If you order Jennifer Homans’s Mr. B.: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, you might want to tell the delivery man to bring a hand truck. With the endnotes, nearly 1,500 of them, the book is close to eight hundred pages long. Balanchine deserves such coverage, though. His career spanned most of the twentieth century, during which time he created an estimated 425 ballets. He founded institutions: theaters, companies, schools—notably his own School of American Ballet, which opened in New York in 1934, and then New York City Ballet, the jewel in his crown, in 1948. What he left us, however, was not just institutions, but an Institution. Balanchine, it can be said, created American ballet, made this way of dancing a mainstream American art, something that Life magazine would put on its cover. And by doing that, he made all ballet more important; he raised the bar worldwide.
Attention has been paid. A few people—Robert Gottlieb, Terry Teachout, Richard Buckle with John Taras—wrote short biographies. But in the four decades after his death in 1983, the big biography, the one that would take on the whole subject—the life, the death, the art, the mother—never appeared. Now it has.
Jennifer Homans was well qualified for this assignment. First, she was trained as a ballet dancer, in part at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and she performed professionally—for example, with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, a company long directed by New York City Ballet veterans. After her stage career, she went back to school and collected a doctorate in modern European history. Then she wrote a book, Apollo’s Angels (2010), on the history of ballet, stressing its origins in the manners of the seventeenth-century French court and prophesying that the art might now be dying, because fine manners had become passé.
So it is no surprise that she would then have spent ten years on a biography of Balanchine. His work was not only strong enough to serve as a model to young choreographers, people interested in preventing ballet from dying. His style also had a built-in life support. Its old-time manners were crossed with new-time manners. It was a modernist extension of classicism. That is why it is often called “neoclassical.” Actually, this is a poor description, insofar as it implies a kinship between Balanchine’s ballets and the frozen high style of the neoclassicists who spanned the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Canova. Still, the misnomer, when applied to Balanchine, is the expression of a hope: that you could go modern—come onstage in a leotard, wrap your leg around your partner’s neck—and still do perfect triple pirouettes and make them mean something, still be classical.
Besides that, what sets Balanchine’s work apart? One of the first things the spectator remarks on is the sheer athletic skill required to perform his ballets. The daily class, an hour and a half long, that he expected NYCB dancers to take was famously difficult. In their prior teachers’ classes, the dancers would have been told to do maybe twenty-four tendus. Now, at Balanchine’s command, they were expected to do perhaps sixty-four tendus to the front, then another set of sixty-four to the side, and another set to the back. Then turn around, please, and do the same thing with the other leg. All the while, Balanchine was instructing the pianist to up the tempo—faster and then faster.
This is the platform Balanchine’s dancers danced on: strength and virtuosity. From there, they ascended to art. For spectators versed in ballet and music, the hallmark of Balanchine’s work was musicality. He was an expert musician. He was conservatory-trained (while he was being ballet-trained), but his musicianship didn’t stop at expertise. He coached the dancers to listen to the music and make their emphases respond to it. No aspect of dancing was more important to him than phrasing. With phrasing alone, he seems to have felt, he could make a dance as dramatic as it needed to be. In other words, he was an abstractionist—a quality that did not endear him to everyone. He responded:
What is “abstract”? They mean storyless. But…could be a meaning in it, you see. The people that meet—that one person gives the hand, and the girl embraces—its already has a meaning in it. A duet is a love story, almost. So how much story you want?
His ballet Liebeslieder Walzer (1960), set to Brahms, is basically eighteen waltzes for four couples in a drawing room, and then fourteen more waltzes for them under a starry sky. In it, Balanchine says about as much about love as can be said. The dancers do not kiss each other or kick each other, and they wear pretty straight faces, which increases their eloquence. If you don’t try too hard to sell something, people may be more inclined to buy it. Balanchine’s dancers were loved, by those who loved them, for being spontaneous, natural, not “face-y.”
Which brings us to one last point. Balanchine firmly believed in God. In a game he liked to play as a child, he would pretend to be a priest, like an uncle of his whose tonsure ceremony he had witnessed. He would construct an altar out of chairs in the living room; he would make signs, say prayers, and kiss whatever he had substituted for the altar cloth and the holy objects. As an adult he was no longer technically observant, but he retained his belief, as a kind of private chapel. His God, as he told a New Yorker interviewer in 1979, was not so much something he thought about as something he actually saw: “I know that He’ll talk, I know how He looks, I know His face, I know His beard and so on.” One doesn’t have to join hands with Balanchine in this conviction in order to be moved by his ballets—most Balanchine fans, I am sure, would not—but the statement helps us to understand his ability to direct his mind to a next world in which everything he believed was going to be clear (“I know His beard”) and which, in the meantime, he could point to with symbols of dance and music. Actually, as I understand it, he didn’t really imagine an overlying “next” world. He just believed in a different world, whose lower level, with its disappointments, we were living in.
Mostly, Homans says, the disappointments had to do with women. Balanchine had had girl trouble from childhood. As was revealed to us only recently, in Elizabeth Kendall’s book Balanchine and the Lost Muse (2013), his parents apparently never married, for the good reason that his father, Meliton Balanchivadze, a composer, already had a wife and two children back in his native Georgia when, in St. Petersburg, he met Maria Nikolaevna Vasil’eva, a frail, pretty woman, perhaps of German extraction.
No one has been able to find out much about Maria Vasil’eva, but Balanchine remembered her tenderly: “blond, small nose, very kind, small, soft woman, very nice…. She was absolutely calm and soft and did not ask anybody to do anything.” Though Meliton went on sending money to his first family, he and Maria took an apartment in St. Petersburg and also built a dacha in Finland. Insofar as Meliton was at home thereafter (not often—his job required travel), he was with Maria, and they had three children. The first was Tamara; the third was Andrei, who became a composer, like his father. The middle child was Georgi, born in 1904, a thin, pointy-nosed, dignified little boy. In early photos he stares out at us calmly, as if he knows everything that is going to happen and will tell it to us when the time comes.
Georgi never meant to be a ballet dancer. He auditioned at the school of the St. Petersburg Imperial Russian Ballet only because Tamara was auditioning. As was so often the case in the old days (and still is), boys were far scarcer than girls among the applicants to professional ballet schools, and therefore they were in greater demand. In the end, Tamara was not offered a place, but Georgi was—an outcome disappointing to everyone involved, including Georgi. Maria said good-bye to him on the spot, gathered up her other two children, and went home. “They just left me there…like you take a dog and leave it,” as Balanchine later recalled. The school did not train Georgi to be a danseur noble, classical ballet’s “prince” figure. From the beginning, he was a demi-caractère dancer, the man with the high spirits and high kicks—the Mercutio, not the Romeo—and he was good at this.1
In 1917, when he was thirteen, his schooling was interrupted by the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Logically, early books on how Russian ballet survived this period stressed the privations: how the Imperial Theater, soon renamed the State Theater of Opera and Ballet, closed and opened, closed and reopened; how the dancers breathed steam-clouds into the air in the unheated auditorium; how the children in the school, forced intermittently to move home, would have to go out at night and catch cats for their mothers to cook. Some more recent histories—Kendall’s Lost Muse, Christina Ezrahi’s Swans of the Kremlin (2012), Lynn Garafola’s La Nijinska (2022)—have shifted the emphasis to the advantages the revolution offered young dance artists: above all, how it liberated them from Victorian fussiness and showed them their fellowship with machines and energy and sex—that is, with the twentieth century.
Balanchine did not miss any of this. In 1922, at the age of eighteen, he formed his own small company, which he called Young Ballet, and which, to judge from the photographs and the sparse eyewitness reports, produced kindred work, to strange music, or no music; with women draped over the men’s shoulders like scarves, and so on. Young Ballet was soon forbidden to perform in Russia’s state theaters—that is, pretty much all of Russia’s theaters. At Balanchine’s own theater, an announcement went up to the effect that anyone who worked with Young Ballet would be fired.
In 1924 a friend of Balanchine’s, Vladimir Dmitriev—formerly an opera singer, now a croupier—put together a group of singers and Young Ballet dancers for a summer tour of German resort towns. A few months into the tour, they received a telegram from the Russian authorities ordering them to return home immediately. The telegram was passed to Balanchine, as the head of Young Ballet, and his solution was to throw it in the wastebasket.
At that moment, the most important ballet company in Western Europe was Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which, starting in 1909, had introduced Western audiences to new kinds of ballet, by Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, and Léonide Massine. But Diaghilev always had trouble staffing his troupe with the Russian-trained dancers—and, above all, Russian-trained choreographers—whom he wanted, and this problem had just become especially urgent. To Diaghilev’s disgust, Massine, his lover as well as his house choreographer, had run off with a woman. Therefore he found the news about Young Ballet, at loose ends and with little work, a welcome piece of information. He had the dancers tracked down and brought to him in Paris, where, after auditioning them in a friend’s drawing room, he hired them on the spot. Diaghilev gallicized his new ballet master’s name. Balanchivadze became Balanchine. The surprised twenty-year-old had begun his Western career.
From 1924 to 1929 Balanchine created for Diaghilev’s troupe close to a dozen ballets (not counting opera ballets), including, at the end, two pieces—Apollo (1928) and The Prodigal Son (1929), outgrowths of Young Ballet’s innovations—that are still in the international repertory today, a century later, and are considered turning points in the history of the art. But in 1929, practically before audiences had time to figure out what they had seen, Diaghilev, age fifty-seven, died while on vacation in Venice, and his company disbanded overnight.
The dancers scattered to various European troupes. Balanchine went to the Paris Opera, whose director had commissioned from him a big new piece, to Beethoven, that looked like a tryout for the job of directing the opera’s famous old ballet troupe. Then one day, just as he was starting work, he passed out cold on the floor of the studio. He had never recovered from the hardships—the cold, the starvation—he suffered as a boy during the revolution. Now he was spitting blood. He had tuberculosis. On borrowed money, he was sent off to a sanatorium in the French Alps, where, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, he lay wrapped in blankets in the cold sunshine and had time to think.
This experience affected all the rest of his life. From then on, Balanchine met with many other difficulties, but none of them seems to have surprised him. Years later he told one of his dancers, Ruthanna Boris, “You know, I am really a dead man. I was supposed to die and I didn’t, and so now everything I do is second chance. That is why I enjoy every day. I don’t look back. I don’t look forward. Only now.” But his illness fed more than his fatalism. It helped to form his style. Whatever else he taught his dancers, the “only now” directive—speed, freshness, spontaneity—was always at the top of the curriculum. It may have been the most important quality differentiating his dancers from other ballet dancers.
When he got back to Paris, after three months in the sanatorium, Balanchine found that his Beethoven ballet, and his hope of directing the Paris troupe, had been co-opted by another dancer. He took what work he could find. He made music hall numbers. He remounted old Ballets Russes ballets, by Fokine and Massine. At this juncture Massine was the toast of what there was of a ballet audience in Europe. Still, a number of people were interested in talking to Balanchine. One night in 1933, at a party, he met a recent Harvard graduate named Lincoln Kirstein, who invited him to lunch a few days later. Over their meal Kirstein asked him what he was planning to do next.
Kirstein, at that point twenty-six years old (Balanchine was twenty-nine), was a rich boy whose father, Louis, a partner in Filene’s department store in Boston, was a public-spirited man, serving repeatedly as president of the Boston Public Library and giving a lot of time and money to arts organizations. Lincoln followed his father’s example. At Harvard he founded an arts quarterly, Hound and Horn, bankrolled by his father, that published writers such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. After graduating, he wrote a learned history of ballet, Dance: A Short History, which was not short. Eventually, he also cofounded America’s first scholarly dance journal, Dance Index. It is hard to imagine how or when dance history would have been established in America without Kirstein. But the most important thing he did was to bring Balanchine to the United States.
In his late years, Kirstein said that his father “gave me the idea that…anything could be possible for me.” Louis Kirstein also settled a considerable fortune on Lincoln when the latter was still in his twenties. Kirstein would have had trouble doing what he did without that money, or the friends—the Rockefellers in New York, the Bloomsbury group in London—he made at Harvard or acquired from his family. He may have inherited from his family something else as well: bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. However he got it, he seems to have had it, and one is hard put to say that it, too, didn’t help him, in some measure, by making him both grandiose and fantastically hardworking.
Kirstein discovered ballet late, as did almost every American who came to care about the art at that time, because, before Balanchine and a few others, the United States didn’t have much ballet, and what they had was largely imported. This pained Kirstein, a patriotic man, and so he went to Europe to hire someone who would move to the United States and create such an institution. To anybody who knows that professional ballet had been percolating in Europe and Russia since the seventeenth century, this project of Kirstein’s may sound like a joke, but if you have a lot of money and contacts, plus a psychological disorder that enables you to work all night—and if your father has told you that anything is possible for you, and he’ll write the checks—it is apparently not impossible. The miracle is not that Kirstein undertook this project, but that he chose the right person to bring to America.
By the time he met Balanchine, both men were at loose ends. Kirstein said that he needed a choreographer; Balanchine said that he needed a job. And so, on October 17, 1933, Balanchine and his manager—Dmitriev, the croupier—arrived in New York Harbor aboard the Olympia, a sister ship of the Titanic. Balanchine thought New York was fabulous. The lights, the tall buildings! The Automat, where you put a few nickels in a slot and a little glass door opened, revealing a piece of pie, and it was yours. At dinner at the Barbizon-Plaza with Kirstein, he practiced the few words of English that he had learned in Russia, from pirated movies: “Okay kid!” “Scram!” “One swell guy!”
Less than three months later Balanchine and Kirstein opened a school, the School of American Ballet, on the fourth floor of an unglamorous building at Madison Avenue and 59th Street, and stocked it with teachers, mainly Eastern European. As for a company, their first, called the American Ballet and staffed with dancers from the school, made its debut in 1935. Later that year it was taken on by the Metropolitan Opera as its resident ballet troupe. But its experimental production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice in 1936 was coldly received by the critics and the audience. (The male dancers wore little clothing; the set was dominated by what looked like electrocuted tree branches.) In 1938 the Met declined to renew the company’s contract.
Again, Balanchine made do. He was a genius at just putting on an entertaining musical comedy, and Broadway found that out fast. Between 1936 and 1945 he staged the dances for more than a dozen Broadway shows, working with Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Frederick Loewe, George Abbott, and Frank Loesser, all of them top dogs of American musical theater. For him, however, the promised land was not so much Broadway as Hollywood. It is touching to see this Russian man, with one operative lung and a long history of disappointment and failure, filled with joy as he arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. There was nothing about Southern California he didn’t love: the sunshine, the orange groves, the beautiful girls walking around in halter tops. He later said that when he was introduced to Ginger Rogers, he felt as though he were shaking hands with the Statue of Liberty.
At this point, it would be a good idea to abandon chronological narration. There are just too many things happening at the same time. We could then take a mental photograph of Balanchine, pick out the main lines of his life—they are practically all in place by now—and ask what Homans, with her new material (Balanchine’s assistant, Barbara Horgan, donated his papers to the Harvard Theatre Collection in 1992; important diaries were unsealed; Balanchine’s dancers, no longer obliged to protect the great man, became more talkative), was able to add to the record.
First, about his health. Many people inside the company knew, all along, how sick he was: how he would lose consciousness, have seizures, and so on. When Balanchine told Ruthanna Boris that he was a dead man—that he was supposed to have died in his twenties—he knew what he was talking about. But this is not something Balanchine’s audience was aware of.
A second special topic is Kirstein. Balanchine was married five times,2 but as Homans says, it was with Kirstein that he had the most lasting relationship of his life, and possibly the most consequential. Kirstein not only brought him to the United States and cofounded with him the School of American Ballet (of which Kirstein became president) and New York City Ballet (of which Kirstein was made general director), but when the choreographer needed money—or anything, really—Kirstein went out and got it.
Homans introduces Kirstein into her narrative by saying that at age twelve he used his mother’s nail scissors to complete his infant bris, apparently mismanaged on the first go-round, and she proceeds to treat him in the same seriocomic vein—funny, sad, heroic—to the end of the book. She quotes the letters that Kirstein wrote to boys he had picked up in bars, signing off as “nasty pants” and “miss pussy.” She records how, at the School of American Ballet, he would sometimes take a break and stroll into one or another studio, sitting down and taking off his shoes to relax. Then, when he got up to leave, he would forget his shoes. Later, when someone pointed out to him politely that he was, for example, about to take a meeting in his stocking feet, a staff member would be dispatched to find the shoes.
Those are merely eccentricities. But Kirstein had habits that went beyond eccentricity. He sometimes had screaming fits, and being six foot three and 250 pounds, he wasn’t easy to pack into a straitjacket. He was repeatedly hospitalized.
How was it, for these two men, both very ill, to create and manage the institution of American ballet—its companies, its schools, its press relations? And how is it that Kirstein, in between the “nasty pants” letters, also, unstoppingly, wrote illuminating articles and books on dance? The catalog of his writings at the New York Public Library’s Dance Division runs to 254 items, and once you get used to his unusual writing style, both lofty and low-down, you start to feel that he understood early Balanchine better than anyone else. In his 1952 book The Classic Ballet (coauthored by the SAB teacher Muriel Stuart), he wrote that Balanchine’s subject,
apart from love (of music, of the human body, of human beings), is the physical act or presence of the dance itself….
But he has also defined an intensely personal manner…. His unmistakable signature is in his masterful designs for tenderness, regret of loss, mystery, exuberance, and human consideration.
The wording gets a little hazy, but still, you realize, Kirstein is right. That’s what’s going on up there. Keep in mind that this was published only four years after NYCB was founded. There wasn’t yet a “line,” an agreement, on Balanchine. Kirstein was flying solo.
As for Balanchine, here you have to be careful of your metaphors. He occasionally said that dancers were angels, and at times he said that he too was an angel. By which he didn’t mean that he was a person nicer than other people, but a being caught between earth and heaven, masculine and feminine, with a message of love. That is what Homans sees as his main subject—love, specifically of women—and consequently she takes it as the main subject of her book. Whatever its beginnings with his separation from his mother at age nine, she sees this as having pinioned him in the Thirties and Forties in Hollywood, where, she believes, he was almost destroyed by it. We knew that he liked girls, but, in Homans’s version of events, it wasn’t until he got to Hollywood that the full force of the feminine grabbed him by the neck and hauled him off to its cave.
—This is the first of two articles.
A clip from a very rare film of him dancing—in a 1929 ballet, Dark Red Roses, that he choreographed—can be seen on YouTube. He is the male dancer who enters second and rescues his beloved from what seems to be an evil seducer. In 1929 or thereabouts he injured his knee badly and soon afterward ceased—without regrets, it is said—to dance professionally. ↩
He and his schoolmate Alexandra Danilova never took vows, but she is generally included in this lineup as his second wife, by common law. His first marriage was to the dancer Tamara Geva. ↩