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 …