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The Unknown Young Balanchine

Vaganova Ballet Academy
George Balanchine with his wife, the dancer Tamara Geva, on his shoulders, circa 1925

As Kendall points out, Georgi’s childish letters to his father while he is studying ballet are heartbreakingly full of news about music, but rarely mention anything about his own pursuits in dance. A letter from his father in 1919—too late—imploring Georgi to become a musician (like his brother) rather than a dancer must have stung, coming as it did from a father who had by then managed to bring all of his children, except Georgi, to join him in Georgia. Meliton loved Georgia and he loved music, but he withheld them both from Georgi, one reason perhaps that these two things would later become such touchstones in Balanchine’s own life: he was always as much musician as choreographer, and he forever imagined himself Georgian, even though (until 1962 and then only briefly) he never set foot on its soil.

As for his mother Maria, whose image in photos appears so fragile and wispy, Kendall helps us see just how independent-minded but also vulnerable she must have been. And it is certainly true, as Kendall insists, that many of the women Balanchine would later surround himself with bore a resemblance to her: his dancers, his loves, his wives were almost all free-spirited bohemian women with none of the advantages of high birth or education and were unbound by social convention and traditional ways. Balanchine later liked to tell his somewhat mystified American dancers (he was only half kidding) to be like the comic book character Wonder Woman, who was invented during World War II as a fighter: strong, sexy, on her own, a woman from nowhere.

When World War I began in 1914—Balanchine was ten—the Theater School, like so many imperial institutions, turned a blind eye and went blithely on. Discipline and rote routine can be a form of denial, and ballet’s rituals, not unlike those of the imperial household itself, served this purpose for a time: every moment and every detail of life were safely regimented—waking, washing, eating, exercise, music, study, sleep, and above all, the absorbing mechanics of how to move one’s body to music. Meanwhile, the streets outside were full of chaos, violence, and death. Army conscripts flooded into the city; makeshift regimental barracks were erected and drills conducted in neighborhood squares—including the square outside the former Maryinsky Theater. Soon, refugees were streaming in from everywhere, hungry and in desperate search of food and shelter.

By the winter of 1916 food and fuel were in short supply. Balanchine and his friends sorted bandages for soldiers in their spare time and went without sugar once a week, but kept dancing. His family had meanwhile dispersed, and Kendall has tracked them all: his sister Tamara had been sent to Meliton’s brother and his wife near Moscow, Andrei was in Petrograd with their aunt, and Georgi’s mother was working at a hospital for wounded soldiers.

Meanwhile, as the government and the city reeled, Balanchine (by now age twelve) and his peers continued to be escorted to the theater in golden coaches—they called them “Noah’s Arks”—to perform in nineteenth-century fairy-tale dances such as The Sleeping Beauty. That December, in the midst of strikes, inflation, famine, and devastating war losses, young Georgi was escorted with his classmates to Nicholas II’s richly decorated box at the theater; he stood in awe of the tsar and received a box of fancy chocolates.

In February 1917, unrest turned to revolution as some 90,000 workers, soldiers, and women flooded the streets of Petrograd. Events unfolded in the ensuing weeks and months with terrifying speed and Kendall moves us swiftly along several intersecting paths: politics, ballet, and the chaotic efforts of the Balanchivadze family to relocate to Georgia. A bullet finally smashed through the windows of the Imperial Theater School, and armed revolutionaries searched for monarchists among the adults as the children cowered in confusion and fear. The tsar abdicated; the school closed; the theater closed (placards at the door: “Defend this building as national property!”); and when they both reopened, intermittently in the case of the school, everything had changed.

By April, the façade of the former Maryinsky was covered in red flags, and speakers on wooden platforms in the square outside harangued the crowds. Inside, the imperial portraits and double eagles in red plush cloth were gone, ushers wore gray instead of gold, and the heavy old stage curtain emblazoned with imperial eagles was replaced with a simpler one—light, white, Grecian—from a production by the radical theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (later beaten and murdered on Stalin’s orders). The tsar’s box and the once-glamorous parterre were now inhabited by workers, revolutionaries, and even by worn men returned from Siberian prisons (others sold their free tickets to the dispossessed old elite). In winter, Kendall reminds us, the theater was barely heated, and audiences brought coats and blankets and boots; the dancers, in their skimpy costumes, wrapped themselves in wool in the wings, and slid briefly out of their cover as they made their stage entrances. The students, Balanchine among them, still danced their customary bit roles, but now they came to the theater on foot or in old wooden carts pilfered from a theatrical storehouse, re-outfitted as rickety carriages and pulled by a half-starved nag.

The Balanchivadze family was by now in complete disarray. When the school initially closed, Balanchine found his way to his aunt’s apartment; Andrei was there too and Maria eventually joined them. After the Bolshevik takeover and as violence and chaos escalated in Petrograd and across the countryside, Meliton wrote from Georgia on November 12, 1917: “Wife and Children my Dears, how are you living in this terrible time?” He worried that the situation in the city was too dangerous and urged them to come: “Leave all the things in Petrograd, we can worry about them later.”

The family was against the Bolsheviks and for Georgia, and Meliton reported that he was working, setting up music schools, staging operas, engrossed in the musical life of what he no doubt hoped would become a new nation. His brother Ivan would die fighting against the Red Army. Andrei and Tamara managed with difficulty to join their father. On October 8, 1918, Georgi and Maria received an exit passport, No. 4385, filled out, according to Kendall, in Georgi’s hand, allowing them to travel to Georgia to join the family.

They didn’t go. Why? We don’t know, but instead, Georgi returned to the ballet school when it reopened. It was a decisive moment. The winter of 1919 in Petrograd was unforgivingly cold and cruel, the city a frozen mass with no heat. Making matters worse, windows were routinely knocked out to remove the ledges and any other piece of wood that might burn for a moment’s warmth, leaving the inhabitants agonizingly exposed. In the streets that Balanchine now traveled violence and terror were rampant and unpredictable—Reds, Whites, Greens, anarchists (Blacks), nationalists were all at war—and starvation and death commonplace. In the three years between 1917 and 1920, the population of Petrograd fell by two thirds.

The school struggled. Its ranks were reduced and persistent fuel and food shortages (a menu of blackened potatoes) made study difficult, as did painful skin boils and blotches from malnutrition—Georgi was covered in them. Before beginning their morning studies, the children carried logs, when they were lucky enough to have them, into the dance studios and shoveled them into wood-burning stoves that belched smoke out of open windows. Meals were prepared by rotating teams of students, coordinated by a committee—the UchKom—run by the boys, including Georgi; they carefully measured and weighed the portions—one eighth of a pound of bread a day for each.

By now, Kendall has introduced us to the full cast of characters steering this unlikely little ship, including the old (by now former) priest, Batiushka Pigulevsky, who found the boys odd jobs to do under cover of night, sawing fence-wood, or cleaning up vast mounds of garbage and wreckage in exchange for bread, frozen potatoes, herring heads, anything. Andrei Alexandrovich Oblakov, a former dancer who had performed with Diaghilev in Europe, became director of the school in 1919. His small apartment was crowded with books and he introduced Balanchine and anyone who was listening to contemporary literature and poetry, including the work of Mayakovsky—another Georgian.

Which brings us to the other revolution: the one that happened in Balanchine’s mind. It was intellectual and artistic, and it hit him hard from many directions at a critical moment, as he was becoming a man. A key figure, as Kendall shows, was Anatoli Lunacharsky, Lenin’s commissar of education, “poet of the Revolution,” savior of the ballet and the former Imperial Theaters, and also—crucially—the political muscle behind the radical theatrical experiments of Mayakovsky, Blok, and Meyerhold. It was Lunacharsky, with his ideas of a civic religion of the arts, who spoke at the reopening of the dance school in 1918, with Balanchine probably in attendance. And it was Lunacharsky who in 1920 was behind The Storming of the Winter Palace, one of many epic public spectacles in which the artists of the former Imperial Theaters participated, in this case, a reenactment of the events of 1917 featuring 10,000 artists, soldiers, sailors, and an audience of some 100,000 in Palace Square.

In 1921 Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy, allowing a mixed economy with small private enterprises. As the economy improved, theater and nightlife exploded. Ever in need of money, Balanchine danced and choreographed in cafés, cabaret halls, movie theaters. Around this time, he also met and in 1922 married Tamara Geva, whose father, Levkii Zheverzheev—half Tatar, half Turk, Muslim-born—was deeply involved in avant-garde theater and art. Balanchine met Mayakovsky, whose work he liked to quote at the time and in years to come. He had already briefly worked with Meyerhold, whose interest in biomechanics and in commedia dell’arte was part of an ongoing effort to overturn theatrical conventions. In this overheated political and artistic climate, ballet as he had known it was no longer acceptable.

Georgi, Kendall writes, joined a small group of progressive-leaning young dancers to work on Fedor Lopukhov’s The Grandeur of the Universe, the first plotless “symphonic” ballet—one critic called it the “Black Square” of dance after Malevich’s 1915 painting. That same year, he saw Kasian Goliezovsky’s erotic and gymnastic dances and after the show he and friends talked with Goliezovsky into the night. He went further afield and started his own company, the Young Ballet. It was collectively run and any proceeds were shared, each according to need. On June 1, 1923, the company opened at the hall of the former City Duma, a venue that had also featured lectures by Lunacharsky, Mayakovsky, and the poet Sergei Esenin.

For Balanchine, this embrace of the revolutionary avant-garde was a significant break—from his family, his past, his training. The Orthodox and Georgian nationalistic milieu of his upbringing, which had neatly dovetailed with the traditions and military precision—the orthodoxy—of the imperial ballet, was not exactly gone, but it was set far to the side, at least for now. He did not—and would never—embrace the Revolution, as Lunacharsky, Meyerhold, and Mayakovsky had all enthusiastically done; but he did take on a radical agenda for art, and the politics were not easily separated out and discarded. The New Economic Policy (NEP) complicated matters. Kendall convincingly shows that the Young Ballet fashioned itself in part against the crass commercialism and materialism—the blatant NEP capitalism—of those years.

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