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The Master

Then there is Teachout’s assessment of Balanchine’s love life with phrases referring to “an endless string of torrid affairs” worthy of “tabloid fodder,”* employing the terms “ruthless” and “tyrant” in a meek attempt to sensationalize a dignified life, a life devoted to art with an ease and humor that defies all rules and expectations of tortured genius. (That job fell to Jerome Robbins.) It is clear from the depth of sadness exposed in his ballets that Balanchine was a man with a deep internal life, one shaped as much by love as the lives of the rest of us, if not more. But daily drama was not the way of Balanchine, who approached his life and work with a disconcerting calm and confidence that defies the drama of the neurotic.

Robert Gottlieb’s George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker is the superior book, though the telling is somewhat dry and there is nothing new here. But it is useful to have all the famous Balanchine stories and quotes gathered into one handy little volume—though the stories have been recycled so often now as to sound more like platitudes than fresh wisdom. Gottlieb has his facts correct, and he manages to convey a general sense of the profound importance of and delight about Balanchine’s achievement.

Most moving in Gottlieb’s book is a considered and sensitive portrait of the young Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze, a child who clearly experienced grave injury at a very early age, informing from the start his understanding of life as defined by loss, a view that is so heartbreakingly evident in many of his ballets. Abruptly left by his beloved mother at the ballet school at age nine, he was so unhappy that he promptly ran away. But he was just as promptly returned. (So much for little Georgi’s futile attempt to avoid his now obvious destiny.)

How sweetly touching to read that his first role onstage as a child was in The Sleeping Beauty as “a tiny Cupid,” as if that destiny as the man who would explore love’s wounds in three dimensions of motion was sending its message, in a theatrical arrow, to mark the little boy. At age nineteen the budding choreographer set Chopin’s Marche Funèbre for his group of young dancers, “building a design of uncompromising grief” and revealing a knowledge far beyond his years.

By age twenty-six, having departed his homeland and his family forever, he all but lost his life, spending three months in a sanatorium for tuberculosis that left him with permanently impaired lungs. “I am really a dead man,” he would explain later, “now everything I do is a second chance.” Balanchine had found his freedom and it would govern his whole artistic life, and his ballets that portray the concept that in loss fate manifests itself are numerous—Serenade, La Sonnambula, Meditation, Elegy, Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” Mozartiana, to mention just a few. When at age sixty-one he portrayed the bumbling, idealistic Don Quixote onstage pursuing passionately, and futilely, Suzanne Farrell as his winsome Dulcinea, he underscored the notion more personally than ever before.

2.

Balanchine was the man whose work was, at its deepest level, about time itself—the measurement of time, the passage of time, the music that is time, the loss inherent in time. How ironic that in the two decades since his passing, his name has been subjected to so many attempts, both elegant and vulgar, to preserve him, to institutionalize a man who called himself, in the words of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, “not a man but a cloud in trousers.” The efforts have been enormous, and no possibility has been left unexplored to make that now legendary name not only survive but produce.

But what cannot be preserved is time, the very subject of which he was master, and which now in his heavy absence is all the more poignant. Surely ballet is the saddest of all the great arts, demonstrating in its very essence the swift and inevitable passing of time and the bereavement that is a constant of a conscious daily life. A beautiful ballet doesn’t speak of or refer to loss directly as can poetry, painting, or music; it is an act of loss itself, laid bare, and all the more moving for it. For the same reason it is perhaps the bravest of the arts, the one whose practitioners—dancers—risk all for mere transitory moments of beauty that may or may not be observed by others. Unlike those arts that exist in a form outside the artist himself—painting, sculpture, poetry, prose, music—dance only exists, as Balanchine explained, in that dancer, in that moment. And his work, too, only existed in that body, in that ballet, on that stage. Then poof! It is gone, finished. Time for lunch, as Balanchine would say, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

It is a cliché often repeated that “dancers are dumb,” and yes, they are the “silent minority,” as Balanchine explained, but they are also in a way the noblest and most fragile of artists, knowing as they do that their work will not only not outlive them, but will not even outlive that performance, on that evening, in that theater, in that city. At best their work exists as a memory—and we all know how reliable that is. A dancer will never even see himself, or herself, dance. (Videotape, while technically useful, is a distorted, backward, two-dimensional, miniature rendition of a dance that inevitably erases complexity from any performance. It records, at best, steps, but never depth. Even other live performance—singing and acting—can now be accurately preserved on digital disks.) While dancers’ “narcissism” is also frequently noted with snide superiority, it is really generosity that dancers demonstrate with their practiced grace. The evanescent nature of the form is haunting and Balanchine, in his own generosity, gave us this ephemeral gift.

Now is an odd time for Balanchine (and “now” was the only time he recognized). With only twenty years between his reality and his now growing legend there are numerous dancers, critics, and fans who saw his workshop under his aegis and knew what they were seeing. But there is also now a permanent changing of the guard, for with several notable exceptions at the New York City Ballet—Kyra Nichols, Darci Kistler, Jock Soto (who will retire this year)—no dancer on a stage today dancing his works was chosen or trained by him. Of the dancers not trained by him, only the uncompromising Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal miraculously embody his integrity in their every move—and they were trained at the School of American Ballet while Balanchine was still alive.

The generations move on and with them, like gossip, the story changes, the technique changes, the look of the dancers changes, and most of all the spirit of the enterprise changes and, in some cases, has been lost altogether. A preoccupation with accurate execution without the aim of honor gives birth to pointed toes but soulless feet. Always succinct in his suggestions to dancers, Balanchine once told a dancer, “Reach for it like you’re reaching for a Cadillac.” They just don’t reach for those Cadillacs at New York City Ballet anymore. It’s SUV City Ballet now.

The much-publicized centennial year 2004 began auspiciously the day after Balanchine’s actual birthday of January 22, with the world première of a very expensive “tribute” to Balanchine by Susan Stroman, a talented woman who boasts numerous hit Broadway shows—including Contact and The Producers—and five Tony Awards to her credit. And so as Balanchine entered his 101st year the Queen of Broadway raked his stage with Broadway bombast in her “first full-length ballet,” Double Feature. But at least it sold some tickets. What Stroman was doing uptown at Lincoln Center paying so-called tribute to Balanchine’s distinguished Broadway career with her swanky but pedestrian moves is unclear. Except that she is popular, and award-winning, and there was a hope that she might draw her Broadway-based audience twenty blocks uptown to Lincoln Center. The year of marketing, I mean celebrating, Balanchine had begun with a dissonant clunk.

On Saturday, May 1, almost two hundred alumni of New York City Ballet (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of them) dating back as far as 1948 gathered at the New York State Theater at the invitation of the company director, Peter Martins, to take a bow for past services and share some vodka and blini. After only briefly discussing how the company just “isn’t what it was” (how could it be? it’s now Martins’s company, not Balanchine’s), discussion quickly moved on to the usual reunion banter: who’s married, who’s divorced, who’s no longer gay, and who’s reproduced. Many of us skipped the last ballet on the program—we knew we’d seen it done better—but beneath our ironic remarks lay disappointment. Most of us weren’t so interested in “ballet” per se; we were interested in Balanchine. His dances are now performed like ballets; we had approached them as missions. We are not naysayers, just dinosaurs who remember when the pterodactyls still flew at the State Theater.

The season’s highlight—and unquestionable low point—came with the world première of Musagète, a ballet by the Russian hackman Boris Eifman in his first effort for NYCB, in which he dramatized Balanchine’s life according to his own. The vulgarities of this melodrama in Tortured-Artist Syndrome were legion. It must be also noted that when the principal dance critic of The New York Times saw fit to claim that the image of Balanchine’s beautiful last wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq, being dragged offstage on a length of funereal fabric (she was tragically paralyzed with polio at age twenty-seven) presented an “image [that] does not offend,” dance criticism reached a whole new plateau of equivocal diplomacy.

Elsewhere Balanchine was celebrated by virtually every dance company in the world, including a twelve-hour “wall-to-wall” performance at Symphony Space in New York, as well as in numerous exhibitions, notably at Harvard, Hartford, Lincoln Center, and St. Petersburg, while the Museum of Television and Radio, in both New York and Los Angeles, provided screenings of Balanchine ballets dating back as far as 1956.

The year also saw the fiftieth anniversary of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, the ballet that spawned a thousand others every Christmas, and an embarrassing financial scandal at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). In February it was announced that for the first time since 1964 the company would not perform at its annual summer home in 2005 as a “cost-cutting measure,” according to the president and executive director of SPAC, Herbert Chesbrough, who had worked closely with Balanchine for decades. By November, after public protest and a state audit, the decision was reversed with the curt statement by the investigating government official: “We were shocked that an institution like the New York City Ballet would be the scapegoat for the financial difficulties of SPAC.” It was also noted that Chesbrough was found to have been receiving a salary of more than $300,000 a year plus benefits (including having his wife on the payroll) and is scheduled to receive more than $400,000 as a severance package upon his retirement next year—just about the same amount as SPAC’s annual deficit.

It is telling, though disturbing, that perhaps the most poignant image to emerge from Balanchine at one hundred is an advertisement for Movado watches (a corporate sponsor of NYCB) featuring Darci Kistler, Balanchine’s last angelic messenger and adored child-woman, whose rich but uneven career, sadly thwarted by injury upon injury, echoes like a cry in the dark since Balanchine’s death. In the full-page ad, her beautiful, mournful gaze, twenty years after losing her maestro, peers like a blond widow out of a black web. She, the last muse of the Man Who Knew Time, is posed with her arm across her neck like a noose. Balanchine taught his audience and his dancers how to bear loss with grace, and the serene sadness evident in Kistler’s enigmatic face is the visage of a woman whose loss indeed has been great.

Two decades have now passed and how ironic that it has left this last great hope from the Balanchine era marketing timepieces to preserve her transitory art. Balanchine said of the time after him: “Everything will be different…. It will be something else.” It sure is.

























  1. *

    This phrase is from the jacket copy written by Teachout himself.

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