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Beliefs of a Master

The ballet dancer’s mode of existence may seem to outsiders as circumscribed as that of convent or cloister. More than accepting rude discipline, professionals like everyone else must endure not only unappeasable mental anxiety, but also, from their bodies, brittleness, strain, and fatigue. The hazards of a snapped Achilles tendon, bad sprains, slipped disks, the anguish and boredom of measureless recuperation, the slow and dubious resumption of practice and performances—these are taxes every good dancer must pay. In this process, by the conscious use and comprehension of suffering, the dancer begins to perceive the essence of the Nature of Existence, of Being, of serving one’s art and craft, of one’s true nature and destiny. It is a stringent education, but when we see a great dancer onstage, performing with full power, we are inspecting a very developed human being, one who knows more about self than any psychiatrist can suggest. Seamless luck in avoiding injury doesn’t exist here any more than in any of the games for which people applaud winners.

Many modern therapies, with current spiritual scenarios, preach condign avoidance of suffering as if it were anathema, the unearned deserts of mindless fate. Mrs. Eddy’s Christian Science swears that the existence of suffering is purely imaginary. Placebos for extenuation or avoidance come a dime a dozen, or as bargains for a fifty-minute hour. Since suffering is indeed real and unavoidable, analysts, lay or legitimate, proffer their mesmeric recipes which have become pandemic since Freud met Charcot. Balanchine offered no cure, but work in which the self-wounded artist could best cure self. His requirements were really extreme, corresponding to real extremity.


Three musicians whom Balanchine most preferred as partners were, in the familiar sense, profoundly “religious.” Each was a communicant Christian according to the frame of his historical perspective. The fabric of their imaginative process was coined from Christian Gospel. The opening “Preghiera” in Mozartiana, Tchaikovsky’s homage to a predecessor, danced with total consecration by Suzanne Farrell, is a rescript of Mozart’s “Ave, Verum Corpus” (“Hail the True Body of Our Lord”). It was Mozart’s own Requiem Mass that the ballet master ordered for his memorial.

When the Tchaikovsky Festival of 1981 closed with a setting of the fourth movement (“Adagio Lamentoso”) of his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique,” which contains a quotation from the Orthodox service for the dead, Balanchine made a flock of a dozen angels, their tall, gilt wings stiff as in an icon, flow onstage. They stood immobile, witnesses giving testimony to a martyrdom. A cruciform composition of prostrate, despairing monks, their great cross centering the scene with the breathing metaphor of a magnificent artist’s trial and judgment. Condemned by a hypocritical society and its legal cabal, Tchaikovsky, self-slain, had taken his poisoned chalice. At the end of the ballet, a small boy in a white shift, bearing a single lit taper, drew a wide world into the dancers’ concentrated space. When he blew the tiny flame out, the real presence of evil burned black. Absolute silence after the curtain fell was instinctive recognition more stunning in its delayed and silent shock than thousands of applauding hands.

For the climactic finale of the Stravinsky Festival of 1972, there was no choice but to crown it with his Symphony of Psalms, a sole, appropriate “amen.” But unlike some younger, less-aware choreographers, Balanchine was not quick to compete with the choir. Instead, his dancers, in ordinary practice dress, sat at ease on the stage floor, in eager attention, framing the musicians. Now they were “hearing,” not “dancing.” There was no waste or excess in adorning or “interpreting” sonorities which commanded their unique autonomy. This ballet master knew there is music superior to any visual gloss.

It is often reiterated that Balanchine was an “inspired” maker. He was indeed infinitely capable of drawing from the traditional lexicon of steps, as if he breathed or derived from it a fresh range of motion. It is difficult for many to comprehend the extraordinary richness of discrete steps in their academic configuration which make up the idiom that he handled, but the easiest comparison is a parallel in musical notation, its keys and combinations. Often, a surprising or abrupt sequence of steps infused his dancers’ bodies easily and inevitably as a refreshment of systole and diastole. This exceptional talent was commonly recognized as “God-given,” but, since the deity granting it was seldom acknowledged, it was rarely admitted that the artist inspired though he owed something to his Creator.

Balanchine reported to W. McNeil Lowry that on his appointment as the last ballet master to Diaghilev, at the age of twenty, he was brought to Florence in order to learn to look at pictures. In Russia there had been little time or opportunity for such instruction. Lowry’s tape recording reads:

I couldn’t understand why it [painting] was good at first, but he [Diaghilev] told me: “Now you stare for hours; we’re going to have lunch and when we come back you’ll still be there,” in some chapel where Perugino was. So I stared and stared and stared, and they came back and I said: “No. I don’t know what’s good about it.” Later on, I went myself a hundred times. Then I realized how beautiful it is: the sky so pale blue and the way the faces…

And from then on I somehow started to see Raphael and how beautiful it is, and then I found Mantegna, and then Caravaggio, and finally I realized how beautiful is Piero della Francesca. Also I was probably a lot influenced by the Church, or our [Orthodox] Church, the enormous cathedrals, and by our clergy, the way they were dressed, you know; and they also have a black clergy, those important ones that become patriarchs [archimandrites] and wear black….

So that also to me was God. Not that it’s “God Invisible.” I don’t know what that is. God is this wonderful dress you see. Even now, always, I have to say I couldn’t just think of God in some abstract way, to connect with Him just by spirit, by mind. You have to be really mystic to sit down and meditate, to worm down in yourself. But I can’t do that. As they say, my work is with what I see, with moving, with making ballets. So too with God—He is real, before me. Through Christ I know how God looks, I know His face, I know His beard, and I know how He’ll talk, and I know that in the end we’ll go to God. You see, that’s how I believe, and I believe so fantastic….

Name it “God” or “Order,” what conspired to “inspire” Balanchine to construct stage movement, as well as what moves his inheritors, is neither capricious improvisation nor waste motion. It derives from an energetic source that permits it to fulfill circumscribed stage space for more than one “inspired” occasion. He made dance works strong enough to bear repetition, and by performers other than the ones who had originally inspired them. His inestimable service was an ordering of active behavior as a reflection of overall orderliness, as well as its negative aspect in dislocation and disorder. There are his caustic violations of the traditional canon—inverted feet, angular arms, jagged fingers, “ungraceful” torsion, “ugly” attitudes. His was and is a constant demonstration of outrageous liberties in choice within the large, encompassing lectionary from which he had the wit and skill to draw.

Even today, we have no more viable a word for “divinity” than we have for its opposite in “anarchy” or the eschatological “absurd.” Balanchine’s catalog is a book of orderly rites, psalms, hymns. These were confidently conceived and constructed by and to order. Many were produced in answer to current, pressing needs. Mandatory was his supply of “opening,” “middle,” and “closing” ballets. Rousing applause machines were not to be wasted by being set first on a program; they were to be saved for a culminating finale. Different works, after their introduction, could in time be shifted about; the placement was frequently determined by requirements in setting up complicated scenery, so that intermissions might not seem too long.

Season after season, works were on order, like fresh skirts, shirts, ties, and trousers, to tempt the new, while satisfying old, subscribers, to ensure in advance fiscal security and practical continuity. Ballets were often brought into being by response to immediate popular taste or fashion, with various results as to box-office success or lasting acceptance. A rule of thumb indicated that one out of three might remain in the repertory after three seasons; some, failing at first, had more luck in revival. Like seeds of the dandelion, many had to be blown about to assure a central harvest. It was not only the challenge or curiosity in innovation, or even in the commissioning or resuscitation of powerful or surprising composers: Ives, Webern, Sousa, Hindemith, Gershwin. Balanchine set steps “sur mesure et par commande,” like a master cabinetmaker, tailor, or cook.

Although he could recognize his own sins down to their least fraction, he rarely complained of subjective blockage, or restraint in energy due to personal dismay or private pain. There were never any arguments over contracts; with his own succession of companies there was hardly even a verbal agreement. Confidence was mutual, confirmed by silence on irrelevant legalities. There were few complaints about funding withheld, few interviews granted to “explain” or justify his intentions. He made no protests, sent no corrections to critics, staged no tantrum exits. When he quit the Metropolitan Opera, in which his company survived three trying years, it was done overnight, with small explanation. But when he discovered that the orchestra pit at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, ostensibly designed for him, could contain enough musicians of service only to Broadway, he called in jack-hammers to carve out a decent space. When he refused to dance in Washington’s Kennedy Center for three seasons because of the wretched stage floor, it was eventually repaired.

Picturesque, romantic, marketable narcissism, the whole dead mirror of the manipulative persona, was an identifiable enemy, petrified in the star system, the promotion of flashy performers for richer returns to agents and impresarios. Early on he had estimated the value of critical reportage of dance events. Working journalists pressed by loose thought or the need to put their papers to bed were rarely as assiduous in their observation as sports or science writers. In his early career he had been reviled by the leading critic of Paris for the insolence and degeneracy noted in his choreography for Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, the music of which was equally condemned. Over the years journalists managed to propose both “the Balanchine dancer” and “the Balanchine ballet” without much analysis of the diversity in the choice of his dancers or in the variety of what they danced.

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