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Balanchine’s Steps

George Balanchine: Ballet Master

by Richard Buckle, in collaboration with John Taras
Random House, 409 pp., $29.95

Balletmaster: A Dancer’s View of George Balanchine

by Moira Shearer
Putnam, 180 pp., $18.95

Dancing on My Grave

by Gelsey Kirkland, by Greg Lawrence
Jove, 363 pp., $4.50 (paper)

No other European émigré artist of the 1930s had as great an effect on American culture and bequeathed as rich a legacy to it as George Balanchine. When he arrived in New York in October 1933, architecture was flourishing in the United States, conservatories and fine arts academies existed, and painters, poets, sculptors, and composers somehow survived. But in this country, classical ballet, that international transplant, indigenous nowhere, was not for certainty considered an art at all, much less a respectable one.

At the time of his death fifty years later, the émigré with, more truly than the author of the phrase, nothing to declare except his genius, had won recognition for ballet as a great art, trained a company of nonpareil dancers for whom he created many masterpieces, and established a school. His New York City Ballet was the one American artistic enterprise consistently welcomed and applauded abroad, while his version of the Russian ballet Nutcracker became an American institution, as much a part of our holiday seasons as turkey. Now, on the fifth anniversary of his death no memorial has been raised to this man who gave us so much, nor, as yet, has the essential drama of his life been captured, if it has been perceived, by biographers.

Richard Buckle’s George Balanchine is an affectionate portrait of the great choreographer. Though not the anticipated sequel to his Diaghilev and Nijinsky but a more selective, not to say sketchy, biography that deals briefly with well-worked subjects and avoids twice-told tales, his survey of the ballets seeks, not always successfully, to place them in post-Balanchine perspectives. Even so, this is the Balanchine book, at least to date, for those who will read only one.

Balanchine history is largely, inevitably, oral. He himself was a voluble interviewee, and the best lines in the book are excerpted from his talk (“music…I make dance that looks like it. I was born for that reason”). Though a nonwriter—only a few of the letters from his American period published here sound like him (“Please, no Sebastian,…a dreadful ballet, lousy music, stinking story”)—with no grammar, a limited vocabulary, a peculiar idiolect, an accent grossly misrendered in all orthographies, he nevertheless manages to be ringingly articulate.

Substantial portions of Buckle’s text derive from spokespersons for specific periods, including widows of both the never-quite-married-to-him and the never-quite-unmarried-to-him kind. In Buckle’s account of the early Lincoln Kirstein years, and again at times in the late Thirties and Forties, the voice is more Kirstein’s than Buckle’s. But no matter. The quotations from Kirstein’s writings, letters, and telegrams, together with those from “groupie” ballerinas—“He always made a dance with one person in mind and if another person were to dance it he would change the steps”—bring us nearer to the living Balanchine than any amount of third-hand description.

The short chapter on Balanchine in Russia (1904–1924) provides a smattering of political and cultural history, and as much as most readers will wish to know of his family background (half-Georgian, with a musical father and Orthodox priest paternal grandfather), his schooling (the Imperial Theater Ballet School, St. Petersburg, and musical studies in the Petrograd Conservatory), and his first theater experiences (attending performances from an early age in the Maryinsky Theater, and, while still a child, dancing a small part there in Sleeping Beauty). Little is known about Balanchine’s first efforts to choreograph, but a precocious attraction to Stravinsky should be remarked: at eighteen Balanchine had devised dance movements for Ragtime and sought permission (not granted) to stage Pulcinella.

On the subject of the vexed relationship with Diaghilev, the chapter about the decade in Western Europe (1924–1933) adds little more than a note to Diaghilev’s friend Boris Kochno, in which Balanchine complains that Diaghilev owes him money, and a characteristic story: Diaghilev wanted to cut Terpsichore’s variation. “He told me that the choreography…was no good. I said ‘The choreography’s fine. It’s the dancer who is no good.’ ” In later life Balanchine criticized the quality of dancing in the Diaghilev company, the emphasis on décors, and the preferential treatment of Serge Lifar as premier mignon, but these objections seem not to have been known at the time. Buckle’s histories of Apollo and Prodigal Son are useful introductions to the two great ballets that Balanchine created for Diaghilev, but the inner path by which the choreographer reached this pinnacle of creativity at age twenty-four remains obscure.

In the “American” five sixths of the book, the chapter “How Kirstein Brought Balanchine to America: June–December 1933” contains new material from Kirstein’s letters and diaries that amplifies but does not significantly alter the by now familiar story. What we are given for the first time are the pourparlers, many of them by cable, between Balanchine and his American Maecenas to establish a ballet school and performing company in the United States. We learn that whereas Kirstein’s recognition of Balanchine’s genius was by no means immediate, he was quick to remark that in ballets, as in life, Balanchine sees the relationship between men and women tragically, “always broken up by someone jumping in between.” Kirstein kept cribs on Balanchine’s observations as, for example, that Massine was “unmusical”; “that mime, gesture language, was antiquated”; that the greatest dancers of former periods were technically inferior “to any well trained modern dancer”; and that “Fokine can no longer compose [ballets]. He can teach, sitting down, but no one can compose long after they forget the actual movement…in their own bodies.” Here Buckle interposes that Balanchine “could compose only with flesh and blood before him, ‘like a sculptor with clay, putting off here, taking on there.’ “

Only two months after Balanchine had settled in the United States, the School of American Ballet was duly opened in NewYork. Buckle’s view of this event credits similar efforts by Mordkin, Bolm, Fokine, and others, it details the financial and other responsibilities of the founders, and it explains the organization and the curriculum. The first students are identified, too, and some of them contribute vivid reminiscences of Balanchine in his classes. But for an adequate discussion of his teaching methods, the reader must look elsewhere.*

Apart from teaching, Balanchine spent the decade and a half before the formation of the New York City Ballet (1948) making dances for the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway, Hollywood, and part-time and touring companies. In a 1936 letter to Stravinsky (not cited by Buckle) about commissioning a new work, Balanchine says, “I would not want the ballet to be strictly entertaining in character; I have been ‘entertaining’ here for two years already and now everybody has begun to copy me.” The “two years” is an exaggeration, if he means Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and his dance numbers for Ziegfeld Follies, but doubtless these and the later collaborations with Rodgers and Hart, Babes in Arms and The Boys from Syracuse, were widely imitated.

In the years 1938–1942, Balanchine would set new standards for the movie musical in his films—no longer revivable at any hour of the night—for Vera Zorina, The Goldwyn Follies, On Your Toes, I Was An Adventuress, and Star Spangled Rhythm. But Buckle tells us no more about these standards than that Balanchine had brought the superior dancers of the American Ballet to Hollywood with him, and that his innovative mind was soon alerted to ways of making dancers more effective on the screen through the use of new camera angles.

The scene in Goldwyn Follies of the water nymph rising slowly from a pool, dancing on the water, and mounting a white and rearing Chirico-like carousel horse seems to have been entirely his idea—though Moira Shearer dismisses it as “a conventional water-nymph ballet (shades of Swan Lake) [with] conventional choreography.” (Neither she nor Buckle mentions that this ballet became the model for the hippo-ostrich sequence in Fantasia, presumably with Balanchine’s concurrence, since he was with Disney at the time, December 1939.) Whether or not Balanchine’s later costume and fantasy ballets are in any way indebted to his cinema experience, what can be said with certainly is that his powers of invention on movie sets were not confined to choreography. But the range of Balanchine’s theatrical imagination has not been generally understood, and this potential Aesop of the narrative ballet is now exclusively associated (shades of Bouvard and Pécuchet) with the plotless kind.

The pursuit of the female, with its entanglements and disentanglements, occupies the second largest part of Balanchine biography. Buckle, no latter-day saint-defrocker, introduces the subject with Byron’s “My heart always alights on the nearest perch,” meaning, in Balanchine’s case, the latest, youngest, most gifted and attractive ballerina. His marriages to four of them follow a pattern of infatuation, rapid disinclination, the accession to the family circle of a third-party companion from among Balanchine’s “slaves” (Nicholas Magallanes in the Maria Tallchief period), Balanchine’s retreat to what anthropologists call secondary wives, divorce, and lasting friendship with the ex-spouse.

Balanchine’s sexual predilections may be understood as a corollary of the flatchested ballerina ideal. “He gave me a little pat on the behind,” Ruthanna Boris recalls, and he “told me later ‘You were…so cute…if you could not dance at all I would have taken you anyway. I wanted to bite your knees.’ ” Darci Kistler also confesses that he gave her “a slap on the rear,” and one of his fantasies during World War II, so he told Stravinsky and Nicolas Nabokov, was to be a general of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, in order to stand a company of them to attention, command them to lift their skirts and lower their undergarments at the back, and, while inspecting the “ranks,” concupiscently whack WAACS. Balanchine’s old friend from Russia, V.P. Dmitriev, advised Kirstein that no young woman had ever been safe with “Georgian, heartless” George, and Buckle, remarking on what could be “the fulfillment of a personal fantasy,” the “throes of stylized orgasm” in the Bugaku pas de deux, quotes one of Balanchine’s close female friends: “If people could see into his mind he would be in prison.”

Buckle gives ample space to several of the landmark ballets—more of it to A Midsummer Night’s Dream than to any other—sometimes, as with Symphony in Three Movements, offering ingenious “interpretations” as well. But his omissions beg questions. Surely Opus 34, Balanchine’s excursus into Expressionism, based on Schoenberg’s score for an imaginary film, deserves mention, both in itself and as an experiment with two totally different choreographies, a composition of abstract dance movements followed by a Caligari’s cabinet of surgical horrors, for the same music played twice consecutively. And why is the 1947 Renard, Balanchine’s theater-of-comedy masterpiece, not listed among the achievements of Ballet Society, especially since John Taras, Buckle’s coauthor, was in the original cast? Compared to Four Temperaments, Balanchine’s most enduring creation of the late 1940s, the barnyard fable’s pantomime centerpiece relegates it to the category of divergent work; but “the revelation of Balanchine’s varied genius” is one of Buckle’s themes.

  1. *

    See especially Nancy Goldner’s “The School of American Ballet,” in Nancy Reynolds’s Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet (Dial, 1977).

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