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The Long Goodbye

New York City Ballet’s ‘Balanchine Celebration’ September 1994)

directed by Matthew Diamond. produced by Dance in America, Channel 13/WNET
Public Broadcasting System

When I was a child, I heard about a kind of enormous water lily—it was called Victoria Regina—that opens only once every hundred years. It’s like wax, and everything is in there, everything lives…by itself, and it doesn’t tell anybody anything. It goes to sleep and then comes back again. It doesn’t say: “Look at me, now I’m going to wake up, I’m going to jump…Look, Ma, I’m dancing!” But if you happen to be around, and are ready, you’ll probably see something.

It’s like the time capsule with everything in it. Or like the seed that, when you plant it, becomes an enormous tree with leaves and fruit. Everything was in that little seed, and so everything can open. The tree of dance is like that. It just takes a long, long time to blossom.”

George Balanchine, in an interview with Jonathan Cott, 19781

Because it has no text, ballet dies every day, to be reborn as the next ballet. The sumptuous ballet de cour of Louis XIV was gone by the end of the seventeenth century, but it rematerialized in late nineteenth-century Russia, in The Sleeping Beauty, Marius Petipa’s tribute to the grand siècle. Soon The Sleeping Beauty too began dying, under the weight of successive revisions. It was born again—without its fable, but with its spirit, its symbols, its composer (Tchaikovsky) all intact—in Balanchine’s 1947 Theme and Variations.

What Balanchine did for The Sleeping Beauty he did for the rest of ballet’s past. Trained in St. Peterburg’s Imperial Theater School, apprenticed in his teens to the brilliant Petrograd avant-garde, then, after he escaped to Europe in 1924, maturing under the guidance of Diaghilev (he was Diaghilev’s last house choreographer), he absorbed in his youth much of the history of his art: Russian Imperial ballet, Soviet “constructivist” bullet, European neoclassical, neoromantic, and expressionist ballet, and earlier forms as well, for they were absorbed into the Imperial ballet. As he said, “everything was in that little seed,” and when he came to America in 1933, it blossomed.

For the various companies that he established in this country in the Thirties and Forties, and finally for New York City Ballet, which he founded with Lincoln Kirstein in 1948 and then directed for the rest of his life, Balanchine restaged ballet history. He made eighteenth-century opera ballets (Chaconne) and nineteenth-century romantic ballets (Scotch Symphony). He made ballets in the ebullient Danish style of August Bournonville (Donizetti Variations), in the Russian Imperial style of Petipa (Cortège Hongrois), in the exotic-melodrama style of Michel Fokine (Firebird), in the “symphonic” style of Léonide Massine (Serenade). He remade the “classics”: Swan Lake, Coppélia, The Nutcracker. And all of them were twentieth-century ballets, for he made them in a new style, his own: compressed, re-energized, with meanings born of dance and music alone. While he was re-creating the past, he was also creating the present. In his so-called leotard ballets, particularly those to music by Stravinsky—Agon, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements—he produced ballet’s primary contribution to modernism.

By the time he died, he had made 425 dance works. Of these, about seventy-five survive—more extant works, surely, than any other choreographer, living or dead—and they are performed not just by New York City Ballet but by companies across the United States and Europe. We can try to imagine what twentieth-century dance would have been without Balanchine, but it is unimaginable.

In 1982 the great flowering ended. Balanchine began having dizzy spells, the result, it was discovered at the autopsy, of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare neurological disorder. He was sent to the hospital, and there, day by day, he drifted out of consciousness until he died in the spring of 1983. It was not a premature death—he was seventy-nine and had been making ballets steadily since age fifteen—but in view of his achievement, and the lack of anyone to replace him, it was a bitter loss.

Last spring was the tenth anniversary of his death. Appropriately, his company marked it in a big way. From May 4 through June 27, New York City Ballet staged a festival called the Balanchine Celebration—eight weeks of all-Balanchine programs, covering almost all the surviving work: seventy-three ballets, from the 1928 Apollo to the 1981 Mozartiana, presented in roughly chronological order. On the final night of the festival, the company presented a six-and-a-half-hour marathon: eleven ballets, plus film clips, orchestral interludes, food breaks, flower throwing. This program was taped by PBS, edited down to three hours, and broadcast to the nation on Christmas Day.

To those who managed to arrange their holiday in such a way as to see the show, it will not have conveyed much about the current state of dancing at New York City Ballet, for close to half the leading roles were danced not by the company but by guest artists (a decision utterly atypical of Balanchine, who almost never used guests).

Nor does the show reflect Balanchine’s oeuvre. This was a gala performance, and the program was chosen for people sitting in a hot theater, waiting for their dinner. Of Balanchine’s more severe ballets—those that epitomized his ability to distill meaning from dance and music alone—there was very little. Most of the show consisted of program-closers, big, bang-up ballets with masses of dancers hurtling about on stage, bringing the house down. Theme and Variations, Union Jack, Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Vienna Waltzes, Western Symphony, Who Cares?, Stars and Stripes: one after another they came, flags flying, cymbals crashing. Furthermore, they were not presented whole, but in part: the last part. In that one respect, however—that it was a string of finales—the program conveyed an important truth: New York City Ballet is ringing down the curtain on Balanchine.

In early 1983, when it was clear that Balanchine was dying, NYCB’s board gave the title “co-ballet masters in chief” to Jerome Robbins, then sixty-four, and Peter Martins, a thirty-six-year-old Danish-born dancer who had joined the company in 1969 and soon become its leading danseur noble. It was understood from the beginning, however, that Robbins, who for years had been a resident choreographer with NYCB, would go on devoting his time to his own work. The person charged with running the company—programming, casting, rehearsing, hiring—was Martins. At that time Martins was also named chairman of the faculty at the company’s affiliate School of American Ballet, which trains dancers for the company. Robbins later resigned his position at NYCB, leaving Martins as sole director.

The choice of Martins was a surprise to no one, and it seemed logical. Trained at the Royal Danish Ballet, he was a superb classical dancer; therefore he could be trusted to keep up standards. He was a choreographer; therefore he could supply new repertory. Furthermore, he was a tall, breathtakingly handsome young man, and he didn’t mind going to parties, so he would be good at fund-raising. Finally, he was Balanchine’s choice. As Martins tells it, Balanchine one morning in the mid-Seventies telephoned him at 7 AM, summoning him to breakfast at a local coffee shop. Martins pulled on his clothes and got there in twenty minutes. Balanchine sat him down, told him that he would eventually have to take over New York City Ballet, and gave him a one-hour lecture on what that entailed. According to Martins, Balanchine never spoke of this again. Nor, when he was dying, did he either give Martins his blessing or officially designate him as heir. But throughout the years preceding his death, Balanchine was, constantly grooming him.

On the PBS program these facts are reiterated, presumably to stress the legitimacy of the succession. Between ballets, Martins appears in interview segments, first recounting the story of the breakfast meeting, then telling how Balanchine got him to teach company class, and finally, before the last ballet, affirming his devotion to Balanchine’s legacy: “Nobody, nobody can succeed Balanchine…. But that’s not the point. The point is to take what he left us and devote your life to preserving it.”

What is clear, however, from the record of the past ten years is that Balanchine’s ballets are not being carefully preserved by his company. To begin with, many of them are not being danced. From 1978 through 1980, Balanchine’s last healthy years, his ballets occupied about 76 percent of the company’s schedule, Nutcracker excluded, and that had been the situation for a number of years: about three-quarters Balanchine, one-quarter something else, mostly Robbins. Now, under Martins’s administration, Balanchine’s share of the repertory has dropped to a little over half, the other half, in a typical season, being occupied by a dozen or so Robbins ballets together with various new works, some mildly interesting, others dull, by young choreographers from inside and outside the company. The major contributor is Martins, who generally includes about six of his ballets in a given season.

It is often argued that NYCB cannot be just a Balanchine museum—that to stay alive artistically, it must produce new ballets. But in view of the mediocrity of the new work, the company might indeed consider setting aside a sizable portion of its repertory—say, two thirds—as a Balanchine preserve, just as the Royal Shakespeare Company is in large measure a preserve for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. For what is at stake here is not just what audiences are seeing this season, but what they will ever see again. The longer a ballet isn’t performed, the less likely it can ever be revived effectively. Under Martins, the monumental Agon was dropped from repertory for five years, from 1988 to 1993. When it came back last year, it looked nearly dead.

So some of Balanchine’s ballets are being lost by not being performed. Others are being lost while being performed. For about two years after Balanchine died, the company danced superbly. Then the decline began, and it has continued, with a sickening steadiness, ever since. For the “Balanchine Celebration” program, the company danced better than usual, as often happens when a show is being taped. Even so, the two best performances of the evening—and the two that the audience, by its applause, spontaneously recognized as the best—were by guest stars: Elizabeth Loscavio, of San Francisco Ballet, in “My One and Only” from Balanchine’s Gershwin ballet Who Cares? and Darcey Bussell, of England’s Royal Ballet, in the pas de deux from Agon. The ostensible reason for inviting guest artists was to celebrate the fact that Balanchine’s work is now danced not just by NYCB, but by companies across the world. What the guests ended up showing is that other companies are now dancing Balanchine better than his own company.

Day by day, the company is having a harder time with Balanchine’s choreography. In ballet after ballet, steps are being sketched, reduced. This past Christmas I saw a performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker in which the woman dancing the lead in “Marzipan,” the shepherdess dance, could not do a double pirouette to the knee. That step is an important part of “Marzipan.” It occurs in the middle and then again at the end (it is the last step), and it has symbolic force: it is part of the dainty soul of that dance. To see it slurred—approached warily, performed approximately, finished shakily, with a look of relief—is like going to a performance of Hamlet and hearing Polonius say, “And it must follow, as night the day, thou probably canst not be false to anybody.” Unlike Hamlet, of course, “Marzipan” has no script for its performers to refer to, so the slur is likely to remain. Indeed, it has remained. The dancer I saw leading “Marzipan” the Christmas before also slurred this passage. The dancer this Christmas may have thought that was how it was supposed to be done.

  1. 1

    In Portrait of Mr. B: Photographs of George Balanchine, with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein (Viking, 1984), p. 140.

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