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Beliefs of a Master

Along with translations of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and Schiller, Pushkin was learned by heart in the czar’s dancing school, following whole chapters from New and Old Testaments. In 1950, when Balanchine revived Prodigal Son, his last ballet surviving from the Diaghilev repertory (save Apollon), produced originally with Prokofiev and Rouault, Wystan Auden was taken backstage at the old City Center of Music and Drama on West Fifty-fifth Street. The poet spoke as a devoted Bible student and professional man of theater. In the ballet’s last scene, the austere father figure, recalling Jehovah as imagined by William Blake, stood stock-still, unbending, impassive. His wayward son, now abject in shame, traversed the wide stage floor on his knees. Dancers who assumed the role padded their knees against splinters. Auden complained that the father should not have remained rigid, but with Christian compassion might have advanced at least a step, in some sign of pardon. Auden might have quoted Luke:

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him.

The choreographer disagreed. He made his own point, altering Scripture for his own didactic purposes. Christ, first of all, was a Jew, raised on the Pentateuch, which included Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The parable embodied an older Testament’s tribal ethic. To be sure, the penitent sinner would be ultimately forgiven; and in the staging the boy climbs up into the father’s strong arms. A cape covers the boy’s shame, making his vulnerability dramatically clear. And Balanchine slyly justified his tampering with the text. Was not the generous gesture an early patristic interpolation, sweetening the rabbinical rigor in favor of propaganda for the new faith?

What was inferred was an indication of Balanchine’s metaphysic. Only through acceptance, realization, and use of the responsible self, even though it might mean a denial of mercy or support, can vain, energetic youth be brought to Abraham’s bosom. An Anglican poet spoke by a new, but a Russian Orthodox by an older, wisdom. This was hardly an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but as ballet master, Balanchine seldom shirked diagnosis. Unaccompanied by any drastic final judgment, his close inspection was, in its immediacy, severe. Only those in whom he had no interest or expectation failed to feel his scalpel.

7.

In promoting dancers from the rank of corps members to soloist or principal, sometimes he seemed slow to act. In an elite world of acrobatic virtuosity, pure justice is accompanied by few explanations and no apologies. Following Ring Lardner, the choreographer’s advice often reduced itself to ” ‘Shut up,’ he explained.” In the end, there was no mitigation and not much further recourse. Sometimes there were wordless estimations, accompanied by an unmistakable facial or physical expression, which were his analyses of all the factors: corporal, psychological, moral. While he could cherish Suzanne Farrell as “my Stradivarius,” such breezy, wholesale, entire-encompassing tolerance was in fact a brutal, unsentimental computerization.

In this conservatively economical survey he remembered the general self-indulgence, lethargy, and irresponsibility which are the inalienable rights of American parents and their spoiled progeny. When one mother asked him, in the tones of a Roman matron: “What are you going to do for my noble boy?” (one already half-castrated) Balanchine answered: “Nothing. Perhaps, only perhaps, he can do some little thing for himself.” In morning class, a brilliantly promising male of seventeen, on the verge of entering the company, bit his lip savagely, in evident disgust or despair at his inability to make his muscles obey what his will demanded. His grimace of self-contempt seemed excessive. Temporary failure was inconvenience, not tragedy. Instead of reassurance, Balanchine snapped at the boy: “It’s you who chose to be a dancer. I didn’t choose for you.”

He was a professor of a highly inflected language, dependent on a pyramidal structure of physical exercises resulting in the subtlest visual refinement, and his precise teaching derived from illustration, not with words but with his own body’s continual demonstration. Some of his students would doubt that Balanchine had ever been much of a brilliant performer himself. They spoke of his early tuberculosis and lack of lung, the time and energy required to compose his constant inventions. He stopped dancing in the early Thirties, but photographs from the Twenties show him not only as Kastchei, the demon-wizard of Firebird, and the Old Showman in Petrouchka, but as the Spirit in Le Spectre de la Rose and Prince Charming in Aurora’s Wedding (in which role Diaghilev would never have let him appear, since he followed Pierre Vladimiroff, of the great 1921 revival).

Anyone who watched Balanchine give class, whatever his lost physical efficiency may have been in the early Eighties, knew they were seeing a kind of analyzed legible movement, as if it were cast in bronze or cut in marble. He had contempt for those retired dancers who taught complacently, even seated in class, with no real talent for the transmission of their language, whatever their past fame in performance, or for those who perfunctorily, dramatizing their own particular style, “talked a good class,” showing hungry students what they wished to be told. Speed in footwork, his famous “elephant-trunk” metaphor for pointe (supple but strong), steel clarity of profile, perfect balance in partnering, the consideration needed to support another’s weight in motion, don’t come easily or quickly.

Yet he could, with no trouble, forgive a kind of behavior, apparently disorderly, which hid hints of latent energy. This might well indicate a commitment to the profession stronger than the ordinary. There could be abrupt seizures of demonic hysteria, masking nervous insecurity or fear of failure, actually only symptoms of excess energy. One promising dancer, midway in school, in a fit of resentful frustration, tossed off all her clothes to parade in the corridor. Of course, she got herself suspended for that term. What else could one do? On the other hand, Balanchine was delighted, since he saw she had the temperament of a first dancer, which she shortly became. Ah, but what if everyone behaved like that? No danger.

And his consistency was inconsistence. In his company there would always be use for those dancers who defied familiar facile formulas that less masterful directors might find basic requirements. Some might, at best, be thought of as mascots or pets; but rather, they were more like exotic flavorings—peppercorns, odd mustards, horseradish, marjoram, pistachio—flavorings that dressed his salad bowls. His choices could seem flagrant eccentricity, the flouting of his own declared criteria. But these were decisions based on long experience in which few others were able to share, and from which there was no recourse.

8.

In Moscow, between October 16 and 22, 1972, Balanchine was interviewed by Nedelia, the weekly “cultural” supplement of the newspaper Izvestia. The interview was headed “A Conversational Pas de Trois,” the trio consisting of Balanchine, the choreographer Jerome Robbins, and Yuri Grigorovich, chief ballet master of the Bolshoi Ballet Company since 1964, who was considered a relatively progressive artist. It was the New York City Ballet’s second tour of the Soviet Union; Balanchine was now more or less accepted as a returned prodigal son, native, however errant. Grigorovich expressed admiration for the technical, or more honestly the mechanical, virtues of Concerto Barocco and Bizet’s Symphony in C, while regretting the American disdain of narrative mimicry, scenic investiture, the full panoply of ballet tradition in opera houses. To him, and indeed to many of his French and English counterparts, Balanchine seemed puritanical, perversely wasting so much in the famous troika of dance, décor, and music, summarily suspending them—especially for one working in so affluent a nation as the United States. Balanchine consistently reaffirmed the capital autonomy of dance steps, the stuff of choreography. The laureate of the Lenin Prize responded:

GRIGOROVICH: Since we are speaking of some kind of affirmation, I affirm the art of representation in its most spectacular brilliance of which theater is capable. I don’t know to what point, personally, I am successful, but I affirm ballet as a great theatrical art, with a complex and active dramatic content, expressed in dance by the accompaniment of painting helping to express this by scenery, with especially commissioned music, and of course with the pantomime of actor-dancers. It is possible to stage a ballet without scenery or costumes by dressing dancers merely in practice clothes, but why limit yourself? It is bad, naturally, if all these theatrical components do not help in expressing the idea which inspires you. But if they do, is it not splendid?

BALANCHINE: What do I affirm or reject? I reject nothing. Why should I? I am not affirming anything either.

NEDELIA”: But you do express yourself?

BALANCHINE: I am not doing anything in particular. I simply dance. Why must everything be defined by words? When you place flowers on a table, are you affirming or denying or disproving anything? You like flowers because they are beautiful. Well, I like flowers, too. I plant them without considering them articulately. I don’t have a “logical” mind, just three-dimensional plasticity. I am no physicist, no mathematician, no botanist. I know nothing about anything. I just see and hear.

GRIGOROVICH: A flower is beautiful. But it is Nature, not Art. A flower affirms nothing, but the man who plants it affirms both the flower and its beauty. And how about Japanese flower arrangement? Is this not Art?

BALANCHINE: Of course I have a logic. But it is the logic of movement. Something is joined together, something else discarded. I am not trying to prove anything. That is, trying to prove something quite other than the fact of dancing. I only wish to prove the dance by dancing. I want to say: “If you should happen to like it, here they are: dancers dancing. They dance for the pleasure of it, because they wish to.” Don’t other people dance? All of Georgia [his ancestral home] dances! And these people dance for delight without hoping or wishing to prove anything.

GRIGOROVICH: But there is a difference between “just dancing” and ballet. Folk and social dancing are primarily for oneself. Ballet is dancing for an audience. Dancing just for fun is an emotion, whereas ballet is an art which transforms emotion into thought and unites them.

BALANCHINE: I believe in the dance as an independent category, as something that really exists in itself and by itself. However, this may be an unreal or inaccurate metaphysical category, something immaterial, perhaps indefinable.

NEDELIA”: But you said yourself [at the start of the interview] that your ballets were not “abstractions,” that live people performed them….

BALANCHINE: Yes. They convey the sense of the dance to the spectator, but the dance also exists without spectators!

GRIGOROVICH: Pray, in what form?

BALANCHINE: In the form in which it comes to me; in the form in which I set it out.

9.

The magnificent pictorial tradition of Byzantine-Slavic Orthodoxy is rich in its strongly mysterious treasury of sacred imagery, in mural painting and portable panels. Not long ago, when these votive works began to be collected in the West, at least examples on a less-than-monumental scale, icons were estimated as hardly more than native artifacts, naive “folk art.” Similarly, African fetish objects and ritual masks, called into being for purely religious use, were set down as evidence of “primitive” superstition, although prized for plastic or aesthetic qualities. Although African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian art are now widèly admired and expensively mounted, hardly a Western museum hangs important images by Greek, Russian, Serbian, or Cretan painters in the line of Andrei Rublev or the school of Vladimir-Suzdal. However, some scholars of broad curiosity are not slow to place such panels alongside the finest temperas of the early Tuscans and Umbrians. We often ignore the fact that these artists were working in the same belief as Giotto, Masaccio, and Fra Angelico.

The anonymous spirit and service of subsequent icon painters required that any individual or idiosyncratic expression of image or idea must be held to a minimum, toward greater emphasis on the glory of God. The fathers of Byzantine Orthodoxy, defending their art against iconoclast puritans, swore: “We do not worship icons; we know that the veneration accorded the image ascends to the Prototype.” It was not the stuff crafted, painted, gilded, armored in precious metals with such devotion that was adored but rather the incarnate idea.

Balanchine’s ballets can be read as icons for the laity, should we grant dancers attributes of earthly angels. These have sworn to disavow hedonism in a calling that demands transcendence of worldliness and possessiveness, an abjuration and abandonment of elementary self-indulgence. We can even discover in their aura an animal innocence as one aspect of the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of this world, for they sacrifice much enjoyment in ordinary fun and games of their fellows. They are schooled to serve paradigms of order—at least for the temporal duration of their performing—which, if well done, seem momentarily to give their audience something approaching “peace of mind.”

Over the last half-century, perhaps for the first time since Euripides, theaters, even more than museums of precious artifacts, have taken the place of temples. Ballet, opera, the classic dramatic repertory offer secular rites in which a communion exists between lay hierophants and a congregated public. There is also a vital distinction in the architectural planning of places of worship, West and East. Roman cathedrals descended from basilican law courts of the late Empire. The altar, focus of faith, was always in view. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the icon screen separates the Holy of Holies from the people, who are not seated in pews, but always stand. The officiating priest passes in and out of the sacred golden portals, disappearing and reappearing, a sign of the intermittent mystery which clouds any absolute or final answer. We are led to take much faith as fact. More is withheld in our incapacity to encompass a totality of reality.

Our modern theater assumes the frame for an atmosphere of ritual. We sit in big, multibalconied rooms, brightly lit, in expectation of magic. Lights dim in the auditorium and flare in footlights. Silence, then the breath of strings, wood-winds, brass. A curtain rises, launching a celebration. If the measures are properly performed with force and dignity, which is their due, a shard of general order is revealed. A charge of electrified sympathy suffuses a public which becomes less passive. Released applause at the end signals the sight and sound of an angelic order. What has been seen and absorbed is commonly agreed to have been of the “divine.”

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