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The Unknown Young Balanchine

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Saint-Petersburg State Museum of Theater and Music
George Balanchine, seated, and other members of the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, Petrograd, circa 1921

George Balanchine had a hidden childhood. When he left his native Russia for Europe and the United States in 1924, his entire family stayed behind, and even letters between them were unreliable. Judging from what he later told friends and biographers, he didn’t remember much, though what he did recall fit neatly, perhaps a bit too neatly, in two halves. Balanchine thought of his early family life as mostly warm, even happy, and he recalled with nostalgia a lost imperial world. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1904, and his father was Georgian, charismatic, a composer; his mother was Russian, and she played the piano and made wonderful food; they were Orthodox and he loved church ritual. Ballet, and his training at the Imperial Theater School, were part of his sensual memory; he longed for the smells, sights, sounds of old Russia.

The break came with war, revolution, civil war, and the collapse of everything he had known. He was still a child—just thirteen years old in 1917—and he was cold and alone as his family moved back to Georgia while he stayed in (then) Petrograd, dancing in freezing temperatures, performing at Communist meetings, in cabarets and clubs, and was pulled into the vortex of revolutionary movements in art. He left the country with memories of imperial light and revolutionary darkness, formal beauty and its violent undoing. He loved Russia and hated the USSR.

In subsequent years, Balanchine rarely spoke of his family. Yet there were shadows: a picture propped on his bedside table in New York in the 1950s of his father, who had died in 1937; his overwhelming emotion in 1962 when his New York City Ballet toured the USSR, and his difficult reunion with his brother, the only surviving member of his immediate family. Not to mention the letters from his mother, who passed away in 1959, which he, a man who kept little, privately stowed away until his own death in 1983. But mostly he held his family at a distance. It is fair to say that he hardly knew them.

Until now. Elizabeth Kendall has unearthed the world of Balanchine’s childhood. For this alone we owe her a great debt: she has had to dig long and hard to come up with new official documents, invaluable family letters, and revealing and previously unknown facts. She has sought out every living member of the family and immersed herself in their lore and examined the scant sources from every possible angle. Where the facts fail, as they often do, she raises questions and fills in the picture with history. This is her real strength: at its best, her book is not only a portrait of Balanchine’s youth, it is a portrait of Russia in collapse—of the world that was dying as Balanchine was coming of age.

It is also equally about the ghostly figure of Lidia Ivanova, a forgotten dancer who drowned in 1924, a day before she was to leave the country on tour with Balanchine and a small company of dancers. Her death in a boating accident with “some young Bolsheviks,” who may or may not have been involved with the secret police, inspired poems, newspaper articles, a flurry of dark rumors that she knew something she shouldn’t have and had been murdered. She was a woman remembered more for her death than her life, although Kendall makes the case, largely unconvincingly, for “Lidochka” (as she fondly calls her) as a new kind of dancer and “lost muse” to Balanchine.

Indeed, she presents Ivanova as a key to Balanchine: a way to bring “into focus the figure of the ballerina who would define his career,” a symbol of the kind of women he loved, of the city he grew up in, of the politics that destroyed it—as they may have destroyed her too—and of the memories of death and loss that haunted his dances for the rest of his life. This is a heavy load for any young woman to bear—especially one that Balanchine himself barely ever mentioned.

The result is an important and exasperating book that veers between careful analysis and overzealous speculation. If Kendall weren’t such an accomplished historian, we might think her a little mad—or perhaps it’s that she is in love: not with Balanchine, but with his dances and the kind of women—like her Lidochka—she believes inhabit his ballets.

For the reader, this is a mixed blessing. Kendall’s detailed and inconclusive focus on the circumstances of Lidia’s death at the end of the book, and her determination to give Lidia—with scant supporting evidence—pride of place in Balanchine’s psyche and art, distract her, and us, from reflecting on the truly groundbreaking research her book contains.

Georgi Balanchivadze’s* father, Meliton Balanchivadze, was dedicated to three things: Georgia, music, and his own vast and disorganized ambition. Georgia meant the farmland in the west around the town of Banoja, where he was born, and the nearby city of Kutaisi where, following his own father’s footsteps, he attended Orthodox seminary before moving on to the capital, Tbilisi. Georgia mattered, Kendall writes, because the family history in the region was deep—Balanchine’s paternal great-grandmother was apparently a village elder who sang and performed on the chonguri, and his grandfather was a priest and schoolmaster.

For Meliton, though, Georgia was more than a place or a family heritage: it was a nationalist cause. He arrived in Tbilisi at the height of the “back to the people” movement that was inspiring research into native Georgian literature, music, and art, and he soon dropped out of the seminary and made music—Georgian music, and Georgian national identity—his life. In this spirit, he married a Georgian woman from back home, settled in Banoja, and had two children.

In 1889 Meliton left for St. Petersburg, sponsored by a local merchant to study music so that he could write the first great Georgian opera—a project that absorbed years of his life and was in a constant state of incompletion. There he started a new life and a new family with a younger woman, Maria Nikolaevna Vasilieva, Balanchine’s mother. Meliton was not, as Balanchine apparently later thought, widowed (Kendall produces evidence that his Georgian wife later petitioned the state to take his pension from Maria), and we don’t know if he ever got divorced—or indeed if he ever officially married Maria. No marriage certificate has been found, and Kendall tells us that according to christening documents, all four of their children (the first died in infancy and Georgi was the middle of the next three) were born to the “unwed” Maria, which would of course make them all, including Georgi, illegitimate. Meliton officially recognized the children in 1906, but the arrangements between him and Maria were clearly not entirely fixed or conventional.

Balanchine’s mother was herself probably illegitimate too, and Kendall believes she may have been a courtesan, although her childrens’ baptism certificates identify her as a former craftswoman. She had minimal education, wrote simply and with grammatical mistakes—but that’s about all we know of her background. She left few traces, and like many women of uncertain pedigree, Kendall suggests, she had both a fierce social ambition and a strong adventurous streak. She entered and won the lottery—which lifted her and her family into a new socioeconomic class—bought a summer dacha in the Finnish town of Lounatjoki in her own name (not Meliton’s), and having thus provided for herself, cultivated a self-consciously haute-bourgeois lifestyle: summers in the country, wet nurses, posed professional photos of her children in sailors’ costumes, piano lessons, nanny, tutor. In a sign of her status-conscious ways, Kendall says, the moment she could afford it she joined the costly Second Merchants’ Guild of Tsarkoe Selo, the summer residence of the tsars and many members of the nobility.

Meliton and Maria filled their life with parties, dinners, and festive events with Georgian music and musicians, composers, singers, all gathered at the house or dacha for “one big ongoing feast,” as Balanchine’s younger brother Andrei later recalled. The company was distinctly conservative, and Kendall reminds us that the Balanchivadzes were not part of the progressive cultural elite of Nabokov or Diaghilev—their circle was Orthodox and monarchist, men of music but also of church and state, with strong nationalist leanings. Balanchine’s godfather, for example, was Konstantin Konstantinovich Stefanovich, a high-ranking Interior Ministry official who came from a religious milieu and whose father was the dean of St. Petersburg’s imposing Kazan Cathedral, where Balanchine witnessed—and never forgot—the archbishop of Tbilisi (a relative, as it turned out) become an Orthodox monk. He prostrated himself, as Kendall describes it, “on the great cathedral’s stone floor as the cloth of black crepe was thrown over him to mark his worldly death, then rose, a new being.”

The family’s social position, however, was never certain—Maria and Meliton were both furiously improvising—and letters cited by Kendall from Meliton to Maria from 1910–1911, as he squandered their lottery wealth in unsound business ventures and struggled to keep a financial foothold, reveal his fears that the whole thing might crumble: “I feel like I am throwing away my most precious thing—my family.” It did of course crumble, and he ended up briefly detained for unpaid debts—the children were told he was away collecting music, although it seems he was also briefly back in Georgia celebrating his birthday with his other family. Maria held the house together, with help from her sister, growing vegetables in her ample garden, cooking and caring for them all. In Balanchine’s memory his happiest childhood years were these, when he lived in the countryside in a household of women.

Even when he moved on to the Imperial Theater School in 1913, these women followed him. Here Kendall’s evidence does not seem to support her somewhat overwrought conclusion, or Balanchine’s own memory, that his mother’s decision to leave him abruptly at the school the day he passed his audition was “probably…the greatest trauma of his life, greater even than revolution, emigration, and the later financial and emotional ups and downs of a roving choreographer.” The records she produces show that he returned home for holidays and spent many weekends at a relation of his mother’s, “Aunt” Nadia, who lived in St. Petersburg. Indeed, during the chaotic years of the war and revolution, her home became a kind of family gathering point. And in the years after the Revolution, Maria did not desert her son when the rest of the family returned to Georgia. Kendall has evidence that, to the contrary, she moved to the city and took an office job, staying nearby, perhaps for her own reasons too, until 1921 when Georgi graduated. Only then did she join Meliton and the rest of the family in Georgia.

Still, and this is what comes across most clearly in Kendall’s account, it was a fragile, somewhat chaotic world, and even if Balanchine was unaware of the details at the time, he would almost certainly have felt the tremors and intuited the gaps, as children always do. As a father Meliton may have been fun and charismatic but he was also impulsive and unfocused, and often not there; in any case, he seems to have shown little confidence in his middle son. Why, to take a vexing point, did he settle for sending Georgi to dance school in 1913 when the boy’s real interest—like his father’s and his mother’s and for that matter his brother’s—lay in music, the one thing that was of indisputable value to them all?

  1. *

    Balanchivadze was changed to Balanchine in Paris by Diaghilev in the 1920s. 

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