Beliefs of a Master

for Father Adrian

1.

When George Balanchine set foot on Manhattan in the autumn of 1933, he and his colleagues were so preoccupied with confusing circumstances, inevitable in founding any ambitious institution, that while formulating an overall educational morality was not ignored, its expression was delayed. However, after our fledgling School of American Ballet incorporated itself as licensed by the Board of Regents of the State of New York, and opened on January 2, 1934, a policy, latent but dormant, began to ferment. Over the next fifty years it would be distilled, and its taste and temper become clear.

This metaphysic or body of belief, a credence that surpassed concern for mere physical mastery, determined our destiny, as well as the destiny of those ballet companies that eventually came to employ the dancers our school had trained. Only after Balanchine’s death does his moral rigor seem definable, although it had long been visible. What he lived, taught, and invented ballets by was a constant employment of traditional guidelines for considerate behavior. While these precepts would never be codified as curriculum in any catalog, they determined instruction and practice.

Odd parents, a few very odd, commenced bringing children—mostly girls, too tall, short, or plump—to be auditioned by this young ballet master, who, not yet known to America, had already been interviewed by the dance critic of The New York Times. One woman asked him, after he’d inspected her daughter in practice class, “Will she dance?” What she meant was, “Do you think she is beautiful and talented, as a child, and will she be a star?” A middle-class American mother was seeking a prognosis, as from an allergist about her child’s rash. The putative ballerina clung to Mummy’s skirt, exhibiting filial attachment worthy of Shirley Temple. Balanchine was unassertive, slim, no longer boyish, and, with his grave, alert mannerliness, the more daunting in his authority, instinctive and absolute. He hesitated, perhaps to make sure he would be understood; she repeated her question, “Will my daughter dance?” A Delphic response was the reply she received, sounding more oracular couched in French, although the sound of its meaning was plain enough through its four transparent cognates: “La Danse, Madame, c’est une question morale.”

The dance as a moral consideration. The abstractness of the answer, in its hardy phrasing, may have seemed even more puzzling than its pronouncement in French. “Morale“? Morals? Morality? Immorality? Ancestral seventeenth-century Puritans in Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence, New Haven, founding theological seminaries which would mutate into influential seats of teaching if less frequently of learning, had provided the mid-twentieth-century American with a curious inversion of the word “morality.” John Harvard, Cotton Mather, Elihu Yale, and other Calvinists denounced “dancing” as devil’s business, the fancy of whoredoms, a relic of the Caroline court, of the corruption of divine kingship. Faced with exile, a trackless continent, savage enemies, starvation, an imponderable future, God-fearing pioneers needed every ounce of muscular energy just in order to survive. Jehovah had chastised…


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