Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine
Balanchine: A Biography
“But First a School”: The First Fifty Years of the School of American Ballet
Portrait of Mr. B.: Photographs of George Balanchine with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein
Balanchine’s ‘Mozartiana’: The Making of a Masterpiece
Dancing for Balanchine
None of the books about George Balanchine discussed below will present him to more than a small fraction of the readers of Shana Alexander’s Nutcracker,* now in its fourth month on the best-seller charts. This much-publicized story of Balanchine’s involvement with Frances Schreuder, his “last patron”—and coincidentally the psychopathic instigator of her father’s murder by her son—does not change the perspectives of his life. But the connection cannot be dismissed as simply another grotesque act of “fate.” After Mrs. Schreuder’s arrest, “George,” as she referred to him, supported her with his belief in her innocence. “He cried with joy, when I was released from prison,” she claimed. “He even offered to testify for me.”
True, other New York City Ballet officials weathering the scandal were sympathetic—if that is the word for Robert Gottlieb’s gift to the then Rikers Island inmate of “a slim volume of Igor Stravinsky’s letters.” But Balanchine was closer to her. That he seems not to have been disturbed by manifestations of her “bipolar mood disorders” may not be surprising, in view of his long experience of the same condition in others. What does elude explanation is that Mrs. Schreuder, even during her most stable periods, must have offended Balanchine’s natural delicacy and sense of decorum. Reliable, as a rule, in his evaluation of character, was he blindered in this odd instance, or confused by the contradictions and by his own illness? What can be said is that his death a year before Mrs. Schreuder’s trial (and conviction) was merciful in other respects than were known at the time.
Shana Alexander is less than reverential toward Balanchine, and she does not hesitate to expose his, well, orgulous side—as in his remark that if audiences were unable to pronounce Davidsbündlertänze, a ballet Mrs. Schreuder sponsored, they could stay away. For the rest, the book’s account of ballet-school life in relation to Mr. Schreuder’s career as Balanchine’s underwriter is overwritten:
The crackle and hiss of neurotic mothers and their anorexic daughters…wracked bodies, fevered imaginations, Balkan intrigue, and sulfurous hatreds…when the prima ballerina found ground glass in her toe slipper—every other dancer was equally suspect.
Solomon Volkov’s title is misleading: his subject is Balanchine, not Tchaikovsky, on whom Mr. B.’s comments are largely familiar and rarely remarkable. Far more valuable and almost as voluminous—if the word can be used in connection with so slender a book—are Balanchine’s reflections concerning his relationship with Stravinsky. Tchaikovsky’s craftsmanship, one of Balanchine’s main themes, had been inculcated by Stravinsky from the time of Apollo. Moreover, the collaboration between the contemporaries provokes Balanchine’s most acute insights about himself (“Stravinsky planned, and I improvised. That may be my great fault”). But under whatever heading, Volkov has preserved a few marvelous moments with the living Balanchine, for which this reviewer, at least, is grateful.
Yet anyone who knew the choreographer will be nonplused at the outset to read that he was “a relaxed, gray-haired man” who “identified with Tchaikovsky.” Actually, Balanchine’s intensity was always close to the surface; his hair was the least noticeable feature of his majestic head; and not at any time could this deeply restrained artist have felt an affinity with Tchaikovsky’s self-pitying and sentimentality. After the Preface, however, and from the moment Balanchine begins to speak, the voice is unmistakable, the language characteristic. With few exceptions, Ms. Bouis’s translation is undistinguishable from Balanchine’s own highly idiomatic English.
Volkov’s insistence on the Tchaikovsky–Petipa and Stravinsky–Balanchine parallel—and cliché—does not yield rich returns, perhaps because of the unsuitable form of Volkov’s questioning. Volkov makes a statement about Tchaikovsky, Balanchine takes the bait and starts out with the equivalent of “Tchaikovsky used to say…,” whereupon Volkov supplies verbatim what Tchaikovsky did say. Balanchine soon moves away from the subject but is never allowed to stray far enough before being called back from possibly rewarding digressions (“When you dance, there are no erotic impulses at all”) to some grindingly dull factual point about Tchaikovsky.
Nor does Volkov provide sufficient background information. Here is part of Balanchine’s description of a visit to Stravinsky in Nice (undated, but early April 1928; Balanchine had already been there on January 22, with Diaghilev):
So the Stravinsky table is set: At the head of the table a priest, Father Nikolai, because Stravinsky was very religious and he kept to that…. The children are at the table too, and they resemble each other terribly. Svetik looks like Fedya and Fedya looks like his father. They’re all sitting at the table and munching some salad, then spaghetti, and so on. All the faces are the same, and Stravinsky sees himself in them. Do you think that’s interesting—looking at yourself all the time? I don’t.
And then I always had the feeling that his wife was in his way…. He did not divorce his wife. When she died, he married a second time. So, as I remember, life in Nice was alien for Stravinsky, he didn’t belong to it. He had nothing to look at.
The grim household atmosphere and the narrator’s attitudes toward parenthood, cloning, and the desirability of divorce (followed by marriage to a younger woman) could hardly be more vividly conveyed. But nothing is said about the purpose of the visit, to study the music of Apollon Musagète, the cornerstone ballet of Balanchine’s career. Surely Volkov must have asked Balanchine for his impressions of Stravinsky playing the score at the piano, asked whether mention was made of the derivation of rhythmic patterns from verse meters, and asked what was said concerning the set. It is scarcely conceivable that two such rich visual imaginations did not bring forth something.
Perhaps because he could not write, Balanchine vehemently denied that he had any verbal gifts. But the story of the visit to Nice contradicts his contention. “They resemble each other terribly” is devastating, and so is the mot juste in “Isadora Duncan didn’t care to which music she jumped.” His language is always direct and concrete—“Stravinsky’s music is like a corset; it’s very good to have someone to hold you tight”—and it seemed to be on the tip of his tongue, as when he snapped back at an interviewer who wondered why he preferred Stravinsky to others: “Who are the others?” The ballerinas’ books now in spate will remain in print if only for their quotations from Balanchine, and the most desirable of future volumes would be a “collected utterances.”
Volkov has not steeped himself in his material. When Balanchine says that he loves The Magic Flute above the other Mozart operas, Volkov fails to pick this up and ask Balanchine about his 1956 televised version of the opera, or about his early stagings of Figaro and Don Giovanni at Monte Carlo. So, too, Volkov says that at the time of these interviews (1981), Balanchine was “bent on debunking the myth of the glamorous Diaghilev era.” But even before Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine had been criticizing him, above all for his highhandedness in ordering cuts (Apollo). Odder still, in view of the book’s ostensible subject, Volkov does not ask Balanchine about his experience conducting the orchestra for his Tchaikovsky ballet Theme and Variations in April 1948.
Volkov leads Balanchine through the history of his Stravinsky ballets, probably for the reason that a similar tour of the Tchaikovsky ballets could not be undertaken, Balanchine never having choreographed Sleeping Beauty—which, as a ballet, he rates “second” to Giselle!—or even the complete Swan Lake. We learn that at fourteen Georgi Balanchivadze “participated,” but not in what capacity, in Meyerhold’s Maryinsky production of Nightingale. (Jennifer Dunning’s source states only that Balanchine regarded the piece as “cacophonous.”) The Petrushka in the same theater two years later is not mentioned, though both the ballet and the ballerina, Karsavina, had a powerful effect on Balanchine, and though he traces to Nutcracker the idea in Petrushka of dolls coming to life (but does not mention Swanilda in Coppélia). Some bitterness is evident in his reference to Pulcinella at the Maryinsky, of having been refused permission, for financial reasons, to stage it there himself: “After I left Petersburg for Europe, I learned that Pulcinella had indeed been done…. So they found the hard currency…but without me.”
Nothing is said of disappointments in France, of the Noces that “I probably would have done differently from what [Nijinska] did,” of her Baiser de la fée and Lifar’s Renard, though Balanchine’s exclusion of these ballets (the complete Fée, that is) from his 1972 and 1982 Stravinsky festivals may be interpreted as an indication of still unhealed wounds. Balanchine’s truncated Fée, like his streamlined semifinal version of Apollo, destroys the recapitulatory form of the work, but his 1947 Renard is a comic masterpiece that today’s audiences should be given an opportunity to see.
The story of the visit to Nice conceals reactions to Stravinsky himself that Balanchine never divulged. The regrettable truth is that before his second marriage (1940) Stravinsky could be overbearing even to Balanchine. An interview with Balanchine’s friend Lucia Davidova, filmed in 1980 and recently made available at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, bears witness to this. Reminiscing about the rehearsal period of Jeu de cartes (April 1937), Mme. Davidova describes a social evening in the course of which the composer spoke to his young collaborator with a tactlessness all too believable for the date—which may help to explain why Balanchine, who could be easily and deeply wounded, did not like to talk about this ballet in later years. The celebrated affection between the two great Russian Americans came into being later, in Boston in 1940 and during the creation of Balustrade the following winter.
Volkov’s Balanchine makes two remarks about Stravinsky that can only be explained as errors in transcription. No one knew better than Balanchine that Stravinsky did not “cry easily,” or at all, when he “listened to his own music.” Nor was Stravinsky ever “a gambler,” except in the sense of artistic risks so minutely calculated, of bets so carefully hedged, that the word loses its applicability. (In a Las Vegas casino, Stravinsky’s attention was confined to the skill of the croupiers and to the denouements of the dramas taking place around the tables.) But then, Volkov also credits Balanchine with Stravinsky’s well-known artistic advice: “If you like something of someone else’s, why not take it?”
Balanchine’s recollections of life in Russia in his earliest years support the theory that memory is the creative part of the mind, at least of the mind that staged Nutcracker; even in 1981 Mr. B. remembered details about his childhood Christmas presents. And it must be said that the anecdotes about Russia and Russians—the musical compositions of the poet Kuzmin (one of them is included in the Prideaux Press edition of the comedy Evdokia), Prokofiev’s meanness about royalities for Prodigal Son—are among the more delectable in the book. But if Balanchine’s audiences are the target of his hardest-hitting observation (“Whatever you do is good enough, and if you do it better, they won’t even understand that it’s better”), the subject of the most painful, about being in the company of a group of girls, is himself: