George Balanchine, the greatest dance innovator of the twentieth century, and possibly the most important in all 350 years of classical dance history since the language was codified in the court of Louis XIV, has just been subjected to a global celebration lasting an entire year in honor of the centennial of his birth, in tsarist Russia, in 1904. Now it is perhaps a good time, as he enters his second century of influence, to assess the many acts of heroism performed in his honor—and the attendant damage.
It is safe to say that had he been alive, this past year of celebrations would have been done in considerably better taste, especially at the company he created, the New York City Ballet, where bad taste now surfaces with predictable frequency both in new productions and often even in the dancers themselves, who have clearly been left, unwisely, in the dark concerning their true purpose in dancing Balanchine ballets. Many of them actually seem to believe that performing Balanchine is all about their admittedly lovely selves, and smile and twirl to curiously inappropriate and banal effect. If Balanchine taught his dancers one thing, and only one thing, it was that whether they liked it or not, neither his ballets nor by association this life is about them. It is about service. Or as Lincoln Kirstein, founder with Balanchine of the New York City Ballet, explained: “Ballet is about how to behave.” Balanchine taught his audience and dancers alike how to behave, but oh how quickly (and how well he knew) they would become both physically and morally lazy in his absence.
In his canonization—which might have amused him, but certainly not surprised him given his laser-like ability to detect all manner of self-serving associations—Balanchine’s name has become a kind of vacant edifice of inevitably crude, yet noble, attempts at preservation and continuation. In the twenty years since his death, and most especially during the last year, Balanchine has been filed, incorporated, copyrighted, trademarked, exalted, berated, plagiarized, and blamed for anorexia and bulimia, for liking what he liked (very undemocratic), and for setting almost impossible standards of excellence (ditto).
Why, he is even now joining Elizabeth Taylor and Britney Spears in branding his name for consumer products, most recently for a line of dancewear “inspired” by his ballets. The manufacturing company proudly states that each price tag will inform the aspiring student and her mother of the name of the ballet, the composer, and the première date. They explain their educational intentions with the comment, “Young dancers today aren’t getting enough of that history.” Balanchine redux on a leotard tear tag. Great. (In reality, ballet dancers rarely “study” the history of their profession—they are far too busy sewing ribbons on pointe shoes and tightening a tutu. Their knowledge of the tradition of which they are legatees is by way of steps, not words, and is intrinsic in their dedication.)
“Après moi, le board!” Balanchine declared gleefully. Well, now it looks…
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