On the evening of May 27, 1965, something extraordinary happened on the stage of the New York State Theater in Manhattan. George Balanchine, artistic director1 of the New York City Ballet, had not performed for many years, but that night he put on full theater makeup, hoisted himself into an elaborate costume—a full suit of armor—and danced the title role in the gala premiere2 of his new ballet, Don Quixote. He was sixty-one years old. The female lead, Dulcinea, was performed by Suzanne Farrell, age nineteen, a dancer with whom he was deeply—madly—in love.
The theater was packed with notables and celebrities, from Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Leontyne Price to Philip Johnson and John D. Rockefeller III. Balanchine’s then wife, Tanaquil LeClercq, a former dancer and muse who had been struck with polio some years earlier and was confined to a wheelchair, was there too. In this charged environment, and with much anticipation of this major new work, the curtain rose on Quixote alone in his study, slumped in a chair. Some three hours later, the Knight of the Rueful Countenance was lying dead with Dulcinea slumped over him as the curtain fell.
Why did Balanchine choose to make a ballet of Don Quixote and why did he step into the title role that night? What did the novel and this theatrical display of his feelings for Farrell mean for him, and for the ballet itself? How could he do this to LeClercq—who left him, finally, for good that night, unable to live with the humiliation of such a public declaration? And why did he insist on stepping into the role of Quixote on occasion for years to come?
George Balanchine, I believe, saw himself in Don Quixote. Consider the famous opening paragraph of the novel (in Edith Grossman’s translation):
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays—these consumed three-fourths of his income. The rest went for a light woolen tunic and velvet breeches and hose of the same material for feast days. He had a housekeeper past forty, a niece not yet twenty, and a man-of-all-work who did everything from saddling the horse to pruning the trees. Our gentleman was approximately fifty years old; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt, and he was a very early riser….
Balanchine and Quixote really were similar in many ways. Like Quixote, Balanchine was a simple but dignified man, known for his composure and civility, who dressed and lived matter-of-factly and rarely lost his temper. He liked simple, good food—an occasional stew, herring with onions and potatoes, pasta or a steak most nights, a treat of pascha and kuliche on Easter Sunday—and these could consume most of his modest income. He dressed neatly, with a taste for western shirts and string ties, and a black suit with a handkerchief for feast days. He had no family to speak of—he had left them and his native Russia behind for good in 1924, and his marriages since had all failed. He depended on his devoted staff and a few friends, and he too had a trusted man-of-all-work. At the time he made the ballet, he was middle-aged and like Quixote, a bit weathered: the dancer Jacques d’Amboise noted that he seemed “a little pudgy, and, with his one lung, huffed and wheezed his way through the difficult passages of choreography.” And he was a very early riser.
In the novel, of course, Quixote reads so much chivalric literature that he loses his mind and decides to become, at his advanced age, a knight errant. It is a midlife crisis of sorts, and we see him starting out anew in his fifties: he takes a new name and a new costume, christens his horse Rocinante, and leaves his home and his village to set out across the countryside to reimagine his life. He invents his lady, Dulcinea—an idealized vision of a simple village girl he was once in love with, although he later admits he doesn’t even know if she exists. As he does all of this, Quixote—or Cervantes—also looks back at a dying feudal order, evoking in his mind its purest ideals even as he also mercilessly mocks them and moves on.
Balanchine did something similar, if not quite in that order. Like Quixote, he devoted himself single-mindedly to ballet—an art form intimately related to chivalry, both in its aristocratic origins and its ethic of devotion and self-denial in pursuit of a noble ideal. Balanchine admired the equestrian arts and even liked to think of his dancers as horses—highly trained, sleek, beautiful creatures. Moreover, ballet, he believed—like chivalry—was an art form that privileged women. “Ballet is woman,” he famously said. “Everything a man does he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life and you believe in something and I believe in a little thing like that.”
And so, like Quixote, Balanchine spent his life, and many of his ballets, inventing and in pursuit of an elusive eternal feminine—his Dulcinea. He married several of them, but the marriages dissolved in his hands as the muse became too domestic and real. And he too had an old world order attached to ballet and chivalric ideals somewhere in the back of his mind—the Imperial Russia of his childhood, which had collapsed before his eyes.
By 1965 his life was at a threshold. His fourth marriage was all but ended,3 and like Quixote he was madly in love with a young woman: Farrell was a dancer from Ohio and had recently joined the New York City Ballet. Their love affair lasted for years and although they became close and romantically involved, the relationship remained, to his profound disappointment, platonic. Understandably ambivalent at the disparity in their ages, a practicing Catholic, and sexually unavailable to him, Farrell became an intense object of his desire, and he became obsessed, even tormented, by what he could not have. As he put it, when beginning the choreography, he had wanted to do the ballet for years but had never found his Dulcinea. It was for Farrell that Balanchine created Don Quixote. She had no understudy.
We might ask: Why should it matter to understanding Don Quixote that Balanchine was so preoccupied with Farrell? Art and life, like church and state, should not perhaps be confused or mixed. In this case, however, there is no avoiding the mix. By taking the stage that night, Balanchine put himself into his art in a way that he rarely had. Perhaps most importantly, by dancing Quixote Balanchine was mixing truth and fiction in ways that drew the ballet closer to the elliptical logic of Cervantes’s novel, in which life and art are profoundly confused and entwined.
Balanchine had been living with the idea of Don Quixote for a very long time, ever since he read Cervantes in Russian as a young man. The novel had been an object of passionate interest among writers and the literary public in Russia from at least the nineteenth century, and drawing no doubt on its popularity, the Imperial Ballet master Marius Petipa even made a light-hearted ballet based on the book in 1869 in St. Petersburg. Around 1916, when Balanchine was a student, he performed in a revised version of this ballet at the Maryinsky Theater, though he later reflected, “it was not a serious work and not one of my favorites.”
In years to come, when he had settled in Europe and finally in New York, he read and reread the novel in French and English, and when he found that the composer Nicolas Nabokov, his friend and fellow Russian émigré, shared his passion, they decided to make their own ballet of Don Quixote. They began in the 1950s, but other things got in the way. Finally, in December 1962 Balanchine commissioned Nabokov to write the score and the project moved forward.
Don Quixote was an enormous undertaking. It took several years to create and Balanchine worked closely with Nabokov, usually long-distance since the composer was at the time living in Berlin. (“Don’t worry, we’ll get everything done,” he joked, “but…no more girls until you finish the whole thing! Love, George.”) The sets were designed by the Spanish artist Esteban Francés, who had already worked with Balanchine for nearly two decades and had a deep interest in Surrealism, fantasy, magic, and the occult. Francés worked to build a fantastical world on stage, enlisting artists such as Kermit Love to help create the giant knight that grew to a terrifying twenty-foot height, looming over Quixote. “Madame” Karinska, costume designer for the NYCB (another Russian), worked with Francés to make some 150 fabulous costumes. Makeup—Quixote’s in particular—was by the Russian character artist Mikhail Arshansky, and it is hard not to see in Balanchine’s image a reflection of Feodor Chaliapin, the Russian bass who incarnated Quixote in opera and film for a generation in the early twentieth century.
The cast for the ballet was huge and a press release boasted over 150 dancers and musicians, plus children, live animals—a donkey for Sancho and a large dray horse for Quixote—the mythical knight, a sturdy wooden-peg horse complete with explosives, and three stately windmills “with arms that turn.” There were even elaborate program notes—something Balanchine often eschewed—with lengthy excerpts from the novel and from W.H. Auden’s famous essay on Quixote and Sancho as the “spirit-nature pair,” along with illustrations by Gustave Doré of scenes from the novel, faithfully reproduced in some of the tableaux of the ballet.
You cannot see Balanchine’s Don Quixote in the theater today. It went out of the repertory of the NYCB in 1978 and has since been restaged only once, by Suzanne Farrell and her company for a short run at the Kennedy Center in 2005. It was never written down in any widely legible form. Thankfully, however, and echoing the moment in the novel when the parchment papers continuing the story are recovered in an old leaden box, we have a scratchy film, with terrible sound, of the gala preview performance in 1965 with Balanchine and Farrell in the leading roles. This imperfect celluloid document, along with some still photos, are the main visual evidence of what the ballet was like.
On stage, we know it was big, messy, loud, and smelly (the animals relieved themselves at will), with dry-ice fog, burning incense for the death scene, ample sweat, complicated set and costume changes, and crowds of people backstage as dancers clamored to their positions in elaborate dress, milled about warming up, and were repeatedly vanquished by Quixote on stage and sent tumbling back into the wings. And when Balanchine danced, everyone was especially careful to take cover: he threw himself into his role with abandon, attacking phantom adversaries and wielding his lance with little consideration of the damage he might inflict; the children in particular fled the moment they saw him tearing toward them.
The choreography piles life on stage, and piles the episodes of the book together, one after another, in a grand pantomimed narrative that tries to capture something of the teeming life that Quixote encountered on his travels. The book, of course, takes its time: we live with Quixote and Sancho, and time slows as we make our way through nearly a thousand pages, absorbing details and following their every move and maneuver. Moreover, the book’s two parts, written sequentially, famously play off each other, so that many of the characters—and the duke and duchess in particular—in the second part have already read the first part. They know the characters and the plot, and Cervantes leads us deeper and deeper into a complicated theatrical world, in which the events of Quixote’s “life” are staged by the duke and duchess, but also by Quixote’s friends back home, and of course by Quixote and Sancho themselves. Everyone is acting, everyone is enchanted, and no one knows quite what is real anymore.
Balanchine compresses the novel into three acts and a fairly conventional ballet structure. Partly this may have been Nabokov’s music, which (presumably at Balanchine’s request) divided the production into “action” or mime scenes, as the libretto put it, and balletic interludes, which Balanchine then wove into a single narrative tapestry. Thus, act one is organized around lively “folkloric dances”; meanwhile, Quixote goes mad, declares his devotion to Dulcinea and knight errantry, encounters the galley slaves and the boy who was lashed; Sancho is bounced at the inn; we meet Marcella and see the puppet show, which Quixote naturally attacks, leaving the stage strewn with rubble as the act comes to a close.
Act two is set in the court of the duke and duchess, complete with a full round of balletic divertissements; there is also a dark ballroom dance in which poor Quixote is pinched, tripped, and further humiliated by his hosts; he and Sancho ride the wooden-peg horse, which explodes, and the act ends with Quixote defeated and indecorously passed out on his own horse.
Act three is built around a “Romantic ballet.” Quixote goes to sleep and dreams a ballet, including dances by the knight of the Silver Moon and Merlin, although it is difficult to tell who they are. He wakes to more humiliations: windmills and the giant knight, stampeding pigs (more children), and finally, caged like an injured wild beast, poor Quixote is escorted home. The ballet ends with an extended death scene.
It is a whirlwind tour, as if Balanchine were trying to capture the spirit of the novel through sheer force of accumulation and theatrical energy, using dance divertissements—like the episodes of the novel—to leaven the story. But underneath the spectacle, there is a counternarrative: the “real” story going on in Quixote’s heart as the dances and episodes of life rush past and overwhelm him. In the end, it doesn’t much matter how charming the various divertissements look—there are two forces driving through the ballet and they are all we really care about: Quixote and Dulcinea; Balanchine and Farrell.
We are introduced to Farrell (Estaban Francés teasingly called her “La Farrell”) right away. She is the servant girl who washes Quixote’s feet in the opening scenes and dries them, Magdalene-like, with her hair; she is the vision of the Virgin Mary, with her own musical theme drawn from an old Russian folk song Balanchine knew, who appears icon-like elevated on a platform, haloed and bathed in light—“Suzi’s light,” Balanchine called it—to which Quixote dedicates himself as he takes his sword and becomes a knight. (The dancer Diana Adams, with whom Balanchine had once been in love, had recently passed along to Farrell the Russian “medal” of the Virgin Mary that he had given to her.) And if these scenes were “blatant,” as Farrell has put it, in their religious allusions, it may be because Balanchine was quietly but deeply Russian Orthodox. Farrell later noted: “Balanchine was not a man embarrassed by his faith, or others’ fear of it. Unlike many things in the ballet, this passage was never changed.”
Farrell reappears as Marcella, the woman who killed a man by breaking his heart and refusing his attentions. Here Farrell is cool, simple, restrained, and her demeanor recalls Marcella’s words in the novel, which were reproduced in the ballet’s program notes:
And if chastity is one of the virtues that most adorn and beautify both body and soul, why should a woman, loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue in order to satisfy the desire of a man…? I was born free, and in order to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside.
Independent and inaccessible, Marcella was everything Balanchine seemed drawn to in a woman. As Quixote, he stood helpless and in awe as she finished her dance and “turned her back and entered the densest part of a nearby forest,” leaving him uncertain and bereft. Later, when Farrell reappears as a vision to comfort Quixote, she is equally in control: he looks old and downtrodden and falls to his knees before her, mesmerized. It is a reprise, in many ways, of Titania’s dance with the outwitted Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: again, though in a different key, they are deeply in love—and deeply enchanted.
But it was Farrell’s solo in the dream sequence of the third act that broke all barriers. No one had moved like that before, and even the scratchy film of her performance is astonishing today. She and Balanchine had worked on this solo together some weeks earlier, alone in the studio: “I want pulsing, pulsing,” he said, and she managed to track a kind of inner beat through her chest and back as she reached, pulled back, thrust out again, off-balance in ways that made her seem completely physically in control and utterly lost at the same time.
At one point, her arabesque is so lush and deep that her neck breaks back in Dionysian extravagance. Her focus is to the diagonal corner, where he is lying asleep—dreaming her—and she approaches him, despairs, flies through a range of feelings with such speed that we cannot catch them until she seems about to end in a traditional way, kneeling or posed at his feet, when suddenly she reverses and backs up as if thrown by a wave or force of nature and falls hard to her knee, head in her hands in anguish. It is raw and exposed, and watching from the wings one night, Jacques d’Amboise was aghast. “What’s happened to Suzie? What’s inside her? Who’s in there transforming her?… Suzanne danced possessed.”
And what about Balanchine? His Quixote was equally possessed—he was driven, worn, drawn, a bit confused, and above all living in his own mind as he wandered through the ballet. Intensifying the effect, he had been so busy rehearsing the production that when he went on stage for the gala he barely knew his part, and Farrell and the dancers often had to take his hand and lead him through the ballet. And if Cervantes’s Quixote wandered through the stage set of life too, his “real” and “ideal” constantly bumped up against each other.
Balanchine’s do not. To the contrary, he seems almost to inhabit a different ballet, not this one, and his visions are his only real company. He is alone, and the heaps of life swirling around and accumulating on the stage have strangely little to do with him, even when he is engaged in active battle against them. His only reality is in the fantasy world that preoccupies him, and even his dances with Farrell have the far-off look of a man who doesn’t live in his body. He liked to say, quoting the Russian poet Mayakovsky, that he was “a cloud in trousers,” and that’s the feeling we get here too.
This may explain why Sancho Panza is so forgotten in the ballet. He is there with his Quixote, of course, and Balanchine gestured now and then to Auden’s “spirit-nature pair.” We see, for example, that after Sancho is so rudely and roughly bounced in the blanket, Quixote helps him to a meal: the flesh-and-blood Sancho must eat and gobbles his food, while Quixote—all spirit—stands by. But in spite of this and other reminders, Sancho seems more an afterthought than a major role in the world Balanchine creates, and he never joins with his great friend in the absorbing ways that he does in the novel.
Without Sancho, Balanchine’s Quixote takes on an increasingly severe aspect—all spirit, no nature. Finally, at the peak of his humiliations, we find him alone on an empty stage, collapsed and bent in defeat, battered, beaten, isolated. It is as if he is back in his study, slumped in his fantasies and wracked by phantoms, except that even the study and its ghosts are gone now. There is only darkness and doubt—and Farrell, who appears for a moment as a vision, before the humiliations resume. This extreme loneliness marks a sharp divergence from the novel, in which Quixote is rarely alone: his story is deeply social. In the ballet, by contrast, Quixote experiences a kind of exile. He is a man without country or companionship, alone on stage by himself in the dark.
By the time we reach Quixote’s death, we have left Cervantes’s novel for good. Cervantes’s Quixote comes home and has a revelation: the scales fall from his eyes and he renounces chivalry, calls for a priest, and prepares to die: “I was mad, and now I am sane.” We know of course that this “sanity” may well be another kind of madness: the enchanters, after all, may still be at work. But death is the one trick that only reality can play, and our narrator reports that Quixote “gives up the ghost”—the ghost of chivalry and the ghost of his soul—“that is to say, he dies.” “He dies” in plain, undecorated prose surrounded by the few loyal friends and little family he has always had.
Balanchine’s Quixote has a different kind of death entirely. It is an elaborate and formal affair recalling an Orthodox service, with a ceremonial pageant of cardinals and priests swinging incense, monks in dark hooded cloaks bearing crosses, knights, earls, and dukes (as if, the libretto tells us, posing for The Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco), along with the entire cast of the ballet, who shuffle past to echoes of Gloria in excelsis Deo. As the procession ends, we find Quixote, like a wan spirit in his white nightshirt, standing awkwardly in his bed, as he is lifted (a mechanical hoist) into the air and grows to some fifteen feet, with his ghost-gown trailing—all spirit. Before him, floating in a distant light, he sees a vision of the Madonna—the gold-wreathed Farrell—blessing him as he rises and reaches for her before collapsing abruptly back to the bed.
In the final scene, Farrell enters as the servant girl and stands by his bed; his close companions are there too, in the shadows. He and Farrell embrace. She closes the curtains. The orchestra stops and silence shrouds the theater. Farrell walks slowly across the stage—“don’t feel uncomfortable, don’t rush it, take all the time,” Balanchine told her. She picks up two sticks, fits them together as a cross, and walks—slowly—back to the dying Quixote. Still in silence, she places the cross on his chest and falls on him in grief, as the music resumes; he reaches up once more in his delirium, and falls back dead. Farrell, still collapsed on his body, sinks to her knees as the curtain falls. On this gala night, as her arm slid over his body, the dead Balanchine, in a gesture to her but also perhaps to the playful reality at the heart of the novel, surreptitiously reached out and took her hand.
In the end, then, Balanchine’s Quixote wasn’t like Quixote at all. He had made a serious ballet, to be sure—perhaps too serious. It didn’t have Quixote’s humor, or his friends, or his double- visioned perspective—Balanchine’s Quixote was never disenchanted and had no way to see through his enchantment with Sancho’s sobering eyes. Instead, he lived inside of his belief, possessed and alone in a kind of internal exile, bound by duty and service. He wasn’t a Christ figure, exactly, and he was too awkwardly humble to be a martyr.
Rather, I think, Balanchine was trying to say something about a kind of total belief that can overwhelm everything—a belief in God, in a woman, or in ballet, as an ideal. It is a kind of consuming belief that can carry villages, countrysides, whole towns with it, pulling in actors and assigning them parts, rushing past any obstruction, committing cruelties in its name (Tanaquil LeClercq was one). This is what Dulcineas can do.
In Balanchine’s own mind, his Don Quixote did not entirely succeed, but it was one of his most absorbing failures, a ballet that continued to occupy him for over a decade: he changed it, added, subtracted, worked over the details, to try to get it right. Before his death, he imagined a new, shorter, two-act version that could more easily be part of the repertory. As for the title role, it continued to absorb him too: he stepped in several times, well into the 1970s. In the meantime, of course, there were other casts—other Quixotes and other Dulcineas enacting the drama he seemed to feel so keenly.
Audiences, critics, and a younger generation of dancers tried to like the ballet over the years but many found it bewildering. This may have been less a sign of its weaknesses than of its extraordinary ambition: it was an epic undertaking and in some sense it overwhelmed them all. And if the ballet, with its lavish pageantry and crowded events, and its themes of God and love and chivalric and balletic order, seems in some ways overwrought, it had an undeniable power too. “It really was,” as one dancer confided to his diary on that gala night, “an expression of Balanchine’s philosophy.” Like the novel, the ballet Don Quixote was a kind of enchantment, and although Balanchine had made it, he was a part of it too.
Balanchine’s formal title at the New York City Ballet at this time was simply “ballet master.” ↩
The performance on May 27 was a gala preview performance; the official premiere of the ballet was the following night, with Richard Rapp in the title role. ↩
In addition to his four official marriages, Balanchine had also lived with the ballerina Alexandra Danilova. ↩