Jennifer Homans is the author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. She is the Founder and Director of the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, where she is also a Distinguished Scholar. She is currently working on a biography of George Balanchine. (May 2016)
The curtain rises in silence. The stage is empty except for four men with their backs to the audience evenly spaced across the rear of the stage. They are lean and long in their simple white T-shirts, black tights, and white ballet shoes, and they are doing nothing. Just standing.
On the evening of May 27, 1965, something extraordinary happened on the stage of the New York State Theater in Manhattan. George Balanchine, artistic director1 of the New York City Ballet, had not performed for many years, but that night he put on full theater makeup, hoisted himself into …
When George Balanchine choreographed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the New York City Ballet in 1962, he had been living with Shakespeare’s play for most of his life. He was fifty-eight years old and recalled playing an elf or bug in a production when he was a child in St. Petersburg in the years before the 1917 revolution. He liked to say that he knew the play “better in Russian than a lot of people know it in English,” and his dancers remember that he quoted the text in English freely from memory. It was a play, and as importantly a musical score—Felix Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music—that seemed to follow him through life.
Elizabeth Kendall has unearthed the world of George Balanchine’s childhood. 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. 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.
Memory was Tony’s only certainty and he clung to it as a lifeline. It was the thing the disease could not take from him. It was another way out of the bubble and the only form of independence he had, and kept, to the very end. To retrieve a memory, he didn’t have to ask anything of anyone: it was just there, in his mind, and as long as he could still talk, he could use his memory at will. It was all his. This is why Thinking the Twentieth Century is a work of memory, not history, even if the twentieth century is its subject.
One afternoon in New York City, George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky were sitting at the piano working together on a new ballet. Stravinsky inquired how long one of the dances should be, and Balanchine responded, “Oh, about two-and-a-half minutes.” Stravinsky shot back, “Don’t say ‘about,’ there is no such thing …