for Father Adrian
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.
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.
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.
He was something of an amateur theologian, as were his friends Wystan Auden, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Igor Stravinsky. To Auden, the anatomies of various theologies were his form of chess. To Oppenheimer, as perhaps to Galileo and Newton, theological formulas measured the rhythm of the random. To Balanchine, concepts or images of the divine, even cant uses of “divine” as a shibboleth of quality (“My dear, she danced divinely!”), had their daily resonance. “Divine” is from divinus, Latin “of, or pertaining to God (or, a god); given by, or proceeding from God; having the sanction of, or inspired by, God.”
His most quoted apothegm was: “to make audiences see music and hear dancing.” St. Paul has it: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Shakespeare has Nick Bottom, the Warwickshire weaver, fondle his born-again ears, no longer those of a fantastical ass, trying to make sense of a midsummer night’s dream from which he has emerged as a man, not a beast. The peasant reverses Gospel: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”
Balanchine was sometimes amused to contrast notions of good and bad, virtue and vice, grace and sin, distinguishing between his Eastern and our Western orthodoxies. Byzantine icons glossing Holy Script, the mural masters of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom, not St. Sophia), Hosios Lukas (St. Luke in Phocis), and El Greco’s Cretan teachers all depict Lucifer—Son of the Morning, Fire-Bringer, soul of free choice and ultimate possibility—not as a fiend but as an angel. In the West, personifications of d’Evil, Father of Lies, Lord of the Flies, Old Nick, Auld Reekie, Foul Fiend, Satan (Shaitan), looked bad and smelled worse. From pre-Christian to late medieval models, devils were imagined as rough humanoid bipeds bestially deformed, horned, with goat’s shanks, cloven hooves, spiked tails, and hairy anuses that witches kissed. In contrast, Greek Orthodoxy’s knowledge and fear of hell does not argue the simple matter of right and white against black and wrong. So crass an opposition, so low a common denominator, is not existentially exclusive. It is not the deformation or denial of grace that must be considered but the recognition of an equation of right and wrong. This is not “either/or,” an unenforceable law, but “both/and,” a realistic choice. Suffering—education by the consciousness of permanent evil, and of those powers that educate one beyond the capacity of mere self—in the cosmos as in heaven frees the angelic choir.
The Byzantine Lucifer; Prince of Darkness, was to be seen in his glorious mystical uniform identical with his perfect sinless siblings, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, but with one drastic difference. All these last displayed lustrous peacock wings, were robed in gold, haloed in jewels. Fair-haired, brightly complected, the lot. But the hands, face, and feet of the evil one were black. Transparency blessed the good angels; opacity cursed the bad. All but Satan were clear as crystal. Denied by density, impervious to light, he was deprived of the sun of godhead. His was permanent denial, negation of source, of the Logos. Willful incapacity to admit the difference between light and darkness, obsessive preference for personal difference in self-serving isolation, proclaimed the triumph of the self. This dark angel and his myriad progeny set themselves against the Father and his apostolic succession, removed from any deselfed communion and, ultimately, in their selfishness, from fruitful service to their fellow men. This angel of might and darkness could not be penetrated by the mercy of grace. But black as he might be, he was still an angel. Today he might stand for the romantically rebellious solipsist, the unreckoning challenger of historicity, prince and demon of every narcissist aesthete, patron of self-devoted artists wherever they flourish.
When Balanchine spoke of angels, as he often did, and of his dancers as angels, he intended confidence in an angelic system that governed the deployment of a corps de ballet. As was common gossip, he imagined at one time that in this mortal dispensation he had actually “married an angel” in the flesh and had set dances on her, his third consort. Throughout his long life, he contrived to encounter these supernal beings or, rather, their corporeal embodiments, whose habitual flights he made soar into steps less ordinary than heavenly.
Angels were enlisted in a category that commonly registers demons. Intermediate between gods and mortals, they could be hostile or compassionate. There were Egyptian, Assyrian, and Hebrew winged figures long before Christian eras, personifying and revealing multiple aspects of the divine cosmos. Air, wind, thunder, and lightning proclaimed their power. Gentle breezes and stupendous cyclones were their fingers. Hosts of angels chanted music of the spheres. Good and bad angels were protectors, guides, tempters, and betrayers of babes born sinless, but each with a God-granted choice. And there were dangers for the overinnocent in undue emphasis on their assigned dominion.
“Angel” in Hebrew or Greek means “messenger,” one sent, and not necessarily with good tidings. In Christian theology, East or West, angels apply to priests, prophets, and messiahs dispatched by the Godhead. They are spiritual essences “created by God before the heavens and all material things.” Black angels fell to devildom, since they were made free to indulge in “desire of absolute dominion over created things, in hatred of any rivalry or subjection.” Their sin and our curse is not simple vanity, but blind pride; in modern dance, this is an incapacity to learn or accept what tradition teaches, the amateur’s boastful proposing of an alternate language that itself delimits, a personal idiom legible for no longer than its inventor’s existence.
In the Revelation of St. John the Divine, it is written that he prostrated himself before an angel who’d been sent to humble him. John’s automatic reverence showed mindless dependence and lazy irresponsibility. The angel bid him rise: “Seest thou do it not, for I am also thy fellow-servant…. Adore not me, but God.” Balanchine believed that he, as well as his dancers, was in constant service—not to any individual ambition, but to the principle of a general humane alliance and need. He had his demonic advisers who helped him in his service of propelling bipeds forward across the stage floors of the world in a shared conquest of earth and air. In this process, often accompanied by “heavenly” music, dancers appear as messengers of fair weather, occasional safeguards from streets outside swarming with chaos, anarchy, and despair.
Balanchine’s method of instruction was twofold. First came daily class for his company. This might be called “practice,” but in reality it was incessant reiteration toward technical refinement. In this endless process, mind and matter were anatomized. He might allow, in tones of cool disparagement, that the only thing students could learn in seven years of academic training was to recognize the difference between correctness of execution and the intensity achieved by stage performance. The scale of the school’s annual workshop-demonstration—a program rehearsed during the entire school year in preparation for three open viewings—which marks the advance of students from a lower to a higher division, was tiny, compared to the stress and pressure of working in the company’s huge repertory, on a big stage, before a critical public.
Promising aspirants who are marked for eventual soloist standing often disappoint teachers, parents, and, worst of all, themselves. Cute kittens turn into scraggly cats. Children of promise—who had been cushioned by strict repetition under secure conditions, daily, monthly, yearly—when released to the vulnerability of fuller responsibility may collapse or, more trying, hit a median level of blocked progress with little hope of more capacity. They fade into a dim if useful support, a modest service, in which a passive or resentful handful may find some satisfaction. The life and schooling of professional dancers have their negative aspects; these Balanchine never concealed. He realized that perhaps half the force and efficiency of a supporting corps is fueled as much by resentment as by ambition. Fury at failure to advance or achieve a desired status is not negligible as a source of negative energy. Balanchine calibrated dancers also for their spirit. Some of the lower order of angels are able to accommodate themselves to their assigned rank; some abdicate while still able to perform; others abandon hope at some crisis in a dubious career. Balanchine could be polite enough; he seldom wasted optimal opinion. “Damn braces,” said Blake. “Bless relaxes.” Willfulness is the curse of children set on stardom.
Modern and now postmodern dancers convince themselves and their annotators that minimal motion is as interesting to watch as to perform, at least to cult or coterie audiences in minimal spaces, clubs for companionship rather than frames for absolute skill. Minimal movement exploits a token idiom of natural motion: walk, turn, hop, run. Also, there is free-fall to the floor plus rolling and writhing. But angels don’t jerk or twitch, except for irony or accent: they seem to swim or fly. The domain of ballet dancers is not earth but air. Long, strenuous preparation aims to allow them to defy the pull of floors, releases them from gravity toward the apparently impossible. Academic dancers are trained to leap, as well as to appear to leap, as high as Olympic record breakers. Theirs is an academy of physical, visible magic. Acrobatics are supranormal, or maximal. Acrobats are not walkers, joggers, hoppers, or bores. Their effects are not minimal but angelic.
Angels are androgynous, lacking heavy bosoms and buttocks. Portraits of angels in mural or mosaic have slight physiognomical distinction one from another. There is a blessed lack of “personality” in their stance against the skies. But this aerial or ethereal positioning grants them a special grace or magic in accepted service. Ballerinas are kin to those mythic Amazons who sliced off a breast to shoot arrows the more efficiently. The criterion of professional owns not only a particular psychic tempering, but also peculiar anatomical configuration. Balanchine’s standard controlled his company. The few deliberately outstanding exceptions in height or style proved his general rule. His corps was and is a band of brothers and sisters; maybe it is no accident that it contains so many twins and siblings. He would say, of those he could or would not accept, “She (or he) doesn’t look like a dancer.”
Those candidates who anatomically and temperamentally possessed the qualities that Balanchine required were ordained by methods that dissidents found diminishing or deforming. These methods could be taken as frustrating adolescents at the very moment of their incipient expansion. But liberal educators seldom realize that “success” or “happiness” lies neither in self-satisfaction, in self-indulgence, nor in that unfocused hedonism which too many young people believe is their franchise, obligation, and destiny. Their precious “personalities” are but a bundle of chance preferences, since as yet they have had only the opportunity, but hardly the ability, to analyze received data, to think.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Copyright © 1984 by Lincoln Kirstein.