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 outset to read that he was “a relaxed, gray-haired man” who “identified with Tchaikovsky.” Actually, Balanchine’s intensity was always close to the surface; his hair was the least noticeable feature of his majestic head; and not at any time could this deeply restrained artist have felt an affinity with Tchaikovsky’s self-pitying and sentimentality. After the Preface, however, and from the moment Balanchine begins to speak, the voice is unmistakable, the language characteristic. With few exceptions, Ms. Bouis’s translation is undistinguishable from Balanchine’s own highly idiomatic English.
Volkov’s insistence on the Tchaikovsky–Petipa and Stravinsky–Balanchine parallel—and cliché—does not yield rich returns, perhaps because of the unsuitable form of Volkov’s questioning. Volkov makes a statement about Tchaikovsky, Balanchine takes the bait and starts out with the equivalent of “Tchaikovsky used to say…,” whereupon Volkov supplies verbatim what Tchaikovsky did say. Balanchine soon moves away from the subject but is never allowed to stray far enough before being called back from possibly rewarding digressions (“When you dance, there are no erotic impulses at all”) to some grindingly dull factual point about Tchaikovsky.
Nor does Volkov provide sufficient background information. Here is part of Balanchine’s description of a visit to Stravinsky in Nice (undated, but early April 1928; Balanchine had already been there on January 22, with Diaghilev):
So the Stravinsky table is set: At the head of the table a priest, Father Nikolai, because Stravinsky was very religious and he kept to that…. The children are at the table too, and they resemble each other terribly. Svetik looks like Fedya and Fedya looks like his father. They’re all sitting at the table and munching some salad, then spaghetti, and so on. All the faces are the same, and Stravinsky sees himself in them. Do you think that’s interesting—looking at yourself all the time? I don’t.
And then I always had the feeling that his wife was in his way…. He did not divorce his wife. When she died, he married a second time. So, as I remember, life in Nice was alien for Stravinsky, he didn’t belong to it. He had nothing to look at.
The grim household atmosphere and the narrator’s attitudes toward parenthood, cloning, and the desirability of divorce (followed by marriage to a younger woman) could hardly be more vividly conveyed. But nothing is said about the purpose of the visit, to study the music of Apollon Musagète, the cornerstone ballet of Balanchine’s career. Surely Volkov must have asked Balanchine for his impressions of Stravinsky playing the score at the piano, asked whether mention was made of the derivation of rhythmic patterns from verse meters, and asked what was said concerning the set. It is scarcely conceivable that two such rich visual imaginations did not bring forth something.
Perhaps because he could not write, Balanchine vehemently denied that he had any verbal gifts. But the story of the visit to Nice contradicts his contention. “They resemble each other terribly” is devastating, and so is the mot juste in “Isadora Duncan didn’t care to which music she jumped.” His language is always direct and concrete—“Stravinsky’s music is like a corset; it’s very good to have someone to hold you tight”—and it seemed to be on the tip of his tongue, as when he snapped back at an interviewer who wondered why he preferred Stravinsky to others: “Who are the others?” The ballerinas’ books now in spate will remain in print if only for their quotations from Balanchine, and the most desirable of future volumes would be a “collected utterances.”
Volkov has not steeped himself in his material. When Balanchine says that he loves The Magic Flute above the other Mozart operas, Volkov fails to pick this up and ask Balanchine about his 1956 televised version of the opera, or about his early stagings of Figaro and Don Giovanni at Monte Carlo. So, too, Volkov says that at the time of these interviews (1981), Balanchine was “bent on debunking the myth of the glamorous Diaghilev era.” But even before Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine had been criticizing him, above all for his highhandedness in ordering cuts (Apollo). Odder still, in view of the book’s ostensible subject, Volkov does not ask Balanchine about his experience conducting the orchestra for his Tchaikovsky ballet Theme and Variations in April 1948.
Volkov leads Balanchine through the history of his Stravinsky ballets, probably for the reason that a similar tour of the Tchaikovsky ballets could not be undertaken, Balanchine never having choreographed Sleeping Beauty—which, as a ballet, he rates “second” to Giselle!—or even the complete Swan Lake. We learn that at fourteen Georgi Balanchivadze “participated,” but not in what capacity, in Meyerhold’s Maryinsky production of Nightingale. (Jennifer Dunning’s source states only that Balanchine regarded the piece as “cacophonous.”) The Petrushka in the same theater two years later is not mentioned, though both the ballet and the ballerina, Karsavina, had a powerful effect on Balanchine, and though he traces to Nutcracker the idea in Petrushka of dolls coming to life (but does not mention Swanilda in Coppélia). Some bitterness is evident in his reference to Pulcinella at the Maryinsky, of having been refused permission, for financial reasons, to stage it there himself: “After I left Petersburg for Europe, I learned that Pulcinella had indeed been done…. So they found the hard currency…but without me.”
Nothing is said of disappointments in France, of the Noces that “I probably would have done differently from what [Nijinska] did,” of her Baiser de la fée and Lifar’s Renard, though Balanchine’s exclusion of these ballets (the complete Fée, that is) from his 1972 and 1982 Stravinsky festivals may be interpreted as an indication of still unhealed wounds. Balanchine’s truncated Fée, like his streamlined semifinal version of Apollo, destroys the recapitulatory form of the work, but his 1947 Renard is a comic masterpiece that today’s audiences should be given an opportunity to see.
The story of the visit to Nice conceals reactions to Stravinsky himself that Balanchine never divulged. The regrettable truth is that before his second marriage (1940) Stravinsky could be overbearing even to Balanchine. An interview with Balanchine’s friend Lucia Davidova, filmed in 1980 and recently made available at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, bears witness to this. Reminiscing about the rehearsal period of Jeu de cartes (April 1937), Mme. Davidova describes a social evening in the course of which the composer spoke to his young collaborator with a tactlessness all too believable for the date—which may help to explain why Balanchine, who could be easily and deeply wounded, did not like to talk about this ballet in later years. The celebrated affection between the two great Russian Americans came into being later, in Boston in 1940 and during the creation of Balustrade the following winter.
Volkov’s Balanchine makes two remarks about Stravinsky that can only be explained as errors in transcription. No one knew better than Balanchine that Stravinsky did not “cry easily,” or at all, when he “listened to his own music.” Nor was Stravinsky ever “a gambler,” except in the sense of artistic risks so minutely calculated, of bets so carefully hedged, that the word loses its applicability. (In a Las Vegas casino, Stravinsky’s attention was confined to the skill of the croupiers and to the denouements of the dramas taking place around the tables.) But then, Volkov also credits Balanchine with Stravinsky’s well-known artistic advice: “If you like something of someone else’s, why not take it?”
Balanchine’s recollections of life in Russia in his earliest years support the theory that memory is the creative part of the mind, at least of the mind that staged Nutcracker; even in 1981 Mr. B. remembered details about his childhood Christmas presents. And it must be said that the anecdotes about Russia and Russians—the musical compositions of the poet Kuzmin (one of them is included in the Prideaux Press edition of the comedy Evdokia), Prokofiev’s meanness about royalities for Prodigal Son—are among the more delectable in the book. But if Balanchine’s audiences are the target of his hardest-hitting observation (“Whatever you do is good enough, and if you do it better, they won’t even understand that it’s better”), the subject of the most painful, about being in the company of a group of girls, is himself:
If you’re interested in one of them a lot [their indifference] can hurt…. Love is a very important thing in a man’s life, especially toward the end. More than art.
Bernard Taper’s twice-updated and revised 1963 biography of Balanchine is indispensable for anyone in search of a broad-outline version of the life, but skimpy for a book that claims to be comprehensive. Obviously Mr. Taper was closer to the New York City Ballet twenty years ago than he has been subsequently: much of his chronicle of the Seventies is crammed into diary entries of a few meetings with the choreographer during the company’s 1974 season in the Greek Theater, Los Angeles. Much, too, is secondhand, including the accounts of the Russian tours of 1962 and 1972.
Mr. Taper does not always explain the significance of the important points that he observes. In her book Merrill Ashley quotes Balanchine to the effect that if he could have one wish granted it would be “to have perfect tempos all the time.” Mr. Taper is well aware of this: he describes Balanchine and his music director, Robert Irving, fixing tempos metronomically weeks before a ballet was to be videotaped. But the several aspects of the question are left unexplored. If live orchestras are involved, tempo, to some degree, must be circumstantial, subject to psychological factors, the weather, and acoustics. Clearly, too, the tempos of a ballet created to a difficult piece of new music cannot be set at the first performance and remain unalterable thereafter. Years may elapse before the true tempos, which may differ from the metronome markings, have been recognized, and the ballet master who works with a recording made at the time of the premiere may disastrously misconstrue the spirit of the music.
Balanchine himself avoided tape-embalmed performances, and his instinctive sense of tempo was more reliable than that of most conductors—one of the reasons that his performance of Theme and Variations was so memorable. Yet he composed dances to tempos as he first learned them. In the 1965 Leacock-Liebermann film of Stravinsky conducting, Suzanne Farrell dancing, the Terpsichore Variation in Apollo, the composer takes an impossibly fast pulsation, whereupon Balanchine demonstrates the exact fit of his choreography to the speed of the 1928 original. But Stravinsky’s argument that “the times” had changed, as well as his experience with the work, also has its truth.
Mr. Taper does not linger over such aspects of Balanchine’s personal history as the larger-than-normal quota of wives and close female friends, and the habit of referring to the spouse of a favorite ballerina as “my husband-in-law.” He describes the gruesome premonitory incident of Balanchine dancing the role of The Threat of Polio in his 1944 March of Dimes benefit ballet, of reaching out and touching a healthy young girl, danced by Tanaquil LeClerq, who then falls paralyzed to the floor; and the same girl, twelve years later, actually crippled by polio. But we are not told that the Eurydice in Orpheus (1948), played by Balanchine’s wife, Maria Tallchief, died and was borne off just as the leader of the Bacchantes, played by his future wife, Tanaquil LeClerq, leaped onstage. Not only are the symbolic and real-life successions overlooked, but so is LeClerq’s participation in this ballet, though in the view of many her staccato style had stolen the show.
Mr. Taper quotes one of Balanchine’s intimates: “The only time Balanchine loses that air of calm, complete authority…is when he’s with Stravinsky. Then he’s like a boy with his father.” Father and son were together several times each year from October 1939 to June 1970. What seems not to be known is that, in crises, Balanchine turned to Stravinsky, flying to California for a week, or a day, in search of inspiration, consolation, renewal, assurance of the continuing existence of creative genius.
After his humiliating treatment in Paris in 1947, Balanchine—“thin as a wick,” Mrs. Stravinsky describes him in her diary, and “complaining of the same cracked toilet seat at the Opéra as in 1927″—literally recovered in the Stravinsky home. Balanchine’s California visits were productive beyond the collaborations. The choices of the Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, of the music for Episodes and Opus 34, and of the Bizet and Gounod symphonies, extended from playing and listening sessions with Stravinsky. It should also be said that on the two occasions when the composer was seriously ill, in Germany in October 1956 and in Hollywood in September 1967, Balanchine was the first of his friends to come to his bedside, and that on anniversaries of Stravinsky’s death, Balanchine observed the Panikhida services on his knees, in the place where his own funeral was to be held in 1983.
Referring to Robert Garis’s article in Ballet Review, “Balanchine-Stravinsky Facts and Problems,” Mr. Taper writes that “only late in Stravinsky’s life, Garis thinks, [did] Stravinsky come to a true recognition of Balanchine’s genius, not merely mastery. That was when he saw Balanchine’s choreography for Movements.” The present reviewer, if he understands the distinction, believes that Stravinsky did become aware of a new dimension in Balanchine’s powers of imagination, but that this occurred a year earlier, during discussions of The Flood. Stravinsky chose to publicize his discovery after Movements precisely because this ballet was not a collaboration and the score not one he would have proposed for choreography. In New York, April 5, 1963, Stravinsky came back from a Movements rehearsal not only stunned by the invasion and conquest of his musical mind but also overwhelmed by the autonomous beauty of Balanchine’s “movements.” An eye for an ear, one might say.
If the music of the great collaborations, Orpheus, Agon, and Apollo, seems less successful today in concert form, the reason is that these pieces gain so much as ballets—though Orpheus has always been too episodic and visually explicit for orchestral programs, and even in the theater its very moving slow sections suffer from the alternation with fast ones containing, as Mr. Taper writes, a touch of “music hall high-kicking.” To what extent was Apollo a collaboration? All that can be said for certain is that Stravinsky chose the subject—the divine nature of inspiration—that he supervised rehearsals, and that Balanchine, though only twenty-four and with no safety net of previous achievements under him, was his own master. For what it is worth, the one criticism of the staging that the present reviewer ever heard from Stravinsky was, characteristically, of the stool on which Apollo sits to judge the Muses: “He looks as if enthroned on the WC.”
Since Taper’s biography is certain to remain in demand, at least until the appearance of the promised Richard Buckle-John Taras book, a new edition might be foreseen, one that would correct several errors. The subheading of a famous ballet is “inspired by the muse,” not “by the music,” of Tchaikovsky. The name of the Russian Easter cake is not “pascha,” as in a seraglio—Valerie Brooks actually writes it “pasha”—but with a “k” in place of the “ch”. In need of revision, too, is Nicolas Nabokov’s tale of a cross-country trip with Balanchine in 1947 to join Maria Tallchief, who is part Cherokee: “Balanchine was quite agog when the train, passing through Oklahoma, went by an Indian reservation. ‘Look, those are my new relatives!”‘ The “Super Chief” has never detoured to Oklahoma.
Finally, the statement that Noguchi’s designs for Orpheus “seemed absolutely right to Balanchine and Stravinsky” is true, but in the theater the authors of the ballet were dismayed by the too obviously featherweight boulders that had to be schlepped in the Sisyphean underworld, and by Orpheus’ mask, which was remade after the dancer complained of being unable to see the floor. The most stunning effect in the decor was Balanchine’s silk curtain with the slit of light in the top center streaming downward like liquid metal.
Jennifer Dunning covers some of the same ground as Bernard Taper, but her last chapters, “The School Today” and “Approaching the Stage,” are post-Balanchine. Kirstein is still a presence, but a lonely one, a “Drosselmeyer” to the youngest students.
“But First a School!” is first of all a biography of Lincoln Kirstein as founding father of an American school of ballet—as distinguished from a school of dance—as the genius who recognized the genius of Balanchine, and as the David (hiding in a Goliath) fighting against and defeating critical as well as financial odds: none of the literature has given a true picture of the abuse in the New York press that Balanchine’s ballets suffered, for so many years. If the turn-around ultimately went too far in Balanchine adulation and fideism, this can only be explained as a “natural” tipping of the balance to extremes.
Ms. Dunning fills many gaps, including the history of Kirstein’s own brief training as a dancer in Fokine’s New York studio. She also ignores some that are vital, as when she mentions Kirstein’s “mystical turn of mind” but fails to name Gurdjieff. Kirstein’s biography is imperfectly focused without a discussion of the effect on him of this teacher of dancing (among many other things). “I am still his student,” Kirstein wrote in 1980, and, “work done with George Balanchine since 1933, as far as my part goes, was determined by what I gained from Gurdjieff’s notions.” This reviewer has not seen the Gurdjieff dance films (or heard the recordings of him playing the harmonium; his composer was Thomas von Hartmann, Kandinsky’s collaborator on Der gelbe Klang), but the impression of them on Kirstein—and of his meeting with Gurdjieff—was profound.
“But First a School” introduces the present teachers of the School of American Ballet, incorporates material from interviews with them, and follows them into the classroom to watch their pedagogy at work.
Mr. Kirstein’s essay on Balanchine in Portrait of Mr. B. need not be discussed in the same publication in which it so recently appeared. But since the theme of this review is the aptness and enduring importance of Balanchine’s own words, one should call attention to the two brilliant interviews with him by Jonathan Cott (1978 and 1982) reprinted in the book, as well as its many fine photographs and Edwin Denby’s classic essay on Agon. Cott happily includes Balanchine’s gestures, in brackets, and in at least one case, the gesture makes the meaning clear. Replying to a remark by Stravinsky about “the struggle between music and choreography,” Balanchine says, “It’s not so easy to unite and to be together. When you’re immediately together, it’s [claps hands] and you evaporate.” It should be noted, however, that Balanchine mixes memories of his first experiences of working with Stravinsky. When Balanchine sings “tha ta ta ta, tha tum ta tum,” he can only be indicating the first two phrases of Apollo, not of Le Chant du rossignol.
From moment to moment, in session after session, Balanchine’s ‘Mozartiana’ describes the choreographing, rehearsing, costuming, and decorating of Balanchine’s fourth and final ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s suite. The Balanchine of Maiorano and Brooks is the New York City Ballet, its creative source, the onlie begetter of its dances and dancers, the chooser of its music, and the arbiter of how its people shall be clothed, lighted, and placed in settings of his imagining. “Not until Balanchine walks onto the stage is anything resolved,” the authors declare on one occasion, but the remark applies to all of them. The NYCB, moreover, is his family, children and grandchildren, cup bearers and acolytes, favorites, real-life ex-wives, “concubines” dreaming of position, and fearing, but much more strongly wanting, the rivet of his eye. Balanchine is the destiny of everyone in the company, and he cannot be succeeded.
Merrill Ashley sharply challenges this dead-end view, remarking that in Balanchine’s “contradictory attitudes toward the future of the Company, a small part of him found solace in the thought that it would all fall apart without him.” Maiorano and Brooks do not raise such questions. They are action reporters intent on recording the birth of Balanchine’s every step and sequence, as well as each of his words, expressions, gestures. They succeed extremely well, and not only in this but also in conveying the changing tensions and moods, the strains and frustrations, the constant awareness of the clock, the jokes and the short-lived, short-fused explosions, the exhaustion of the dancers draped about the furniture limp as Dali watches. The narrative often reads like a film script:
Farrell kneels. The children flutter around, then softly join the prayer. The music envelops them. The ballerina’s heart is open as she ascends and glides forward. Balanchine mirrors her movements. In time to Mozart, they pull together, expand and close. She shines under heavy lids of purple. Balanchine is intent. Farrell’s brow creases, her mouth mourns. They separate, part, then close together.
The relationship between Balanchine and Farrell, the dancer who inspired him more deeply and for a longer period than any other, is the book’s second subject, hardly less absorbing than the creation of Mozartiana. The relationship has been “a glory of the New York City Ballet for twenty years,” the authors rhapsodize, and the purple that they borrow from those lids becomes thicker as the ballet grows—“He opens her arms…baring her breast and tender throat”; “As she starts to kneel he has the children form a curve behind her. A saint in a niche”; “Balanchine and Farrell leave together with her supporting him around the waist. He drapes his arms over her shoulder and rests his head”—until the conclusion takes wing in iambics and alliteration: “as Farrell’s final furl unfolds.”
Balanchine made Mozartiana for Farrell, and the love story begins with her first entrance in the rehearsal hall, and with Balanchine indicating a place for a caesura because “we don’t want the music to be drowned out by the applause of Suzanne’s fans.” We see Balanchine in the throes of composition, “head bowed in thought,” “eyes excited, full of light,” demonstrating each position and movement himself, copying Farrell in order “to sense in his own body which direction the weight will fall,” incorporating an arm movement that Farrell had done naturally, modifying and embellishing her gestures. We are told that “usually Balanchine’s initial responses to music are his best”; that a dancer “rarely felt he was being directed by Balanchine, only led or persuaded”; that “in Balanchine ballets, the steps by themselves are not the most difficult part. It’s the pace, precision, brief preparation and wide use of space that is unusual”; and that Balanchine, though seventy-seven, in poor health, and impeded by thick-soled street shoes, moved “more gracefully than the ballet dancers.”
The chapter describing Farrell at a costume tryout shows Balanchine to have been as certain of what he wanted in the textures and colors of fabrics, the cut, dimensions, and fit of garments, in shoulder straps and hems and ornaments, as he was in his choreography. This contradicts his reputation, before his collaboration with the costume-maker Varvara Karinska in that masterpiece of gyration, La Valse, of indifference to dress. But Balanchine had devoted the same talents to the supervision of Vera Zorina’s clothes in Hollywood films, more than once staying up all night to recobble a pair of her shoes. Some of the book’s liveliest exchanges are between Balanchine and the seamstresses. But the center of attention is always Suzanne: “Balanchine would not want sleeves to cover Farrell’s lovely arms.”
The best things in Balanchine’s ‘Mozartiana’ are the quotations from Balanchine. He tells his young dancing class: “Those who can’t or are old, don’t have to”; what an audience’s applause really means is: “You see how nice I am to you. What are you going to do for me next.” But best of all is his admonition: “The mirror is another person. Don’t rely on it.”
Merrill Ashley rules out mirrors for the very different reason that “one sees in them only what one wants to see.” Her autobiography (to age thirty-five), Dancing for Balanchine, is the full story of the making of a ballerina, from early childhood to New York City Ballet principal dancer. The first step, assuming the physical and other attributes and potentials, is to recognize one’s vocation as a dancer at a precocious age, and to want to be a dancer with unwavering singularity of purpose. Step two is to be taught by the right teachers and schools. Then one must renounce a normal life and education and embark on a ten-year apprenticeship of relentless and intensive work. Injuries are a sine qua non of the profession, and a considerable part of Ashley’s book is devoted to her ballet-related medical history, including an incapacitating hip pain that eventually required surgery. No less painful and rife is the mental and emotional anguish: the competitiveness is fierce, survival is from day to day, and a dancer’s career is short.
Ashley’s account of her background, artistic training, and acculturation in the New York City Ballet will be of immeasurable value to any aspirant ballerina. More widely useful are the series of photographs in which she demonstrates correct and incorrect positions and movements, a manual of technique that even the keenest balletomanes should find helpful to the improvement of their appreciation of the art. Ashley’s technique, as she regularly reminds the reader—“I was growing into one of the strongest technicians in the company”; “[my] fast, clear footwork”—is second to none.
Yet Ashley seems to have been slow to understand what anyone else would suppose to have been immediately obvious, that her “only hope of stimulating Balanchine’s interest was to learn to dance the way he wanted.” Her ground plan was to observe Farrell: “I was intrigued that Balanchine found her unendingly fascinating, and I resolved to discover what it was in her that inspired him.” The feline streak comes out even more strongly when Farrell returned to the company after a long absence, and “Balanchine again cast her in all her old roles and gave her a lot of attention. Gradually he catered to her more and more,” though she “broke the rules both on the stage and, more surprisingly, in class…. As far as I could see, the few that found favor seemed to grasp the spirit of [Balanchine’s] laws while violating the letter.”
Colleen Neary, too, is seen as a preferentially treated rival: a certain role “required regal bearing, dignity, and elegance. In my mind those qualities were more evident in my dancing than in Colleen’s,” who was chosen for the part. In another ballet, “My variation turned out to be fiendishly difficult, but its subtleties impressed the other dancers more than the audience. Balanchine had also choreographed a variation for Colleen that was much more easily appreciated by the audience [and that] spoiled my fun a bit….” Later, when Colleen left the company, “I derived no satisfaction from [her] defeat.” (Obviously not!) But the company’s male dancers also inspire spite. They “had become involved in dance because they enjoyed jumping and turning, not because they looked forward to learning the difficult skills of partnering a woman.”
When, successfully stalked, Balanchine finally begins to notice her, Ashley thinks the reason may be that he “liked my straightforward but quiet manner and uncomplaining nature.” Straightforward, yes. She freely admits that the choice of the professional name “Ashley” was partly because “the Company lists its dancers alphabetically,” that “thoughts of promotion crossed my mind” (this is said halfway through the book, though from the beginning they have been crossing and recrossing as regularly as a palace guard), and that she had had to “struggle” with Balanchine to persuade him to bow with her: “Finally I took him by the arm and said: ‘Mr. B., please, do it for me.”‘ Uncomplaining, no. “Why had I been treated offhandedly?” she wonders. Should she “say something to Balanchine” about being passed over, she asks Peter Martins, who tells her to “Swallow it. Just swallow it.” Seeing her react to Balanchine’s arrival one day just before she goes onstage, Martins says: “Cool it. Just dance for yourself.”
Some of Ashley’s interpretations of the compliments she receives are unfortunate: “The corps applauded me…this spontaneous expression of—was it admiration?—touched me”; “People who had never noticed me before discovered me. Old admirers commented on the new me”; “Usually I was admired for my virtuosity, but this time I was appreciated simply for who I was”; “They believed, as I did,…that the ballet had not been bestowed on me because of my beauty or body type”; “There were gasps of awe as I finished”; “the beauty and elegance that my dancing projected” (this after pondering the question, a few sentences earlier, of whether her “dancing was not based too much on self-confidence and too little on self-love”).
Balanchine is quoted infrequently, yet some of his words come out wrong: “Bigger! Stronger! There are English horns in this variation.” Balanchine could not have mistaken the nationality of Mozart’s wind instruments. Once, too, Balanchine is made to sound like a comic-strip Chinese laundryman: “They think is more clever. But never was…I tell them, but they never do.”
Ashley’s comments on Balanchine betray a strange lack of connection with his world. She writes that “many people, upon meeting him for the first time, expected to find a man full of false airs.” Many people? But what could be the basis for such presuppositions even if they existed, which seems doubtful? And how can anyone say that “with Balanchine’s death, an important period in the life of the Company…came to an end.” An important period? There has been no other, nor is one likely to recur that is marked by greatness comparable to George Balanchine’s.
November 7, 1985