“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 the present. In his so-called leotard ballets, particularly those to music by Stravinsky—Agon, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements—he produced ballet’s primary contribution to modernism.
By the time he died, he had made 425 dance works. Of these, about seventy-five survive—more extant works, surely, than any other choreographer, living or dead—and they are performed not just by New York City Ballet but by companies across the United States and Europe. We can try to imagine what twentieth-century dance would have been without Balanchine, but it is unimaginable.
In 1982 the great flowering ended. Balanchine began having dizzy spells, the result, it was discovered at the autopsy, of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare neurological disorder. He was sent to the hospital, and there, day by day, he drifted out of consciousness until he died in the spring of 1983. It was not a premature death—he was seventy-nine and had been making ballets steadily since age fifteen—but in view of his achievement, and the lack of anyone to replace him, it was a bitter loss.
Last spring was the tenth anniversary of his death. Appropriately, his company marked it in a big way. From May 4 through June 27, New York City Ballet staged a festival called the Balanchine Celebration—eight weeks of all-Balanchine programs, covering almost all the surviving work: seventy-three ballets, from the 1928 Apollo to the 1981 Mozartiana, presented in roughly chronological order. On the final night of the festival, the company presented a six-and-a-half-hour marathon: eleven ballets, plus film clips, orchestral interludes, food breaks, flower throwing. This program was taped by PBS, edited down to three hours, and broadcast to the nation on Christmas Day.
To those who managed to arrange their holiday in such a way as to see the show, it will not have conveyed much about the current state of dancing at New York City Ballet, for close to half the leading roles were danced not by the company but by guest artists (a decision utterly atypical of Balanchine, who almost never used guests).
Nor does the show reflect Balanchine’s oeuvre. This was a gala performance, and the program was chosen for people sitting in a hot theater, waiting for their dinner. Of Balanchine’s more severe ballets—those that epitomized his ability to distill meaning from dance and music alone—there was very little. Most of the show consisted of program-closers, big, bang-up ballets with masses of dancers hurtling about on stage, bringing the house down. Theme and Variations, Union Jack, Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Vienna Waltzes, Western Symphony, Who Cares?, Stars and Stripes: one after another they came, flags flying, cymbals crashing. Furthermore, they were not presented whole, but in part: the last part. In that one respect, however—that it was a string of finales—the program conveyed an important truth: New York City Ballet is ringing down the curtain on Balanchine.
In early 1983, when it was clear that Balanchine was dying, NYCB’s board gave the title “co-ballet masters in chief” to Jerome Robbins, then sixty-four, and Peter Martins, a thirty-six-year-old Danish-born dancer who had joined the company in 1969 and soon become its leading danseur noble. It was understood from the beginning, however, that Robbins, who for years had been a resident choreographer with NYCB, would go on devoting his time to his own work. The person charged with running the company—programming, casting, rehearsing, hiring—was Martins. At that time Martins was also named chairman of the faculty at the company’s affiliate School of American Ballet, which trains dancers for the company. Robbins later resigned his position at NYCB, leaving Martins as sole director.
The choice of Martins was a surprise to no one, and it seemed logical. Trained at the Royal Danish Ballet, he was a superb classical dancer; therefore he could be trusted to keep up standards. He was a choreographer; therefore he could supply new repertory. Furthermore, he was a tall, breathtakingly handsome young man, and he didn’t mind going to parties, so he would be good at fund-raising. Finally, he was Balanchine’s choice. As Martins tells it, Balanchine one morning in the mid-Seventies telephoned him at 7 AM, summoning him to breakfast at a local coffee shop. Martins pulled on his clothes and got there in twenty minutes. Balanchine sat him down, told him that he would eventually have to take over New York City Ballet, and gave him a one-hour lecture on what that entailed. According to Martins, Balanchine never spoke of this again. Nor, when he was dying, did he either give Martins his blessing or officially designate him as heir. But throughout the years preceding his death, Balanchine was, constantly grooming him.
On the PBS program these facts are reiterated, presumably to stress the legitimacy of the succession. Between ballets, Martins appears in interview segments, first recounting the story of the breakfast meeting, then telling how Balanchine got him to teach company class, and finally, before the last ballet, affirming his devotion to Balanchine’s legacy: “Nobody, nobody can succeed Balanchine…. But that’s not the point. The point is to take what he left us and devote your life to preserving it.”
What is clear, however, from the record of the past ten years is that Balanchine’s ballets are not being carefully preserved by his company. To begin with, many of them are not being danced. From 1978 through 1980, Balanchine’s last healthy years, his ballets occupied about 76 percent of the company’s schedule, Nutcracker excluded, and that had been the situation for a number of years: about three-quarters Balanchine, one-quarter something else, mostly Robbins. Now, under Martins’s administration, Balanchine’s share of the repertory has dropped to a little over half, the other half, in a typical season, being occupied by a dozen or so Robbins ballets together with various new works, some mildly interesting, others dull, by young choreographers from inside and outside the company. The major contributor is Martins, who generally includes about six of his ballets in a given season.
It is often argued that NYCB cannot be just a Balanchine museum—that to stay alive artistically, it must produce new ballets. But in view of the mediocrity of the new work, the company might indeed consider setting aside a sizable portion of its repertory—say, two thirds—as a Balanchine preserve, just as the Royal Shakespeare Company is in large measure a preserve for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. For what is at stake here is not just what audiences are seeing this season, but what they will ever see again. The longer a ballet isn’t performed, the less likely it can ever be revived effectively. Under Martins, the monumental Agon was dropped from repertory for five years, from 1988 to 1993. When it came back last year, it looked nearly dead.
So some of Balanchine’s ballets are being lost by not being performed. Others are being lost while being performed. For about two years after Balanchine died, the company danced superbly. Then the decline began, and it has continued, with a sickening steadiness, ever since. For the “Balanchine Celebration” program, the company danced better than usual, as often happens when a show is being taped. Even so, the two best performances of the evening—and the two that the audience, by its applause, spontaneously recognized as the best—were by guest stars: Elizabeth Loscavio, of San Francisco Ballet, in “My One and Only” from Balanchine’s Gershwin ballet Who Cares? and Darcey Bussell, of England’s Royal Ballet, in the pas de deux from Agon. The ostensible reason for inviting guest artists was to celebrate the fact that Balanchine’s work is now danced not just by NYCB, but by companies across the world. What the guests ended up showing is that other companies are now dancing Balanchine better than his own company.
Day by day, the company is having a harder time with Balanchine’s choreography. In ballet after ballet, steps are being sketched, reduced. This past Christmas I saw a performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker in which the woman dancing the lead in “Marzipan,” the shepherdess dance, could not do a double pirouette to the knee. That step is an important part of “Marzipan.” It occurs in the middle and then again at the end (it is the last step), and it has symbolic force: it is part of the dainty soul of that dance. To see it slurred—approached warily, performed approximately, finished shakily, with a look of relief—is like going to a performance of Hamlet and hearing Polonius say, “And it must follow, as night the day, thou probably canst not be false to anybody.” Unlike Hamlet, of course, “Marzipan” has no script for its performers to refer to, so the slur is likely to remain. Indeed, it has remained. The dancer I saw leading “Marzipan” the Christmas before also slurred this passage. The dancer this Christmas may have thought that was how it was supposed to be done.
Approximation is the opposite of what Balanchine sought. The basis of his art was clarity, articulation. He packed his ballets with steps—turns, half-turns, double-and-a-half turns, turns to the right, ending left, turns to the left, ending right—and then asked the dancers to perform it all with utter precision, so that each step could be seen for what it was: that step, no other. To do this required a huge effort, a constant, daily struggle against sloppiness, blur. It also required a certain remorselessness in casting and promoting. It meant taking dancers out of roles they couldn’t do. It meant pushing some careers—the careers of dancers who could articulate steps—over others. Balanchine did both these things often, without apology. Furthermore, he himself taught company class every day, a class so difficult that many of his dancers balked, and went to other teachers. Those who remained in the class still report on it with wonder. Daniel Duell, a former NYCB principal dancer, once recalled a favorite exercise of Balanchine’s:
this terrifying routine in which we’d start with very quick pliés and very quick tendus, lots and lots of them. My brother [the late Joseph Duell, another NYCB principal] described it as being “like a bicycle pump in your thigh.”… Instead of nice, slow tendus, one or two in each direction, we would do sixteen in each direction. Then we would turn around and do it to the left, then immediately start over, faster and faster. Then we would do jetés, finishing with sixty-four in first position.
Meanwhile, Duell adds, Balanchine would go around the class saying, “Um, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. If you’re old or sick or tired or you don’t like….’ Everybody did it.”2
Balanchine wanted to create in the body a kind of disciplined tension that would read, onstage, as energy. That, more than anything else, is what made his dancers look different from others. They seemed to be moving even when they were standing still. There are two kinds of stillness, Balanchine used to say. Think of a cat who is just standing; he is still. Now think of a cat who is about to pounce; he is still, too, but in a different way. That’s the way Balanchine wanted, and he got it.
The other quality he wanted, and that set the NYCB dancers apart from others, was musicality. Balanchine was an accomplished musician. (In his youth he studied at the state conservatory of music at the same time that he was attending the ballet school.) His ballets were not just set to their music; they were his thoughts about that music—often, to the people attending his premieres, surprising thoughts: that Tchaikovsky was a profound artist, that Bach’s double violin concerto (to which he set Concerto Barocco) was eighteenth-century jazz. He educated his audiences in music, taught them how to listen. Many people today cannot hear that famous Bach piece or Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony or Mendelssohn’s Third or even “My One and Only” without seeing in their minds the dances that Balanchine set to this music in Concerto Barocco, Diamonds, Scotch Symphony, and Who Cares? But the great musical force of Balanchine’s ballets depended on his dancers’ musicality, their ability to draw their dancing out of the music. In the words of Suzanne Farrell, a maenadically musical Balanchine pupil,
Sound is not music’s sole attribute, it has an energy of its own, and sometimes that energy requires more time….It is this interaction and respect for the music that binds a dancer inside it, forming a true musical movement.”3
This organic musicality—the ability to inhabit the music—was what Balanchine tried to teach. And apart from their hyper-energized look, it was the quality that made his dances exciting. The music, like a hand on the skein, held the dancers together and gathered them, before your eyes, into a developing logic in which the audience was finally bound as tightly as the dancers.
Apart from the attrition of technique, the two most striking features of NYCB’s current Balanchine stagings are the depletion of energy and the decline of musicality. The newly revived Agon is a case in point. In the pas de deux, once one of the most thrilling duets in all of ballet, Darci Kistler and Nikolaj Hübbe do what they can to complete the steps, not always successfully. The fervid attack, the sudden, slicing gestures, the element of risk and exposure that made this dance seem at once so drastic and so natural—all are gone. And while the dancers labor, the music busies itself in the background, like an uninvited guest. As this maimed ballet shows, musicality, energy, and technique are not three separate things; each secures the others. (If you are worried about whether you can complete the pirouette, you will not be able to phrase it musically.) Balanchine created a great compound and spent his class and rehearsal time endlessly binding it together. Now it is falling apart.
Its disintegration has been hastened by miscasting. In every ballet company, the young dancers watch the older dancers; whoever dances the lead today is setting the example for tomorrow. In casting, probably the most baleful influence on female dancing at City Ballet has been the career of Heather Watts, who became a principal dancer with the company in 1979. By about the mid-Eighties, Watts had ceased, more or less, to practice classical ballet. In her dancing, shape, placement—in other words, the qualities that define ballet steps, that make a battement a battement rather than just a blind kick—were hopelessly compromised. And covering all this was a vaguely hysterical show of stage “personality.”
By now, Watts’s dancing may be something of an awkward problem for the company. (I note that of all the live dancing done on the final night of the Balanchine festival, the “Clap Yo’ Hands” section of Who Cares?, in which Watts was forced to dance alongside two women who were actually executing the required steps, was the only item edited out of the PBS program.) Yet throughout the Eighties she went on being cast in leading roles in a broad range of Balanchine’s finest ballets, among them Agon, Concerto Barocco, Symphony in Three Movements, Rubies, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée,” Monumentum/Movements, Liebeslieder Walzer, Apollo.
Her example has left its mark. Several of these works, including Concerto Barocco and Agon, arguably Balanchine’s two greatest dances, have never been the same since, either when she danced them or when others did. During the period of Watts’s ascendancy, the standard of female dancing at NYCB dropped below that of male dancing, something that had never before happened in a Balanchine company. But male dancing is lately in decline as well, a phenomenon that, again, is no doubt due in part to casting—for instance, that of Nilas Martins. This twenty-seven-year-old Dane, who joined the company in 1986, is neither a strong dancer nor an especially musical one, yet his career is being pushed more vigorously than almost any other in the company. During the Balanchine festival alone, he danced starring roles in fourteen ballets. No one seems more surprised than Nilas Martins to find him up there in these roles. He looks bewildered. But one wonders what is the effect of his example on the young men of the company.
The casting of Heather Watts and Nilas Martins can be explained, if not artistically. Watts was Peter Martins’s girlfriend for much of the Eighties, and before. (He married Darci Kistler in 1991.) Nilas Martins is Peter Martins’s son. Ballet companies have coped with sons and girlfriends before, but rarely in such a spirit of capitulation. As for the non-family casting, much of it seems to be on the basis of seniority. The company has three ranks: corps de ballet, soloist, principal dancer. Night after night, people who should be dancing soloist roles are dancing principal roles; Horatio is playing Hamlet. Why? Because they have been raised to principal rank. Possibly in order to keep up morale, Martins has promoted and promoted. In 1982, the year before Balanchine died, the company had eighteen principal dancers; ten years later, it had twenty-seven, an increase of 50 percent. Anybody can be president—indeed, everybody.
Many of the sins of the current administration were also committed, regularly, by Balanchine. He too dropped great ballets from repertory. (Concerto Barocco was gone for years. So was Apollo.) He too made some bizarre casting decisions, and occasionally stuck to them. He rechoreographed steps that were too hard for the dancers. Indeed, he rechoreographed steps that weren’t too hard for the dancers. (NYCB veteran Francisco Moncion: “You’d say, ‘Didn’t that used to be like this?’ He’d reply, ‘It used to be rotten. Much better now.”4 ) But many of his revisions were improvements. The present, magisterial finale of The Four Temperaments was not arrived at until 1977, when the ballet was being taped by PBS. By then The Four Temperaments was over thirty years old. And even in those cases where his revisions were for the worse—as when, in the late 1970s, to almost everyone’s dismay, he “streamlined” Apollo, deleting the god’s birth scene and the final ascent to Olympus—he was nevertheless working in the service of an artistic intention (in this case, the severely anti-narrative trend of his late years). There was a purpose, or so it seemed. And that is what you cannot see in NYCB’s current Balanchine stagings. It’s not just that the ballets are changing. They are changing without direction—other than downward—and so is the company.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the development, or nondevelopment, of leading dancers, particularly ballerinas. The term “ballerina” does not mean a job or a rank, but an artistic achievement. A ballerina is a woman who can not only do the steps in a leading role but by her phrasing of them and by other means—expansiveness, physical beauty, personal force—command the audience and make the steps mean something to them. Such women were necessary to Balanchine’s work, the vehicles of its meanings, and so, year by year, he bred ballerinas. Tamara Toumanova, Marie-Jeanne, Mary Ellen Moylan, Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Merrill Ashley, Darci Kistler: he snatched them out of schools, groomed them, worked them, fussed over them, pushed them into leading roles before they could vote. (Toumanova he took under his wing when she was twelve. When she danced well, he brought her chocolate.) And under his tutelage they became artists. Almost all the arts, like other valued professions, are still dominated by men. Only in ballet dancing (opera is a borderline case) are women the unquestioned stars: This is not a tradition that Balanchine started—it dates from the nineteenth century—but he was its foremost twentieth-century exponent. And in his company that tradition is now dying.
There are four remaining ballerinas at New York City Ballet—Merrill Ashley, Kyra Nichols, Maria Calegari, and Darci Kistler—but all except Nichols are laboring under injuries or other disabilities, and all were trained under Balanchine. Of the nine women that Martins has promoted to principal dancer in the last decade, only one, Maria Calegari, has achieved ballerina status, and, as I have noted, she was brought up under Balanchine, and promoted as he was dying. As for the others, some lack strength; some lack range; most lack the personal authority—the willingness to take responsibility for a role, to say, by dancing, what the ballet is about—that aside from competence is the mark of a ballerina. The younger dancers in particular seem covered, hidden.
Balanchine was famous for telling his dancers not to act. “Don’t worry about your soul. I want to see your foot,” he used to say.5 Nor did his ballets require acting. But as he pointed out, this didn’t mean they were abstract. “What is ‘abstract’?” he once said in a filmed interview. (It was spliced into the PBS show.) “They mean storyless. But could be a meaning in it. The people that meet—one person gives the hand, and the girl embraces. It’s already has a meaning in it. Duet is a love story, almost. So how much story you want?” Indeed, his ballets were clearly metaphors for the life of the spirit. Balanchine was a religious man. Art, he once told an interviewer, has to do with “something that is not here”:
The real world is not here. The real world is the beautiful spiritual, metaphysical world…. I’ll tell you something to read. Probably you’ve already read it. Plato’s Republic. There is one passage where they tie someone to a wall and they can’t look back. The sun shines through and casts shadows and they think that is the real thing but it isn’t. But when they turn to look at the real thing, the sun, it can’t be seen. This is all related to that thing.6
Again and again in his work he would have the ballerina appear at the back of the stage and indicate by her actions—at the same time that all the other dancers onstage were indicating by their actions toward her—that she was a messenger from “that thing.” In some ballets, such as Don Quixote and Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, she literally pointed upward, into the wings.
But how were his dancers to bring out these exalted meanings if he was constantly forbidding them to act? The secret seems to have been a sort of Zen paradox, similar to his instructions on how to plié: “Go down in order to come up.” At the same time that he was telling the dancers to forget the histrionics, he was always giving them metaphors from nature to explain how they should dance. Here is one, related by Carol Sumner, a former NYCB soloist, from whom Balanchine wanted peppier jumps:
He described a little fruit fly that was running around in the egg, thinking, “I’m going to be born. I can’t wait, I can’t wait!” Finally the day came and the egg cracked. She was born and she was out and she screamed, “Oh, I am born!” And, bang, she dropped dead. That was how he wanted me to jump in second position, as if it didn’t matter if I dropped dead later. And after that I jumped with all my might.7
Balanchine believed that everything in nature had a connection to the spirit (“This is all related to that thing”), and as is clear from Sumner’s story, he thought that if he could touch his dancers’ connection with nature, he could summon their spirit—in a fresh, vital way, with no soggy cargo of stage emotion. He succeeded. Nothing was more simply nature than those nearnaked human bodies that he put out on his stage, and for much of his audience, nothing was more clearly spirit. That is what is disappearing today at NYCB.
There are still people, though, who remember what these ballets were. Pacific Northwest Ballet (Seattle), San Francisco Ballet, and Miami City Ballet perform their Balanchine repertory in a keen, lively manner. The School of American Ballet, at its yearend recitals, often does Balanchine stagings—with sixteen-year-olds—that put the parent company to shame. Furthermore, there are many former NYCB dancers around who performed Balanchine’s ballets when they were fresh, and who could help the company make them fresh again. In general, Martins has not sought the help of these people. For the Balanchine festival, Edward Villella, Tanaquil LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, and a few others were called in briefly, but in most cases they did not lead the rehearsals, teach the steps; they were there just to put on the finishing touches.
Far more striking, however, was Martins’s failure to make use of Suzanne Farrell, who was actually on his staff. Balanchine’s leading ballerina in the Sixties and Seventies, Farrell retired from the stage in 1989, age forty-four, and thereafter she was kept on salary at NYCB, presumably to work with the company—teach, rehearse, pass on what she knew. (She had danced principal roles in forty-six Balanchine ballets.) But she was given almost nothing to do. Other companies invited her to set Balanchine’s works on them; her own company did not. For the Balanchine festival she staged only one ballet, Tzigane, a minor work from 1975, and that invitation came, no doubt, because she owns the legal rights to Tzigane. Certain critics complained about this, hoping to see Farrell better used. Instead, shortly after the festival, she was fired. The reason given was that the company was operating under a deficit. (Four months earlier, during an interview at the Metropolitan Museum, Peter Martins had spoken proudly of the troupe’s financial health.) Given NYCB’s straitened circumstances, Farrell was told, they could not afford to keep her on staff, because she was not doing any assignments for them. In other words, she was given no work to do and then dismissed for doing no work. In June, Martins also fired the company’s longtime ballet master and former principal dancer Bart Cook over a disagreement in rehearsal.
A number of critics have vigorously supported Martins, and when he unveiled the Balanchine festival, their endorsement of his directorship rose to a new pitch. They not only praised the festival, they attacked critics who did not, and speculated on their motives. In the June 7 issue of The New Yorker Arlene Croce published a highly critical review of the festival. By June 19, Clive Barnes of the Post was inquiring into the “personal political agenda” of Croce and the “few other zealots” who had found fault with the company’s Balanchine stagings: what they were after was “presumably the replacement of Martins with someone of their own choice.” A day later, Alan Kriegsman, the lead dance critic of The Washington Post, also made Croce the subject of his column, though his reading of her motives was different: “One cannot help but wonder how much of her vitriol may be an extension of lingering grief over Balanchine’s absence.” He went on to praise Peter Martins’s Balanchine stagings. In support, he called in a witness, Peter Martins, who, needless to say, also spoke well of the company.
The point that this article, and Barnes’s too, failed to make clear was that Croce, however influential her opinions—she is the most respected dance critic in the United States—was far from the only reviewer who had problems with the festival. Tobi Tobias, in New York magazine, described NYCB’s Balanchine stagings as “vandalism.” Nancy Goldner, the dance critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, warned that Balanchine’s work was being emptied of meaning. Dale Harris in The Wall Street Journal wrote of the “generally dispiriting level of execution at NYCB.”8 (My reviews in the Daily News were in a similar vein.) And most of these critics had been saying the same thing for years.
By July 4, when Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times published her summation of the festival, the opposition could no longer be characterized as a party of one—too many critics had filed their complaints—but Kisselgoff’s diagnosis was the same as Kriegsman’s: those who were putting forth the “astonishing proposition…that Balanchine’s ballets are inadequately danced” by NYCB were simply people who “still cannot come to terms with Balanchine’s death.” She too called a witness, Lincoln Kirstein, and as might be expected from the man who co-founded the company, who is still on its roster as general director emeritus, and for whom, in part, the Balanchine festival was staged (it opened on his birthday), Kirstein said that he had never seen the company dance better. Kisselgoff added that as founder of City Ballet, Kirstein must be seen as “the implicit target of the brickbats that have been hurled at the company since Balanchine’s death.” In other words, if you find fault with NYCB’s dancing, what you are really doing is attacking Lincoln Kirstein, the most revered living figure in American dance, and eighty-six years old, to boot.
These various interpretations of the “dissent” eventually spread to other reviewers, other papers. Soon the Los Angeles Times was referring to “critics who have never reconciled themselves to Balanchine’s passing.” The San Francisco Chronicle characterized them as the “New York dance mafia.” Whatever—the point was the same: anyone criticizing Martins’s handling of Balanchine cannot be doing so for artistic reasons. The reasons are covert, and personal.
Behind this story lies another story. For most of its known history, theatrical dance has been regarded as a mild amusement for rich people. Never until this century would it have been claimed that any Western culture’s foremost artistic contributions were being made in the field of dance. And then, in this century, that happened. Beginning with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and continuing, under Diaghilev’s ex-choreographers, with the achievements of the French, English, and American schools—all of this accompanied, meanwhile, by the growth of modern dance, from Isadora Duncan through Martha Graham and her pupils Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor—dance gained strength year after year. By the 1960s and 1970s, it was one of America’s leading arts. According to some, it was the leading art in this country, the one showing the most originality, the greatest imaginative force.
With the rise in dance came a rise in dance criticism. Prior to the late 1920s, there were no professional dance critics in this country. Dance concerts were reviewed by music critics, often quite ignorantly. America’s first full-time dance critic, John Martin of The New York Times, was appointed to his job in 1927. Since then, much has changed. All the major dailies in the United States and most of the major weeklies and monthlies have dance critics. The Los Angeles Times has two; The New York Times has three. And now that this large critical apparatus has been put in place, its subject is disappearing. The “dance boom” ended with the Seventies. Today, apart from Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, both of whom are crossover choreographers (modern dance choreographers making classical ballets), I do not know of a single truly exciting ballet choreographer in the United States. In modern dance there are a few first-rate artists under the age of sixty, notably Tharp and Morris, but only a few. American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, the Alvin Ailey company, the Martha Graham company—each, within the last few years, has faced the direst financial emergencies, the result of an artistic emergency: that the old masters have died, and no one is replacing them. It is amazing how fast it all went away, but it did. And there are America’s dance critics, with jobs that they have worked hard to get, columns that they must fill. What are they to do?
In this story, Balanchine has a special place. The rise of dance in the twentieth century was due to many people, but he was the main person. It is not for nothing that his death coincided with the ebb tide of twentieth-century dance. No one could prevent him from dying, but as for his company, it is America’s most important dance company. If New York City Ballet is recognized as going downhill, then American dance will be recognized as in serious decline, something no longer worth writing about.
The critics supporting Martins no doubt like the productions they praise. I like some of those productions too. In general, the company is still doing well in Balanchine’s narrative and character ballets, the ones that make the least demand on the dancers’ classical technique and/or their ability to project purely symbolic meaning—in other words, the ones least characteristic of Balanchine’s genius. As for the other ballets, well, people are still clapping for them, aren’t they? Martins has been trying hard to attract a new audience, one that will replace defectors from the old audience. The making of the film George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker,’ released in November, was part of this campaign. On the schedule this past season were three “New Generation” programs, filled with works that might appeal to the MTV generation. This effort seems to be paying off in some measure. Attendance at the Balanchine festival was 87 percent, many of these people, if I am not mistaken, new to the company. But it remains to be seen whether, with no festival, the company can keep them coming. On most nights the applause is about average—no disapproval, no real excitement. At the end of the evening, coats are gathered up quickly.
Though ballet dies every day, this is not ordinarily a brutal process. Memory and devotion play some part in it. On the day Balanchine was born, January 22, 1904, Marius Petipa’s last ballet was canceled by St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theater. By that time Petipa was out of fashion. (The year before, he had been forced to retire as director of the Imperial Ballet.) He died six years later, believing that his work was wasted. But after him, in the Twenties, the directorship passed to Fyodor Lopukhov, who regarded Petipa’s ballets as works of genius and set himself the task of restoring their original choreography. To the young dancers grouped around him at rehearsal, Lopukhov would say, “Forward toward Petipa!” meaning forward toward a choreography based, like Petipa’s, on music. One of those young dancers was George Balanchine, still in his teens and hungry for experiment. Lopukhov’s urging and example were instrumental in teaching him, as he set out to create a new kind of ballet, that he could take the old kind with him.
Petipa’s situation then is Balanchine’s now. Some of his ballets are preserved on film and videotape, and to have them is a comfort. But that is only for specialists. The public, in general, does not watch dance videos. For Balanchine’s work to carry over, and feed the next generation, its basic ideas must be clung to for a while longer, as Lopukhov clung to Petipa’s. Great choreographers cannot be hurried into existence. The lily opens and closes, on its own schedule. As the English dance critic Richard Buckle wrote, “Once you have established a school and a company you just have to hope that a choreographer…of genius will emerge every ten, twenty or fifty years….In the meanwhile all you can do is to maintain standards and entertain the bourgeoisie.”9 New York City Ballet is now entertaining the bourgeoisie—not an ignoble role. But it is not maintaining standards. And so, by their own momentum, those standards are likely to go on falling until there is nothing left of Balanchine’s work to inspire the next generation.
April 7, 1994
In Portrait of Mr. B: Photographs of George Balanchine, with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein (Viking, 1984), p. 140. ↩
In Francis Mason, editor, I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him (Doubleday, 1991), p. 579. ↩
Suzanne Farrell, with Toni Bentley, Holding on to the Air: An Autobiography (Summit, 1990), p. 163. ↩
I Remember Balanchine, p. 202. ↩
Marilyn Hunt quoting Joseph Duell quoting Balanchine, Ballet Review (Winter 1986), p. 56. ↩
Interview with John Gruen, New School for Social Research, November 20, 1972. ↩
I Remember Balanchine, p. 404. ↩
Tobias: New York, May 24, 1993. Goldner: remarks at the symposium “Watching Balanchine since the 1940s,” New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, May 17, 1993. Harris: Wall Street Journal, June 18, 1993. Two other evaluations, though they were not published early enough for the dailies to take account of them, deserve mention. In his review of the festival for Dance View (Autumn 1993, p. 13), Robert Greskovic, for twenty years one of the closest observers of the company, wrote, “There is no question that much of Balanchine’s choreography is too hard for many current NYCB dancers.” In New Dance Review (Summer 1993, p. 13) Anita Finkel predicted that under Martins’s administration, “NYCB will lose ground vis à vis the rest of the world, the repertory will lose power, and good dancers will be cheated of their careers; a false idea of dancing will be instilled that someone will have to work very hard to change at some future date.” ↩
In the Wake of Diaghilev (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), p. 275. ↩