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The Master


George Balanchine, the greatest dance innovator of the twentieth century, and possibly the most important in all 350 years of classical dance history since the language was codified in the court of Louis XIV, has just been subjected to a global celebration lasting an entire year in honor of the centennial of his birth, in tsarist Russia, in 1904. Now it is perhaps a good time, as he enters his second century of influence, to assess the many acts of heroism performed in his honor—and the attendant damage.

It is safe to say that had he been alive, this past year of celebrations would have been done in considerably better taste, especially at the company he created, the New York City Ballet, where bad taste now surfaces with predictable frequency both in new productions and often even in the dancers themselves, who have clearly been left, unwisely, in the dark concerning their true purpose in dancing Balanchine ballets. Many of them actually seem to believe that performing Balanchine is all about their admittedly lovely selves, and smile and twirl to curiously inappropriate and banal effect. If Balanchine taught his dancers one thing, and only one thing, it was that whether they liked it or not, neither his ballets nor by association this life is about them. It is about service. Or as Lincoln Kirstein, founder with Balanchine of the New York City Ballet, explained: “Ballet is about how to behave.” Balanchine taught his audience and dancers alike how to behave, but oh how quickly (and how well he knew) they would become both physically and morally lazy in his absence.

In his canonization—which might have amused him, but certainly not surprised him given his laser-like ability to detect all manner of self-serving associations—Balanchine’s name has become a kind of vacant edifice of inevitably crude, yet noble, attempts at preservation and continuation. In the twenty years since his death, and most especially during the last year, Balanchine has been filed, incorporated, copyrighted, trademarked, exalted, berated, plagiarized, and blamed for anorexia and bulimia, for liking what he liked (very undemocratic), and for setting almost impossible standards of excellence (ditto).

Why, he is even now joining Elizabeth Taylor and Britney Spears in branding his name for consumer products, most recently for a line of dancewear “inspired” by his ballets. The manufacturing company proudly states that each price tag will inform the aspiring student and her mother of the name of the ballet, the composer, and the première date. They explain their educational intentions with the comment, “Young dancers today aren’t getting enough of that history.” Balanchine redux on a leotard tear tag. Great. (In reality, ballet dancers rarely “study” the history of their profession—they are far too busy sewing ribbons on pointe shoes and tightening a tutu. Their knowledge of the tradition of which they are legatees is by way of steps, not words, and is intrinsic in their dedication.)

Après moi, le board!” Balanchine declared gleefully. Well, now it looks more like, “Après moi, le marketing de moi.” But at year’s end, happily, there were two short biographies, to remind us what all the song and dance was once really about.

George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker is by Robert Gottlieb, former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker, currently dance critic for The New York Observer, former board member of the New York City Ballet, and audience member of Balanchine’s enterprise since its inception in 1948. Predict-ably Gottlieb’s book is well informed and makes a perfect introduction to the man. The other book, All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, is by Terry Teachout, drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, music critic for Commentary, columnist for The Washington Post, and prolific blogger.

Both books recapitulate the outline of an extraordinary life. The little Russian boy intended for the Naval Academy but ending up at a ballet school—the one run as a tributary of the tsar’s personal household. The child who found music and pageantry and devotion—he wanted to be a bishop after witnessing elaborate Russian Orthodox rituals—married on the great stage of the Maryinsky Theater. The teenager who roamed the streets of St. Petersburg during the Bolshevik Revolution, starving and eating dead cats (and he loved cats) to survive, and then finally at age twenty in 1924 departing Russia never to see his parents again. Then, under the magisterial eye of the impresario Serge Diaghilev, the young choreographer received a crash course in European culture and spewed forth, with lucid ease at age twenty-four, his first astonishing masterpiece, Apollon Musagète, and met much of his future in the music of his friend Igor Stravinsky.

He subsequently arrived in America thanks to the foresight of the American Lincoln Kirstein, who had the temerity as a young man, barely out of Harvard, to think he could bring the glory of classical ballet to his own youthful culture. And then, after notable and amusing stints on Broadway, in Hollywood, at the Metropolitan Opera, at Barnum & Bailey, as well as with numerous dancing troupes, the founding of the New York City Ballet in 1948 and the ensuing outpouring from this trim and elegant Russian man of one exquisite ballet after another, including so many indisputable masterpieces that his canon numbers more than Shakespeare’s.

Inseparable from this story were his beloved dancer girls, the thousands that danced for his eyes alone, and the few that he chose as his muses and often wives. For Balanchine, love, eroticism, and a vision of the divine were inextricably interwoven, and while he delighted in portraying both the Madonna and the Whore in his ballerinas, it was the woman dressed in white with flowing tresses that brought him deepest into his destiny—and his despair. Thus he gave us a body of work that defines woman in art as no other dance-maker had done before or since.

And then, in 1983, at age seventy-nine, he died, and the Internal Revenue Service was flummoxed. How to estimate death taxes on a man who left an apartment in Manhattan, a condo on Long Island, two gold watches, several cases of good red wine, and a few thousand dollars in the bank? How to tax an artist who made over four hundred three-dimensional dances that do not exist outside the bodies of the dancers dancing them in a live performance? Videotapes were made and scrutinized and filed, and ballets were valued in dollars, and, at the end of an unprecedented investigation, it was estimated that his estate was worth $1.2 million, of which less than half was the ballets themselves. But taxes on those ballets needed to be paid and thus the marketing of Balanchine, inevitably, began. The gentle genius who loved blue died, unknowingly, in the red.

Terry Teachout begins his assessment of Balanchine in 1987, four years after Balanchine’s death, upon his first seeing Concerto Barocco. Assuming that his own belated coming to the light could possibly reflect that of thousands of others gives the reader an immediate clue to Teachout’s position. Perhaps he’d have done better to explore the reasons for his astonishing late arrival to the shores of one of the greatest artists not only of his own time but of the very city in which he lives. To ask, as Teachout does, “Why hasn’t anybody ever told me about this?” begs the question, while playing the innocent is disingenuous, especially for a “culture” critic. Teachout then sets himself up as guide and savior, setting Balanchine up as a victim of the public’s short-term memory loss by titling his first chapter “The Unknown Giant” and then claiming that today “you don’t have to know who Balanchine was, or what he did, in order to be deemed culturally literate.” Says who?

Balanchine had the extraordinary ability during his lifetime, and now in death, to elicit from his appreciators a possessive ardor worthy of a jealous lover. To many it is “my Balanchine” and Teachout is no exception. Though I am personally thrilled that Teachout experienced his Balanchine awakening, and while his brief telling of Balanchine’s life is correct in most particulars (the facts are well documented in numerous sources), his former ignorance of Balanchine’s fifty-year venture surfaces periodically, most especially in his glib assessment of Lincoln Kirstein.

Kirstein was the man who organized the rank and file of reality about Balanchine’s art with the complex strategizing worthy of a Napoleonic campaign. In his efforts to make way for Balanchine’s angelic message to float free, he dug in the trenches, built the bunkers, and made the nonexistent exist. Teachout falls into the trap, as have others when it serves them, of introducing Kirstein to the story as a bipolar (he was), “eccentric,” “crazy” man, an example of “dilettantism run amok,” known, on occasion, to exhibit public rages. (The ones I knew about were all calculated for effect; Kirstein was the Sun Tzu of ballet, employing the Art of War to achieve the stability of the Art of Balanchine.)

Teachout is certainly entitled to his disagreements about some of Kirstein’s tastes in painters—he cites Paul Cadmus and Pavel Tchelitchev as “minor” painters undeserving of Kirstein’s praise—but it is hard to conceive where his condescension comes from. He announces that “Kirstein would exert no substantial influence on the visual arts, either as a critic or as a patron.” This is a peculiar statement about a man who had his finger, so to speak, in virtually every notable artistic pie of the twentieth century from painting, to literature, to poetry, to photography, to theater, to architecture, and, of course, ballet. Perhaps Teachout felt the need for a dramatic contrast to his new-found hero Balanchine, and plugged the gargantuan, complex, and difficult Kirstein into the slot. But to present the Balanchine– Kirstein collaboration—one of the most significant artistic pairings of the last century—as a sane guy–crazy guy story is both ill-informed and superficial—even for a “brief” life.

Of Kirstein’s impassioned idea to bring Balanchine to America in 1933—talk about “thinking outside the box” before “the box” was even invented—Teachout writes:

It’s easy enough in retrospect to make fun of Kirstein’s naive fantasies…. As for Balanchine, one can scarcely imagine what he made of the awkward, bespectacled giant who urged him to pull up stakes, move to a country he knew only from books, and start choreographing ballets about Uncle Tom and General Custer.

Clearly Balanchine thought it was a wonderful idea since he arrived in their country shortly thereafter and the rest, as they say, is history.

There is also the observation that Kirstein “never fully understood or appreciated mainstream modernism,” a baffling comment about the man who organized some of the first exhibits of “modern art” in America in 1929, featuring such artists as Miró, Man Ray, Modigliani, Dufy, Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Brancusi, Derain, Lachaise, and O’Keeffe. Kirstein understood “modernism” just fine. He just enjoyed denouncing it on occasion.

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