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The Unknown Young Balanchine

As a dancer, Balanchine stayed close to the spirit of his father: he loved national dances and excelled in bravura demicharacter roles—his graduation piece in 1921 had been a Lezhinka, a rousing Georgian folk dance. Yet as Kendall points out, his choreography was mostly the opposite: serious, about love and above all death. He used music by Chopin—not the lively piano études, but the “Funeral March.” We don’t really know what this dance looked like, but at one point three men carried a woman (Tamara Geva) lying flat on her back as if dead, in procession, lifting her up over their heads as they approached the front of the stage, a ritual all too familiar to the soldiers and sailors and people in the audience of the ravaged city.

In 1923 Balanchine staged a production of Alexander Blok’s poem “The Twelve,” with no music and fifty singers rhythmically chanting verses—a technique Meyerhold had also used—in a ritualized spectacle that must have accentuated the raw irreverence and sexualized violence of the text. Blok had written the poem in 1918 at the peak of his own revolutionary enthusiasm, before his disillusionment, illness, and death in 1921. Kendall unfortunately does not go into this, but choosing Blok was itself a statement, because of the poet and the poem, but also in view of Blok’s mystical experiences and writings on an idealized Beautiful Lady, another theme that would preoccupy Balanchine. Where exactly did Balanchine stand in relation to Blok, Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, and others at the time? Kendall doesn’t quite say.

Her final chapter turns instead to the theme of death and “corpses” in Balanchine’s future work, and the place of Lidia Ivanova and a dying St. Petersburg in his imagination. Here she goes too far, speculating for example that Serenade, which premiered in New York in 1934, was a kind of ode to Lidia. When Kendall describes the final moments of the ballet (a woman standing upright, lifted on high, and carried into the light as she arches back with arms open in surrender) and asks, “Is she Lidochka?” my answer—based on her book—is no, she’s not Lidochka or anyone else. She’s the idea of loss and leaving, of fate and time and mortality, rendered in dance.

Something seems to have developed inside Balanchine that gave him an unusual tolerance for loss and emotional upheaval—the detachment of the survivor perhaps—and an ability to sweep away feelings when they overwhelmed him, and to start over. This was the idea of the blank slate, and it is the story, and the discipline, of his Apollo, created in Paris in 1928—after he had left his homeland: starting from nothing, every night, white on white, and using ballet to do it. The impulse behind the dances reflected his inner life: an emotional detachment that was at once a retreat and a purification—not depression really, but something more decisive and willful, his own personal and internal revolutionary attitude.

We now know that Balanchine did not have a solid childhood disrupted by the war and revolution; it was uncertain from the start, defined by gaps, breaks, “in-betweens.” Neither his mother nor father had clear identities. They were not aristocrats, not bourgeois, not demimonde, not Russian, not Georgian. He was not sent to the military or to music, but to dance—and so he lived between them all. Even ballet school didn’t help: he wasn’t a particularly good dancer.

Amid the disruption and brutalizing experience of war, revolution, and civil wars, we find a picture of a child and young man whose inner and outer worlds, family and history, offered him little by way of protection. He had only one sure platform to stand on: ballet. And even that did not hold. It is not that Balanchine grew up too fast—lots of people do—but that he grew up surrounded by violence; and perhaps more troublingly still, the destruction and death that engulfed his city and his life came with—and even in part caused—an artistic vitality that was central in everything he went on to do.

Later he had nostalgia, memories, and yearning for what he had lost and in some way never fully had: Russia. But the revolution was inside him too, and if in his memory they were opposed, this may have been more a sign of pain than forgetting. Nostalgia implies something or somewhere that still exists and might be retrieved or returned, Prospero-like, with magic and art. That was an illusion Balanchine both loved and knew to be false. His own childhood had proved it.

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