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Keeper of the Jewels

Balanchine Variations

by Nancy Goldner
University Press of Florida, 132 pp., $24.95 (paper)

No one knew better than George Balanchine how ephemeral his art was—and he didn’t care; he was interested in his next ballet, not his last. But those of us who do care have no one book to turn to that anatomizes his work, ballet by ballet. How can that be? It’s as if there were no books walking us through Shakespeare’s plays, or Mozart’s operas or Verdi’s, or Austen’s or Dickens’s novels. Of course, there’s a large body of brilliant criticism, and not only from America’s two greatest dance critics, Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce, but it’s mostly in response to particular occasions: a premiere, a revival, a new star taking over a role. For a single coherent response to the entire Balanchine achievement we have nowhere to turn.

The reasons for this are obvious. Ballets don’t have frozen texts, the way string quartets or novels do; they change—and all too frequently erode—as they pass from company to company and from generation to generation. Most actually disappear, and in Balanchine’s case not only his early work in Russia and early triumphs in Europe like La Chatte (1927) and Cotillon (1932), but important pieces he made in America, like Le Baiser de la Fée, Balustrade, The Figure in the Carpet, Opus 34, the Paul Taylor solo from Episodes. Others are sliding toward oblivion: How often do we see Harlequinade, Ivesiana, Gounod Symphony ? Even Orpheus, with its beautiful Stravinsky score and striking Noguchi decor, a crucial ballet in the Balanchine canon, is more dead than alive when New York City Ballet trots it out every once in a while: the steps are there, but the ballet is gone. On what basis, given these circumstances, can critics today approach the immense Balanchine oeuvre?

A remarkable new book—Balanchine Variations, by Nancy Goldner—doesn’t attempt to. She’s too modest—and too sensible. But some years ago Goldner was asked by the Balanchine Foundation to prepare a series of brief lectures touching on specific works that were entering the repertory of various ballet companies around the country, and it is these lectures, composed with the collaboration of the Balanchine ballerina Merrill Ashley, that have been expanded into the chapters of Balanchine Variations. Goldner’s qualifications included decades of close observation and a long history as a practicing critic. She had, as well, been at the School of American Ballet as a child, and had been watching Balanchine’s City Ballet since 1949, when she was six and it was one.

Because most of Goldner’s work appeared in not quite mainstream publications—The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Saturday Review, Dance News—she was better known to her colleagues than to the general dance public, and unfortunately her pieces have never been collected for publication. But those of us who know them value them for their acute eye, telling perceptions, and large-mindedness. Although she can be a killer when driven to madness by shoddy or vulgar work, she’s essentially an appreciator, a celebrator. And—hardly a surprise for anyone of her time and place and critical capacity—the genius she has celebrated most ardently is Balanchine.

What makes Goldner so appealing as well as so instructive is that she has no theories, no agenda. Her book is a personal response. She just tells us what it’s been like for her to watch these ballets. Yet—she can’t help it—at times she’s analytical; her intelligence is too strong to be put on hold. Early on, she confronts this contradiction:

Balanchine used to say that you can’t put dancing into words, that you can only look at it. The analytical side of me says, Balderdash! But the part of me that weeps and smiles when watching his ballets lays pen to rest. Balanchine is right.

(That “Balderdash!” is symptomatic of her quirky old-fashionedness—her forthright and emphatic turn of mind.)

There are seventeen chapters encompassing twenty-two ballets (four works are discussed in the chapter on the Stravinsky Festival of 1972, and the three ballets that make up Jewels are quite properly dealt with separately). Every one of these chapters presents insights that will help you expand your understanding if you’ve been watching Balanchine all your life, or help you to an appreciation of what may be relatively unknown territory. Yet this isn’t dazzling virtuoso writing and thinking, like Croce’s; it’s down-to-earth, and it’s generous, allowing you to fool yourself into thinking that you could have come up with these insights yourself if only you’d taken the trouble. (How odd, then, that none of us did.)

An early example: writing of Apollo (1928), the turning point in Balanchine’s career (and in twentieth- century ballet), and his oldest extant work, Goldner tells us:

My own favorite moment comes toward the end of Apollo’s first dance with the Muses. They stand on pointe in a line with their heads thrown back, so that they cannot see what’s in front of them. Apollo gives them a push, and off they bourrée into the world like children leaving home. It’s time to grow up.

Yes, that’s what that lovely moment suggests! However well you know Apollo, however many times you’ll see it again, your experience of it will have been enhanced by this idea. But notice how she keeps it personal: It’s “my own favorite moment” not “the most meaningful moment,” giving us permission to have our own favorite moments. Nor do we have to feel chastened if we don’t read this dance passage her way. She offers us her perceptions, but she doesn’t insist on them.

Or consider this throwaway remark about what to many people is Balanchine’s signature work, Concerto Barocco : “Typically, dancers, like regular people, make contact with their arms. In Concerto Barocco they say hello to each other with their legs.” Again, the writing is homey, but the thinking isn’t.

She can project a scenario onto a ballet and then step back to question whether she’s gone over the top. About La Sonnambula:

Although she skims the ground, the Sleepwalker doesn’t waft about aimlessly. There is a specificity to her travels, yet we don’t know if she is moving toward or away from something, someone. At one point she rotates in sharp right angles, as if tracing the four walls of a room. The inner anxiety we sense in her—is she a captive? Am I getting too imaginative? Maybe.

The idea is out there, for us to accept or discard. What’s unquestionably valid is her conclusion: “The point is that the tension between the Sleepwalker’s outer impassivity and inner agitation is thrilling.” We’re reminded of how we too have been thrilled—and disturbed—by this tension. If you know the ballet she’s discussing, she revives your response to it. If you don’t, she whets your appetite.

Balanchine’s Nutcracker triggers her most personal response. As a School of American Ballet student she performed in it, during its very first years of performance:

Back then, the machinery lifting the tree upward and the electrical wiring that gave it its twinkling lights were not up to snuff. As a soldier, I could get a peek at the dance of the tree. How it struggled to rise, how it quivered and heaved in its quest to soar! But often something went wrong with the electricity. The lights on the tree would blink on and off, and sometimes there was a smell—something burning? I vividly remember thinking as I stood in the soldiers’ cupboard, waiting for the cue to charge the mice, Well, if you’ve got to die, this is the way to do it—going up in flames to this beautiful music.

I myself remember from back then the suspense and excitement of that quivering tree lurching upward, but I wasn’t ready to die for it.

Her view of The Nutcracker, of course, goes well beyond reminiscence. It proceeds from specificities (in the opening Party Scene, “the children scamper, and the parents stroll. Both groups observe Tchaikovsky’s score, yet the children move allegro, the adults andante”) to the largest perspective:

It’s not an overstatement to say that all of [Balanchine’s] ballets begin where Nutcracker ends—in an eternal dream. The difference is that in the other ballets the dancers don’t need to dream to be in a dream. The curtain rises, usually with a blue cyclorama as decor, and, presto!, you’re there in a timeless, placeless space. The dancers don’t need a plot device to get them there; they don’t need to lie down on a bed or fall asleep or take opium (like the hero in La Bayadère ) or search for swans (like the Prince in Swan Lake ). The accent on the plausible in The Nutcracker is a concession to a logic that Balanchine felt unnecessary in his other ballets. As he said, ” The Nutcracker is for children. They must be able to understand.”

Think of these things the next time you treat your children or your grandchildren (or yourself) to this masterpiece.

Goldner is at her best (she’s never far from it) in her full discussion of Jewels. Here is a brief taste of her insights into its three sections.

On the great Violette Verdy solo in “Emeralds”:

The dance begins with a long passage of ports de bras as intricate and idiosyncratic as Balanchine ever did. Its secret is that the ballerina does not dance with her arms; she dances to them and they to her as in a conversation. The delicacy with which her arms fold out and in, curl upward, and brush across her forehead seem to delight her. The refinement of her arms, and the practiced way in which they move at times suggest a lady at her toilette. Again, the scene seems enclosed in the dancer’s mind.

Dancers around the world now performing this solo should be made to memorize this passage.

On “Rubies”:

With Stravinsky leading the way, “Rubies” is all high jinks and wit and playfulness. One thinks of the girls’ scrunched up arms, like chicken wings; or the cakewalk strut of the ballerina and her cavalier, which they then reverse into a game of jump rope; and most of all the merry chase that the cavalier takes his four pals on. Of course they can’t keep up with him—who could keep up with Villella—but that’s the point.

Villella is the superb Edward Villella, the original “Rubies” male lead. (Patricia McBride was his partner.)

Goldner knows how to write about dancers as well as dances:

I remember well the first years of “Rubies,” when one watched the duet with bated breath and open mouth. It seemed the apotheosis of acrobatic bravura with a tinge of elegance coming from McBride’s delicately held fingers and queenly trots around the stage, like a Lipizzaner. Villella’s mix of virility and charm was his unique gift. But I think the duet’s general loss of heat has to do with technique. McBride and Villella gave every movement and the split-second transitions between them complete articulation. They danced their hearts out. There was no holding back. McBride once said that she’d jump off a bridge for Balanchine. In “Rubies” she did, and bounced right back.

Yes, that’s what “Rubies” was like, and what it’s never been like since—underlining the perils that lie in ambush for critics and historians who are unlucky enough to have been born too late.

On “Diamonds”:

Suzanne Farrell wrote in her autobiography that when she first stepped onto the stage in the pas de deux, her guide was the “lonely” oboe that plays the adagio’s major theme. Melancholy does indeed pervade the music, and so the dance. There’s another kind of loneliness, too, which is odd considering the ardent attention paid to her by her partner. The ballerina in “Diamonds” moves in a kind of solitary splendor. She is not self-absorbed like the [Mimi] Paul character in “Emeralds,” but her movements, so grand and large, register like symbols of adagio dancing. This duet is a distillation of the pas de deux, and she is the messenger, the essence of the ballerina character.

You can’t talk about Balanchine Variations without quoting from it extensively, because it’s the accumulation of its glancing observations that gives it its singular effect. While many of these can easily be appreciated by readers who aren’t familiar in depth with the ballets under discussion, others benefit you more if you have some kind of tape of the ballet running in your head. This is particularly true in relation to the ballets from the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. (In 1973 she published a book about it.) Here’s how Goldner revitalizes your impressions of the second movement of Stravinsky Violin Concerto:

Sometimes…Balanchine wants to move beyond elegance of construction into the realm of human relationships, which are less clean. This realm is typically channeled through pas de deux. The Violin Concerto has two of them, set to two arias of the score. The first tells its tale with unusual explicitness; just about every move and configuration of the couple spells struggle. Here are a man and woman who spend a tremendous amount of energy thwarting each other by means of thwarting the natural laws of partnering. As their limbs interlock, they face away from each other, thus making what could be a simple, natural maneuver impossible. They struggle to unlock at the very moments when they are going through contortions to embrace. You could call the duet a comedy about crossed signals, except that the determination with which they pull and twist is almost painful to witness. At the end he promenades her (one instance where their hands actually touch) and then sinks to the ground onto his back while she towers above him. It’s a no-win ending. One imagines the Siren and the Prodigal Son years later when they are no longer seductress and fascinated novice, but two people plain worn out.

Has anyone else ever made this leap of imagination that connects these two ballets, so on the surface unalike—the 1929 biblical parable The Prodigal Son, with its deeply emotional story, dramatic Prokofiev score, and rich Rouault decor, and the 1972 Violin Concerto, which Goldner rightly refers to as “spanking clean?” This is a daring and original mind at work.

Which is why one hesitates to quarrel with any of her judgments. I do, though, find myself in disagreement with her feeling that of the four major works Balanchine created for the festival (Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements, Duo Concertant, and the Divertimento from Baiser de la Fée), it’s the last one that best bears “the test of repeated viewings.” Her reasoning is convincing, according to her inner sounding board. To her, the Divertimento is “the most classically minded,” and she loves Balanchine best of all—as she explains, in the closest she comes to presenting an agenda—“because he recombines [steps] and presents them in different contexts with unsurpassed nuance.” With that I certainly agree, but despite its felicities, I can never see this extended fragment of the full, original, and now lost Baiser without feeling cheated: it just feels incomplete. Or perhaps the word should be “inconclusive.”

It’s almost a relief to be able to disagree with Goldner for once, or to spot the very rare error (as when she refers to the four men who lift the heroine at the end of Serenade ; there are only three). If Homer can nod, the rest of us can be forgiven. The only serious quarrel one can have with Balanchine Variations is that there isn’t more of it.

Goldner explains that the ballets represented are those that companies outside New York were adding to their repertories at the time of her lectures. Not only were extravaganzas like Union Jack and Vienna Waltzes impossible for small and middle-size companies, but “other large ballets, such as Symphony in C and Stars and Stripes, are also beyond the means of most United States groups because they require many principal dancers with strong technique.” Which is true enough, though less true than it was ten years ago when the project began. As it is, this book is the closest we’ve come to a comprehensive look at Balanchine’s great accomplishment, but even given her modesty, why couldn’t Goldner have written additional chapters from scratch? There are at least a score more of Balanchine ballets that need her eye on them—or, rather, that we need her eye on.

If this sounds greedy or ungrateful, it’s Goldner’s own fault. As it is, at least we have what she’s chosen to give us in Balanchine Variations, which immediately takes its place among the half-dozen or so essential books on George Balanchine.

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