn of 1933, he and his colleagues were so preoccupied with confusing circumstances, inevitable in founding any ambitious institution, that while formulating an overall educational morality was not ignored, its expression was delayed. However, after our fledgling School of American Ballet incorporated itself as licensed by the Board of Regents of the State of New York, and opened on January 2, 1934, a policy, latent but dormant, began to ferment. Over the next fifty years it would be distilled, and its taste and temper become clear.

This metaphysic or body of belief, a credence that surpassed concern for mere physical mastery, determined our destiny, as well as the destiny of those ballet companies that eventually came to employ the dancers our school had trained. Only after Balanchine’s death does his moral rigor seem definable, although it had long been visible. What he lived, taught, and invented ballets by was a constant employment of traditional guidelines for considerate behavior. While these precepts would never be codified as curriculum in any catalog, they determined instruction and practice.

Odd parents, a few very odd, commenced bringing children—mostly girls, too tall, short, or plump—to be auditioned by this young ballet master, who, not yet known to America, had already been interviewed by the dance critic of The New York Times. One woman asked him, after he’d inspected her daughter in practice class, “Will she dance?” What she meant was, “Do you think she is beautiful and talented, as a child, and will she be a star?” A middle-class American mother was seeking a prognosis, as from an allergist about her child’s rash. The putative ballerina clung to Mummy’s skirt, exhibiting filial attachment worthy of Shirley Temple. Balanchine was unassertive, slim, no longer boyish, and, with his grave, alert mannerliness, the more daunting in his authority, instinctive and absolute. He hesitated, perhaps to make sure he would be understood; she repeated her question, “Will my daughter dance?” A Delphic response was the reply she received, sounding more oracular couched in French, although the sound of its meaning was plain enough through its four transparent cognates: “La Danse, Madame, c’est une question morale.”

The dance as a moral consideration. The abstractness of the answer, in its hardy phrasing, may have seemed even more puzzling than its pronouncement in French. “Morale“? Morals? Morality? Immorality? Ancestral seventeenth-century Puritans in Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence, New Haven, founding theological seminaries which would mutate into influential seats of teaching if less frequently of learning, had provided the mid-twentieth-century American with a curious inversion of the word “morality.” John Harvard, Cotton Mather, Elihu Yale, and other Calvinists denounced “dancing” as devil’s business, the fancy of whoredoms, a relic of the Caroline court, of the corruption of divine kingship. Faced with exile, a trackless continent, savage enemies, starvation, an imponderable future, God-fearing pioneers needed every ounce of muscular energy just in order to survive. Jehovah had chastised a tribe frolicking in exile before a golden calf. Waste motion, especially that kindled by animal spirits, was not to be spent ecstatically or mindlessly. Witch hunters contrived, with self-defensive ferocity, to save their irrepressible flock.

As a reaction, or indeed a revolt, against such historical conditioning, our own permissive epoch—thanks to pragmatism, behaviorism, Freud, and “freedom”—believes that somatic muscular instinct can, and indeed must, be identified with every born creature’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but with individual personal choice, no matter what the circumstance of birth or qualification may be, regardless of class or color. Any vast preoccupation with formidable definitions of good or evil, of morality itself, has become an inhibition on that guaranteed liberty. Limits imposed on available satisfaction, however brainless or fashionable, are disdained as a restriction on natural gifts that any or all of God’s children (few of whom are taught to believe in Him) may, with promiscuous benevolence, accidentally be granted. Corsets beset Isadora Duncan; she tossed them off: hence any American is free to dance as she or he sees fit, presuming we possess a conscious choice.

After a long desperate revolutionary was for political independence, a frightful civil rebellion, participation in a world war, and despite rumbles and ensuing depression from 1929, the United States in 1934 was hypnotized by the illusion of limitless possibility. Animal instinct was manumission. Restrictive rules for the cultivation of modern art, particularly modern dance, were condemned as not only retardative, but un-American. Any girl-child, given a break, might hope to be—perhaps not yet president, but at least a baby movie star. “Morality” was an attack on optimism, hedonism, a straitjacket on compulsive free will, on the full play of one’s instincts, a hindrance from which only backward or exhausted European academies might be withering.

Mother and fidgety daughter lingered irresolutely in the small shabby foyer of the School of American Ballet at Fifty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue—a space that, some thirty years before, Paris Singer had leased for Isadora Duncan. She, a canonized immoralist and freedom fighter, had kept her small Russian students from entering the Bolshoi Opera House, fearful lest their innocence be corrupted by the glory of what was left of an imperial dynastic ballet company. Her own heroic countermorality had done what it could to exorcise the ghosts of those Pilgrim fathers who proscribed lewd behavior around the Maypole at Merrymount. With the puritanical triumph, the profession of theatrical dancer was cursed on this continent for the next two and a half centuries.

Isadora gained her personal victory, tragic as it may have been. Martha Graham, her liberated successor, because of her own feminist morality, won a more fruitful and lasting career. In 1934, modern dance was exulting in the progressive assertion of experiment, in the endless duel between the innovator and tradition. Here the influence was an inheritance from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, subsequently homogenized in the blanket educational reformative attitude of William James and John B. Watson. Classic traditional academic ballet, “artificial” in its graceful historicity, seemed to most American progressive educators, wherever they recognized its fragile presence, not only played out but, worse, immoral. It now even menaced our shores as an alien invasion. The dance critic of The New York Times, after viewing Balanchine’s debut on Broadway with a provocative repertory, advised him to sail back to Paris as soon as possible.

Sadly, the anxious and disgruntled mother reclaimed her restless hopeful. Unsatisfied, facing dismissal, she thanked Balanchine “for his time,” a gesture that was also an accusation against a foreigner’s lack of sympathy. Bewildered, but estimating that little enough had been risked or lost, they vanished. Soon came hundreds like them. Meanwhile, Balanchine advanced that moral substructure on which his school’s regimen was founded.

2.

A lady I’ve known since childhood, with whom I share interests in “art,” but who is moved more by “literature” than listening to music or looking at dancing, asked me, when she heard Balanchine was terminally ill, “Was he, in any sense, ‘religious’?” To anyone who had the least contact with him, this seemed less an ignorant than an astonishing question.

Balanchine was in every sense “religious” in its most accepted dictionary definition. His observance of the rites of Russian Orthodoxy was inborn and unswerving. St. Petersburg’s ballet school, which was paid by the czar’s privy purse and which he entered in 1913, had its own chapel and priest (as do West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy).

As a “liberal” or even “revolutionary” student attracted to progressive expression in music and the plastic arts, in the open atmosphere following Lenin’s October victory, he arranged choreography for the reading of Alexander Blok’s poem The Twelve by a choir of fifty in 1923. He was enthusiastic about Meyerhold and Mayakovsky, but he had small interest in the factional politics of the day. In later life, gross social programs for amelioration of the human condition meant far less to him than specific, minimal benefits. His affecting impersonation onstage as Don Quixote was echoed domestically when he dedicated his company’s performances toward Italian earthquake relief, or when he bought bulletproof vests for New York policemen.

For him, Lord God in one big bang “created” the cosmos, which existed before time. After that, everything was discovery or invention. Two epithets he particularly detested, though they were frequently invoked to qualify his “genius,” were “creative” and “original.” The first, he felt, was the more false; only less offensive was “original” or its twin, “authentic.” Any unique human explosion of initiative was usually mutation, but more often dilution. As for “genius,” the word rarely signified contact with a genie, a spirit released from bottled earth to infinite air, but, rather, a person endowed with given, if extraordinary, powers. Geniuses come in all styles, good or evil, Haydn to Hitler.

In classic academic opera-house dancing, which was his empire, he never claimed to be more than a reassembler, inverter, or extender. This positioning was neither reformation, distortion, nor replacement. His deep and oft-repeated generous obligation and respect for predecessors—Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa in particular, but also Mikhail Fokine and Kasyan Goleizovsky—continually surprised commentators, who were quick to flatter Balanchine’s surprising movement as “revolutionary.” Few of these had been familiar with the late Diaghilev repertory or its St. Petersburg ancestry. Also, they rarely estimated his debt to those heavenly powers that blessed his firmest collaborators, Bach, Gluck, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. Balanchine’s belief was akin to Soren Kierkegaard’s: Morality is not religious life, but only a prelude to it.

3.

From his baptism in infancy, Balanchine’s sensuous and visual impressions were stimulated by celebration of saints, their feats and festivals. Icons, and the music and incense that wafted about the altar screen, furnished ideas that still resounded when he came to map movements for theatrical action. His uncle, the archbishop of Georgian Tbilisi, celebrated the Eucharist in vestments of purple and heavy gold. His nephew was given small objects to bless. The boy played at priest, cherishing the precious little relics he’d been handed as sacred toys. The annual remembrance of his own birth and origins, celebrated on the feast day of his patron, St. George of Lydda, were convocations of friends and colleagues, tasting memorable food he cooked, drinking wines he prized. Dependence on hierarchies of protectors—sacred and profane, mythical or historic—was his comfort.

It may be useful to sketch the poetics in theology that irradiated his faith, since these were transmitted to the secular rites he arranged. This is manifest in distinctions between forms of belief in the Christianity of the West, centered on Rome, and that of Eastern, Greek, or subsequently Slavic Orthodoxy embodied in the second Rome, Constantine’s capital which had become Byzantium. In 988 AD in Kiev, Prince Vladimir, whose name like the title of Christ means “Ruler of the World,” had his people baptized; he established the Church and its institutions. Kiev became the fount of that philosophy of imperial angelism which was incarnate in the flesh and motion of Balanchine’s invention.

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