No other European émigré artist of the 1930s had as great an effect on American culture and bequeathed as rich a legacy to it as George Balanchine. When he arrived in New York in October 1933, architecture was flourishing in the United States, conservatories and fine arts academies existed, and painters, poets, sculptors, and composers somehow survived. But in this country, classical ballet, that international transplant, indigenous nowhere, was not for certainty considered an art at all, much less a respectable one.
At the time of his death fifty years later, the émigré with, more truly than the author of the phrase, nothing to declare except his genius, had won recognition for ballet as a great art, trained a company of nonpareil dancers for whom he created many masterpieces, and established a school. His New York City Ballet was the one American artistic enterprise consistently welcomed and applauded abroad, while his version of the Russian ballet Nutcracker became an American institution, as much a part of our holiday seasons as turkey. Now, on the fifth anniversary of his death no memorial has been raised to this man who gave us so much, nor, as yet, has the essential drama of his life been captured, if it has been perceived, by biographers.
Richard Buckle’s George Balanchine is an affectionate portrait of the great choreographer. Though not the anticipated sequel to his Diaghilev and Nijinsky but a more selective, not to say sketchy, biography that deals briefly with well-worked subjects and avoids twice-told tales, his survey of the ballets seeks, not always successfully, to place them in post-Balanchine perspectives. Even so, this is the Balanchine book, at least to date, for those who will read only one.
Balanchine history is largely, inevitably, oral. He himself was a voluble interviewee, and the best lines in the book are excerpted from his talk (“music…I make dance that looks like it. I was born for that reason”). Though a nonwriter—only a few of the letters from his American period published here sound like him (“Please, no Sebastian,…a dreadful ballet, lousy music, stinking story”)—with no grammar, a limited vocabulary, a peculiar idiolect, an accent grossly misrendered in all orthographies, he nevertheless manages to be ringingly articulate.
Substantial portions of Buckle’s text derive from spokespersons for specific periods, including widows of both the never-quite-married-to-him and the never-quite-unmarried-to-him kind. In Buckle’s account of the early Lincoln Kirstein years, and again at times in the late Thirties and Forties, the voice is more Kirstein’s than Buckle’s. But no matter. The quotations from Kirstein’s writings, letters, and telegrams, together with those from “groupie” ballerinas—“He always made a dance with one person in mind and if another person were to dance it he would change the steps”—bring us nearer to the living Balanchine than any amount of third-hand description.
The short chapter on Balanchine in Russia (1904–1924) provides a smattering of political and cultural history, and as much as most readers will wish to know of his family background (half-Georgian, with a musical father and Orthodox priest paternal grandfather), his schooling (the Imperial Theater Ballet School, St. Petersburg, and musical studies in the Petrograd Conservatory), and his first theater experiences (attending performances from an early age in the Maryinsky Theater, and, while still a child, dancing a small part there in Sleeping Beauty). Little is known about Balanchine’s first efforts to choreograph, but a precocious attraction to Stravinsky should be remarked: at eighteen Balanchine had devised dance movements for Ragtime and sought permission (not granted) to stage Pulcinella.
On the subject of the vexed relationship with Diaghilev, the chapter about the decade in Western Europe (1924–1933) adds little more than a note to Diaghilev’s friend Boris Kochno, in which Balanchine complains that Diaghilev owes him money, and a characteristic story: Diaghilev wanted to cut Terpsichore’s variation. “He told me that the choreography…was no good. I said ‘The choreography’s fine. It’s the dancer who is no good.’ ” In later life Balanchine criticized the quality of dancing in the Diaghilev company, the emphasis on décors, and the preferential treatment of Serge Lifar as premier mignon, but these objections seem not to have been known at the time. Buckle’s histories of Apollo and Prodigal Son are useful introductions to the two great ballets that Balanchine created for Diaghilev, but the inner path by which the choreographer reached this pinnacle of creativity at age twenty-four remains obscure.
In the “American” five sixths of the book, the chapter “How Kirstein Brought Balanchine to America: June–December 1933” contains new material from Kirstein’s letters and diaries that amplifies but does not significantly alter the by now familiar story. What we are given for the first time are the pourparlers, many of them by cable, between Balanchine and his American Maecenas to establish a ballet school and performing company in the United States. We learn that whereas Kirstein’s recognition of Balanchine’s genius was by no means immediate, he was quick to remark that in ballets, as in life, Balanchine sees the relationship between men and women tragically, “always broken up by someone jumping in between.” Kirstein kept cribs on Balanchine’s observations as, for example, that Massine was “unmusical”; “that mime, gesture language, was antiquated”; that the greatest dancers of former periods were technically inferior “to any well trained modern dancer”; and that “Fokine can no longer compose [ballets]. He can teach, sitting down, but no one can compose long after they forget the actual movement…in their own bodies.” Here Buckle interposes that Balanchine “could compose only with flesh and blood before him, ‘like a sculptor with clay, putting off here, taking on there.’ “
Only two months after Balanchine had settled in the United States, the School of American Ballet was duly opened in NewYork. Buckle’s view of this event credits similar efforts by Mordkin, Bolm, Fokine, and others, it details the financial and other responsibilities of the founders, and it explains the organization and the curriculum. The first students are identified, too, and some of them contribute vivid reminiscences of Balanchine in his classes. But for an adequate discussion of his teaching methods, the reader must look elsewhere.*
Apart from teaching, Balanchine spent the decade and a half before the formation of the New York City Ballet (1948) making dances for the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway, Hollywood, and part-time and touring companies. In a 1936 letter to Stravinsky (not cited by Buckle) about commissioning a new work, Balanchine says, “I would not want the ballet to be strictly entertaining in character; I have been ‘entertaining’ here for two years already and now everybody has begun to copy me.” The “two years” is an exaggeration, if he means Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and his dance numbers for Ziegfeld Follies, but doubtless these and the later collaborations with Rodgers and Hart, Babes in Arms and The Boys from Syracuse, were widely imitated.
In the years 1938–1942, Balanchine would set new standards for the movie musical in his films—no longer revivable at any hour of the night—for Vera Zorina, The Goldwyn Follies, On Your Toes, I Was An Adventuress, and Star Spangled Rhythm. But Buckle tells us no more about these standards than that Balanchine had brought the superior dancers of the American Ballet to Hollywood with him, and that his innovative mind was soon alerted to ways of making dancers more effective on the screen through the use of new camera angles.
The scene in Goldwyn Follies of the water nymph rising slowly from a pool, dancing on the water, and mounting a white and rearing Chirico-like carousel horse seems to have been entirely his idea—though Moira Shearer dismisses it as “a conventional water-nymph ballet (shades of Swan Lake) [with] conventional choreography.” (Neither she nor Buckle mentions that this ballet became the model for the hippo-ostrich sequence in Fantasia, presumably with Balanchine’s concurrence, since he was with Disney at the time, December 1939.) Whether or not Balanchine’s later costume and fantasy ballets are in any way indebted to his cinema experience, what can be said with certainly is that his powers of invention on movie sets were not confined to choreography. But the range of Balanchine’s theatrical imagination has not been generally understood, and this potential Aesop of the narrative ballet is now exclusively associated (shades of Bouvard and Pécuchet) with the plotless kind.
The pursuit of the female, with its entanglements and disentanglements, occupies the second largest part of Balanchine biography. Buckle, no latter-day saint-defrocker, introduces the subject with Byron’s “My heart always alights on the nearest perch,” meaning, in Balanchine’s case, the latest, youngest, most gifted and attractive ballerina. His marriages to four of them follow a pattern of infatuation, rapid disinclination, the accession to the family circle of a third-party companion from among Balanchine’s “slaves” (Nicholas Magallanes in the Maria Tallchief period), Balanchine’s retreat to what anthropologists call secondary wives, divorce, and lasting friendship with the ex-spouse.
Balanchine’s sexual predilections may be understood as a corollary of the flatchested ballerina ideal. “He gave me a little pat on the behind,” Ruthanna Boris recalls, and he “told me later ‘You were…so cute…if you could not dance at all I would have taken you anyway. I wanted to bite your knees.’ ” Darci Kistler also confesses that he gave her “a slap on the rear,” and one of his fantasies during World War II, so he told Stravinsky and Nicolas Nabokov, was to be a general of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, in order to stand a company of them to attention, command them to lift their skirts and lower their undergarments at the back, and, while inspecting the “ranks,” concupiscently whack WAACS. Balanchine’s old friend from Russia, V.P. Dmitriev, advised Kirstein that no young woman had ever been safe with “Georgian, heartless” George, and Buckle, remarking on what could be “the fulfillment of a personal fantasy,” the “throes of stylized orgasm” in the Bugaku pas de deux, quotes one of Balanchine’s close female friends: “If people could see into his mind he would be in prison.”
Buckle gives ample space to several of the landmark ballets—more of it to A Midsummer Night’s Dream than to any other—sometimes, as with Symphony in Three Movements, offering ingenious “interpretations” as well. But his omissions beg questions. Surely Opus 34, Balanchine’s excursus into Expressionism, based on Schoenberg’s score for an imaginary film, deserves mention, both in itself and as an experiment with two totally different choreographies, a composition of abstract dance movements followed by a Caligari’s cabinet of surgical horrors, for the same music played twice consecutively. And why is the 1947 Renard, Balanchine’s theater-of-comedy masterpiece, not listed among the achievements of Ballet Society, especially since John Taras, Buckle’s coauthor, was in the original cast? Compared to Four Temperaments, Balanchine’s most enduring creation of the late 1940s, the barnyard fable’s pantomime centerpiece relegates it to the category of divergent work; but “the revelation of Balanchine’s varied genius” is one of Buckle’s themes.
Gaps also occur in Buckle’s chronicle of the life. No explanation is given for Balanchine’s return to Buenos Aires in 1942, so unexpected after the unsuccessful South American tour the year before, but important in that it provided opportunities to compose pure, complete-in-themselves ballets, as distinguished from incidental numbers for stage and movie spectacles. Balanchine would always recall with pleasure and pride the never-revived (in complete form) Concierto de Mozart (A major Violin Concerto), choreographed in Argentina in the summer of 1942. Nor does Buckle say anything about the coengagement of Balanchine’s friend Pavel Tchelitchev to execute new décors for the Teatro Colón Apollo, replacing the ones that had made the great ballet disappointing the year before. But even the biographical thread is lost after Balanchine’s departure for the United States in mid-August 1942, Buckle mistakenly taking him to New York instead of to Hollywood and his then wife, Vera Zorina.
Other journeys have sunk without trace, including the one in September 1965 to Hamburg, where, after preparing Suzanne Farrell for a televised performance as Terpsichore, Balanchine heard Stravinsky’s Variations and already began to think of it as a solo ballet for her—or three ballets, going Opus 34 one better. Of the eight-country tour in 1956, we learn only that La Valse was received coolly in Vienna, but not that in Venice Balanchine became acquainted with the music of Agon, as far as the “Bransle Gay” and some of the “Bransle de Poitou,” two dances that inspired him. Perhaps Buckle felt that to discuss Balanchine’s burst of new creativity at a time when Tanaquil Le Clercq, his young wife, was stricken with polio might seem insensitive. But the transformation in Balanchine consequent to this tragedy, his religious “conversion,” the return to God and strict Orthodoxy and the faithful churchgoing that marked his life thereafter, is also not recorded in this book.
Of all the ballets that Buckle celebrates, Agon elicits his keenest appreciation:
After nearly thirty years, we are still rediscovering, each time we see it performed, some breathtaking wonder that we had forgotten. Although the ballet ends as it begins, we are not left with a sense of QED—nothing has been proved—but of “Here we are again, back where we started and none the wiser.”
Buckle is at his most moving when he describes Balanchine’s cruel physical and mental decline, from the angina attacks that began in 1978 and the bypass operation a year later to the cataract removal, the increasing giddiness, falls, and blackouts, and the final six months of deterioration in the hospital. Though no one could have believed he would recover, the death, April 30, 1983, came as a great shock. This reviewer heard the news in Venice and went, as if for next of kin, to the Russian corner of the island cemetery, learning the next morning that, back in New York, Lincoln Kirstein had stepped before the curtain at the Saturday evening performance and said: “I don’t have to tell you that Mr. B. is with Mozart and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.”
Moira Shearer inevitably covers the same ground as Buckle, yet the overlap is minimal, partly because she devotes more than half of her book to Balanchine’s earlier years. Her picture of his Russian childhood is more extensive than Buckle’s because she imaginatively fills it out with what life in St. Petersburg and in a house in the Finnish forest must have been like in the years before the First World War. But she may be less reliable, as in her acceptance of Balanchine’s statement that his father spent two years in a czarist prison after having been declared “a willful bankrupt,” a story dismissed by Buckle as “romantic exaggeration” (what is romantic about that?). Her narrative often reads as though intended for the very young (“It is so easy to exaggerate in retrospect, we all do it”) or part of a fairy tale (“Now something happened which is astonishing…”). And some of it, such as the compassionate portrait of the lonely little boy in school, and with his mother and sister on the train to St. Petersburg (“Sitting in their compartment, both children were excited and nervous”), is fictionalized; but harmlessly: the reality could hardly have been very different. So, too, the infusions of autobiography with which she regularly supplements her account are unobtrusive as well as pertinent.
Shearer reserves her more distinctive views and speculations for the shorter, American half of her “tribute.” Switching to the first person to describe her adventures on the Balanchine trail in New York, she calls on Lincoln Kirstein, but, not surprisingly in 1985, without reaping rich rewards. What does take the reader aback are some of her comments after the meeting: “rather unbalanced—an unusual American dilettante…his writing is not for me…. Kirstein’s considerable erudition is given an airing in almost every sentence.” Yet in a “happy final moment,” Kirstein said, “George mentioned you often—oh yes, he talked about you a lot,” which to this reader is incredible (“a lot”?), “George” having last seen her nearly four decades earlier. But not to Moira Shearer:
We were on the stage [at Covent Garden] in the dreary working light waiting for him. I was very nervous. [Balanchine] arrived, elegant as always. We had never really met, so we all shook hands and he made some courteous small talk for a few minutes…. Then, nodding to the pianist, he said, “So—let us begin.” …Waiting for the first notes, I realized that I hadn’t the least notion whether I could do what I was about to attempt…. The cadenza begins quietly and slowly. I saw his face briefly—impassive, enigmatic. Then the tempo builds until one is a whirling mass and there is no time to be aware of anything. The pianist struck the final chord…. He came towards me with a charming, surprised expression, put his hands round my face and kissed me.
Looking back over thirty-seven years, I realize that the next few minutes of that day were the most important in my career as a dancer. This man, whom I hardly knew, gave me something invaluable, something I lacked totally—self-confidence…. Did Mr. Balanchine sense this? I shall never know. I only know that he gave genuine praise for my efforts, showed his interest and pleasure and, above all, showed me that he believed in me.
Shearer’s aversion to dance critics centers on the late Edwin Denby, to the extent that she quotes a preciously written passage from one of his reviews and follows it with her own “translation,” as she calls it, though it does not say any of the same things. But she drubs British critics no less soundly: part of the purpose of her book is to secure a measure of appreciation and justice for Balanchine in Britain, and to referee the extreme views on both sides of the Atlantic, “close to total dismissal” in Britain and to “deification” in America, the former “blind,” the latter “overblown.” In the course of this she incidentally reveals that Balanchine’s chief British detractor, though not in print, is the choreographer Frederick Ashton, whose homily to her on Balanchine she compares to “Mark Antony’s famous speech of denigration, then eulogy, in Julius Caesar—but in reverse.”
Shearer believes that Balanchine himself was fatalistic and optimistic, and that with age he became petty, rude, arrogant, autocratic, intolerant, vain, capable of humiliating a dancer, guilty of favoritism. To these charges even his most loyal friends would add that, young as well as old, he could be fickle, stubborn, prejudiced, grudge-bearing, childish—like other creative artists whose thought processes outside their work, and day-to-day social behavior, do not always match the high levels maintained by the uncreative. She also reminds us that Balanchine was a sometime dupe of the avant-garde, choosing not only Pierre Henry’s musique concrète and Xenakis’s Metastaseis and Pithoprakta for ballets that proved to be disasters, but also the score for Episodes, a work she does not regret having missed because “I have never yet been able to share a room with the music of Webern.”
Still, she is shrewd about Balanchine’s private life, and her suggestion that “a minimum of sex” might have had something to do with the undoing of the marriages may come close to the truth. This, at any rate, would explain that although “sexual jealousy can be such a strong force in women, yet one never senses the slightest breath of such feelings among the women he loved.”
Shearer describes the autopsy from which it was discovered that Balanchine had died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease, a slow and so far untreatable condition almost impossible to detect in a living person:
An autopsy was performed and his brain removed. It was…sliced in layers and tissue removed and treated for study under a microscope…. A pink circle called kuru plaque [was found], the sign of a rare family of virus diseases.
To turn from the dissection of the body to a post-mortem on the art and character, and from hearsay history to personal reminiscence—Gelsey Kirkland’s autobiography is not the book that rumor threatened. Her ongoing quarrel with Balanchine (“my greatest adversary”) is in no way damaging to him. Nor does she accuse him, as publicized, of introducing her to drugs, but merely of giving her a single amphetamine when this seemed justified (at least to this reader). As she tells it, the late Patrick Bissell was responsible for the first stages of her cocaine addiction; but she was clearly ready for it and does not overtly blame him—at least not more than everybody else in her life, for this intolerably all-knowing, self-centered, and highly gifted dancer may be more deeply paranoid and self-destructive than even she suspects. One wishes Gelsey Kirkland, with her independence of mind, her talents, and her lively intelligence, a more peaceful future than the past recounted in this disturbing book.
In opposing her artistic philosophy to Balanchine’s, Kirkland assumes—with what justification is not said—that the reader accords her equal status. She contends that ballets should have meanings beyond choreographic values and dancing for its own sake, that they must be about something besides technical perfection. Balanchine, she writes, failed to realize that in “extracting a code of movement from what he saw as the corpse of classical ballet…he thought he had isolated its soul.” Balanchine, moreover, wanted only mechanically perfect dancers, while Kirkland wished to be an actress as well, or first of all. Not far along she asks, “What place did feeling and wit, love and reason, have in Mr. B.’s theater?” The answer of course is “every place,” but Kirkland’s perception of these qualities is a long way from Balanchine’s.
At the age of ten, in the School of American Ballet, she thinks of Balanchine as a divinity. Shortly after, at a costume fitting, he asks her in front of other males to change her clothes, which she does behind a screen. But something about the incident has embarrassed her—she is easily humiliated—in spite of which she remarks afterward: “I had caught the eye of George Balanchine.” A few years later, seeing herself as “not pretty or sleek enough to fit the image of a ‘Balanchine ballerina,’ ” she sets out “to alter my natural shape,” to conform to “Balanchine’s ideal female proportions,” and to be “on my way to stardom.” This involves crash diets, dental realignment, plastic surgery, and silicone injections: “A fulsome [!] pair of breasts seemed the only attribute with which a ballerina could assert her sexuality.”
Balanchine is duly blamed for her attendant sufferings, for ignoring the risks of injury, and for encouraging young dancers to “self-destruct.” Nonetheless, “Mr. B. seemed to favor me, and I was determined to prove myself worthy of his affections.” Even after she has exposed the ogre for what he is—a certain dancer “might receive a…gift if she allowed his fondling touch in private” (Kirkland herself was “relatively safe from the possibility of overt advances”)—she can still say, dropping her guard and her “case”: “I never knew what to do with my love for him.”
One could “be banished from Mr. B.’s little empire” on the slightest provocation, Kirkland goes on, and, going too far: “All that he needed were dancers who could approximate some of the formal elements of classical technique.” Conceding that Balanchine was “human enough to be jealous” of young male dancers, she accuses him, in one ballet, of “choreographically castrating” Peter Martins. Yet after venting all of this and much more, she cannot hide the rejection that seems to be her real grievance: “I continued to hope for some sign of approval from Balanchine.”
Early on, the young liberator from “the Balanchine system” exposes a depth of incomprehension about the relationship between dance and music that makes the reader wonder why and how she became a ballerina in the first place: “As a dancer I rebelled against rhythm. I did not care for its effects,…rhythm obscured meaning and constrained my movements.” Obviously this was not lost on Balanchine:
When I tried to extend a step in a phrase, lingering on a particular quality through the notes, Balanchine accelerated the tempo, throwing me off.
When glory is thrust upon her and she is chosen for the role of Firebird, Kirkland protests that Pavlova had hated the music, and “I would soon discover how wise she had been, how well she knew the score” (which, in truth, she could not learn). Seventy years later, the music—Kirkland’s preferred ballet composers are Minkus and Adolphe Adam—drove her “literally to place cotton in my ears.” And as if it were not enough that Stravinsky and Balanchine had confronted her with an “approach” she “simply could not adopt,” Chagall’s sets threw her “off balance.” She had been victimized by artistic bullying, and “three Russian men against one American girl was not exactly a fair fight.”
Balanchine does not entirely disappear from the book after this, but the reader who has come to it on his account, rather than out of curiosity about the details of front-page love affairs and the highs and lows of junkies, will be tempted to do just that.
March 31, 1988