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….…
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