The Long Goodbye

New York City Ballet's 'Balanchine Celebration' September 1994)

directed by Matthew Diamond. produced by Dance in America, Channel 13/WNET
Public Broadcasting System
Peter Martins
Peter Martins; drawing by David Levine

“When I was a child, I heard about a kind of enormous water lily—it was called Victoria Regina—that opens only once every hundred years. It’s like wax, and everything is in there, everything lives…by itself, and it doesn’t tell anybody anything. It goes to sleep and then comes back again. It doesn’t say: “Look at me, now I’m going to wake up, I’m going to jump…Look, Ma, I’m dancing!” But if you happen to be around, and are ready, you’ll probably see something.

It’s like the time capsule with everything in it. Or like the seed that, when you plant it, becomes an enormous tree with leaves and fruit. Everything was in that little seed, and so everything can open. The tree of dance is like that. It just takes a long, long time to blossom.”

George Balanchine, in an interview with Jonathan Cott, 19781

Because it has no text, ballet dies every day, to be reborn as the next ballet. The sumptuous ballet de cour of Louis XIV was gone by the end of the seventeenth century, but it rematerialized in late nineteenth-century Russia, in The Sleeping Beauty, Marius Petipa’s tribute to the grand siècle. Soon The Sleeping Beauty too began dying, under the weight of successive revisions. It was born again—without its fable, but with its spirit, its symbols, its composer (Tchaikovsky) all intact—in Balanchine’s 1947 Theme and Variations.

What Balanchine did for The Sleeping Beauty he did for the rest of ballet’s past. Trained in St. Peterburg’s Imperial Theater School, apprenticed in his teens to the brilliant Petrograd avant-garde, then, after he escaped to Europe in 1924, maturing under the guidance of Diaghilev (he was Diaghilev’s last house choreographer), he absorbed in his youth much of the history of his art: Russian Imperial ballet, Soviet “constructivist” bullet, European neoclassical, neoromantic, and expressionist ballet, and earlier forms as well, for they were absorbed into the Imperial ballet. As he said, “everything was in that little seed,” and when he came to America in 1933, it blossomed.

For the various companies that he established in this country in the Thirties and Forties, and finally for New York City Ballet, which he founded with Lincoln Kirstein in 1948 and then directed for the rest of his life, Balanchine restaged ballet history. He made eighteenth-century opera ballets (Chaconne) and nineteenth-century romantic ballets (Scotch Symphony). He made ballets in the ebullient Danish style of August Bournonville (Donizetti Variations), in the Russian Imperial style of Petipa (Cortège Hongrois), in the exotic-melodrama style of Michel Fokine (Firebird), in the “symphonic” style of Léonide Massine (Serenade). He remade the “classics”: Swan Lake, Coppélia, The Nutcracker. And all of them were twentieth-century ballets, for he made them in a new style, his own: compressed, re-energized, with meanings born of dance and music alone. While he was re-creating the past, he was also creating…

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