Long before his death in 1983, George Balanchine had established himself as the most important ballet choreographer of the 20th century. How a poor boy who was born in pre-revolutionary Russia and fled the Soviet Union at the age of 20 accomplished this feat is the subject of Jennifer Homans’ voluminous new biography. Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century.
Homans trained in dance at the Balanchine School of American Ballet and is currently a dance critic for The New Yorker. She is the ideal person to tell Balanchine’s story. She manages to bring Balanchine’s dances to life through her detailed descriptions even for readers who have never seen them, and she never lets us forget the dark shadow the repressive Soviet Union cast over Balanchine growing up and later Kalter War.
In Balanchine’s hands, modern ballet was no longer primarily about telling a story or completing a narrative. Just as for an abstract artist like Jackson Pollock the true focus is the paint on the canvas, for Balanchine the true focus of ballet is the body in motion.
But in Balanchine’s case there was nothing abstract about his plotless ballets. As he repeatedly admitted, they were built around the movement, form and drive of the individual dancer.
“A writer sits alone in a room with paper and pencil and comes out himself. It represents him, but a choreographer works with living muscles, with dancers who are all individual human beings,” Balanchine pointed out. “If you take away a certain dancer, the step remains, but performed by someone else, it might be nothing.”
The wonder is that Balanchine arrived at such a vision of the future of ballet and made it a reality with the New York City Ballet. There he was able to set up a company in which his work could be performed by dancers he had trained.
Balanchine was accepted into the Russian Imperial Theater School at the age of nine, at a time when the school needed boys. His years there were marked by the hardships of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. When Balanchine left the Soviet Union with a small group of dancers in 1924 to embark on a summer dance tour, it was only months before the Moscow Soviet all studios and companies closed, who practice new dance forms.
In Europe, Balanchine found success dancing and composing for Sergei Diaghilev’s innovative Ballets Russes, but his own company, Les Ballets 1933, quickly collapsed. What gave Balanchine the artistic independence he desired and brought him to America in 1934 was the partnership he formed with Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy American who was attracted to art. Kirstein was three years younger than Balanchine and hoped to start a ballet company in America that would rival any in Europe.
At 6’2″ and 250 pounds, Kirstein didn’t look like a man who would become a major figure in the ballet world, but he was exactly the support Balanchine needed to make his vision of a new kind of ballet company in America a reality to let . In a letter he wrote to a friend who he believed would help him fund a ballet company for Balanchine, Kirstein expressed his confidence in Balanchine’s genius. “He is an honest man, a serious artist, and I would bet my life on his talent,” Kirstein wrote. “He could perform a miracle – right before our eyes.”
Miracle was the right word. When Balanchine and Kirstein founded the School of American Ballet in 1934, they not only bet that Balanchine’s work would attract an American audience. They bet that their company would survive the Great Depression.
The gamble paid off, although Balanchine initially had to work overtime as a ballet master at the Metropolitan Opera, choreographing for both Broadway and Broadway. on your toes (1936) and Hollywood, The Goldwyn Follies (1938). Even during this time, Balanchine was able to pursue his own ballet choreography and begin work on his masterpiece The Four Temperaments with music he commissioned from Paul Hindemith in 1940.
But it wasn’t until World War II ended and Lincoln Kirstein returned to New York after serving in the Army that Balanchine was able to find a safe dancing home in New York at the City Center of Music and Drama and, in 1948, New York City Ballet. Balanchine was finally able to rally around him and train the dancers – including Jerome Robbins, Jacques d’Amboise, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams and Tanaquil Le Clercq – who would form a company capable of performing his ballets the way he wanted.
For Balanchine, who had come to New York hoping to create, as he put it, a “cathedral of ballet,” the cathedral was not finished. The New York City Ballet needed a foundation to rely on and a larger home in which to perform. Seeds for the endowment were provided by the Ford Foundation, which announced in 1963 a $7,756,000 grant to strengthen classical ballet in America, and Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, $2,400,000 over a 10-year period and awarded $2,500,000 to the New York City Ballet. The new home, the New York State Theater, came with the construction of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and opened in 1964.
After more than 40 years of wandering, Homans writes, Balanchine had his own theater—“our church,” as he called it, and he made sure the church lived up to his specifications. He insisted that the stage have a sprung wooden floor, which would ease dancers’ landings, and an orchestra pit with enough room for a symphony orchestra. As for the audience, Balanchine got the non-hierarchical seating he wanted. All of New York State Theater’s 2,729 seats are less than 100 feet from the stage and there are no boxes for the wealthy.
What followed was a golden era for the New York City Ballet jewels, a full-length, no-plot ballet in three acts, with music by three different composers, could be staged and become a smash hit. Balanchine was able to recruit new dancers, expand his old ballets and give them larger casts, and he brought back old dances from Russia’s imperial past for his repertoire. He could even afford a fully stocked costume shop for his dancers. “His rule was personal,” Homans notes, “he knew everyone from the principal dancers to the musicians, dressers, costume designers, stage managers and lighting technicians to the lowest level stagehands.”
“Balanchine’s balletic homage to the human body came into being in a century that left death and broken bodies everywhere, especially in his native land.”
This control gave the New York City Ballet artistic coherence and Balanchine the freedom to do the unexpected. He was able to help Arthur Mitchell, one of his principal dancers, start the Dance Theater of Harlem with Karel Shook. But so much power in one man’s hands also created problems.
“Ballet is a woman,” Balanchine kept saying. For Homans, this statement is particularly revealing. Not only did Balanchine need great dancers, she writes, “he needed to be physically attracted to a dancer.” The problem was that Balanchine would take offense if the dancer wanted a boyfriend or married life. When Suzanne Farrell, the New York City Ballet’s principal dancer of the 1960s, married Paul Mejia, another dancer from the company, in 1969, Balanchine ousted Mejia and Farrell from the New York City Ballet. She did not return until 1975 to perform with the New York City Ballet.
Homans doesn’t gloss over this side of Balanchine, but she has no doubt that his accomplishments far outweigh his personal failings. When Farrell returned to the New York City Ballet, Balanchine restored her to her old roles and their new relationship remained strictly formal while the company thrived with her added presence. For Balanchine, doing ballet was anything but, and Mr B concludes with Homan’s observation that Balanchine’s balletic homage to the human body took place in a century that left death and broken bodies everywhere, especially in his native land.
Balanchine’s own death came without fanfare. After a series of illnesses that required him to use a walker to get around his apartment, Balanchine died of pneumonia in New York’s Roosevelt Hospital, just blocks from the New York State Theater, which had been his last and best American home .
Nicolaus Mills is Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/george-balanchine-was-the-russian-genius-who-singlehandedly-created-american-ballet?source=articles&via=rss George Balanchine was the Russian genius who single-handedly created American ballet