Balanchine Variations

Balanchine's Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine

by Solomon Volkov, translated by Antonia W. Bouis
Simon and Schuster, 252 pp., $19.95

Balanchine: A Biography

by Bernard Taper
Times Books, 438 pp., $19.95

"But First a School": The First Fifty Years of the School of American Ballet

by Jennifer Dunning
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 288 pp., $20.00

Portrait of Mr. B.: Photographs of George Balanchine with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein

Viking, 154 pp., $30.00

Balanchine's 'Mozartiana': The Making of a Masterpiece

by Robert Maiorano and Valerie Brooks
Freundlich Books, 188 pp., $18.95

Dancing for Balanchine

by Merrill Ashley, with the assistance of Larry Kaplan, foreword by Clement Crisp
Dutton, 236 pp., $29.95

Suzanne Farrell
Suzanne Farrell; drawing by David Levine

None of the books about George Balanchine discussed below will present him to more than a small fraction of the readers of Shana Alexander’s Nutcracker,* now in its fourth month on the best-seller charts. This much-publicized story of Balanchine’s involvement with Frances Schreuder, his “last patron”—and coincidentally the psychopathic instigator of her father’s murder by her son—does not change the perspectives of his life. But the connection cannot be dismissed as simply another grotesque act of “fate.” After Mrs. Schreuder’s arrest, “George,” as she referred to him, supported her with his belief in her innocence. “He cried with joy, when I was released from prison,” she claimed. “He even offered to testify for me.”

True, other New York City Ballet officials weathering the scandal were sympathetic—if that is the word for Robert Gottlieb’s gift to the then Rikers Island inmate of “a slim volume of Igor Stravinsky’s letters.” But Balanchine was closer to her. That he seems not to have been disturbed by manifestations of her “bipolar mood disorders” may not be surprising, in view of his long experience of the same condition in others. What does elude explanation is that Mrs. Schreuder, even during her most stable periods, must have offended Balanchine’s natural delicacy and sense of decorum. Reliable, as a rule, in his evaluation of character, was he blindered in this odd instance, or confused by the contradictions and by his own illness? What can be said is that his death a year before Mrs. Schreuder’s trial (and conviction) was merciful in other respects than were known at the time.

Shana Alexander is less than reverential toward Balanchine, and she does not hesitate to expose his, well, orgulous side—as in his remark that if audiences were unable to pronounce Davidsbündlertänze, a ballet Mrs. Schreuder sponsored, they could stay away. For the rest, the book’s account of ballet-school life in relation to Mr. Schreuder’s career as Balanchine’s underwriter is overwritten:

The crackle and hiss of neurotic mothers and their anorexic daughters…wracked bodies, fevered imaginations, Balkan intrigue, and sulfurous hatreds…when the prima ballerina found ground glass in her toe slipper—every other dancer was equally suspect.

Solomon Volkov’s title is misleading: his subject is Balanchine, not Tchaikovsky, on whom Mr. B.’s comments are largely familiar and rarely remarkable. Far more valuable and almost as voluminous—if the word can be used in connection with so slender a book—are Balanchine’s reflections concerning his relationship with Stravinsky. Tchaikovsky’s craftsmanship, one of Balanchine’s main themes, had been inculcated by Stravinsky from the time of Apollo. Moreover, the collaboration between the contemporaries provokes Balanchine’s most acute insights about himself (“Stravinsky planned, and I improvised. That may be my great fault”). But under whatever heading, Volkov has preserved a few marvelous moments with the living Balanchine, for which this reviewer, at least, is grateful.

Yet anyone who knew the choreographer will be nonplused at the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.