Arts Review

Dancing Past the Body

Writing biography is like writing fiction. No matter how extensively you research your subject, you put together the facts you have in a certain way. The portrait may not be clear at the beginning, but a trajectory does appear as the story unfolds. The story you tell may be a different one from other stories about the same character. What the subject thinks—or says he thinks—how he experiences his life, carries out his work, is perceived by his colleagues—-all these subjectivities can be reported in different ways and depend on different variables. The writer selects ones that seem most honest and that fit the persona she’s evolving.
Jennifer Homans writes as if she knows Balanchine intimately in her expansive biography, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century.[1] She wasn’t involved in his personal life, though as a dancer she learned some of his ballets from his heirs. Before I finished the first chapter, I had the sense I was reading a benign fairy tale, where fond imaginings are summoned to illustrate a serious lesson. The book begins with the idea that Balanchine’s ballets were about “bodies purified and transfigured by the disciplined practices of ballet,” and that Balanchine personified the dual attributes of earthiness and spirituality. She’s done her research, interviewing dozens of people, following the choreographer’s footsteps on three continents, scouring every available document. It’s the transfiguration she’s seeking to establish, not the genius, which is widely acknowledged. I take it as a tale of mourning and regret.


George Balanchine. Photo by Tanaquil Le Clercq.


Mr. B is structured around large factors in the protagonist’s life: individuals (Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, the many wives and lovers); civic events that took place around him (the Russian Revolution and his defection, New York in the 1940s and ’50s, the rise of Lincoln Center, the development of New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet); and only three pivotal ballets (Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon). Its 600 pages of text read like an adventure story.
Georgi Balanchivadze was born in 1904 in St. Petersburg to a family with fluctuating fortunes. He began studies at the Imperial Theater School at the age of nine, learning classical technique and dancing children’s parts in the spectacular nineteenth-century productions of the ballet master Marius Petipa. He had talent, but by physique and temperament he was more suited for character roles than the princely heroes of Petipa. After 1916, the Revolution was in full sweep. Progressive-minded Anatole Lunacharsky became head of the Imperial schools and theater, opening up the stage to poets Alexander Blok and Vladimir Mayakovsky and theater innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold. Homans describes the philosophical motivations behind the work of these figures but gives scant attention to the remarkable visual and graphic arts of the period. When Lunacharsky’s support went to more official schools, Homans describes the departure of the progressives as “cultural anarchism.” She gives a vivid account of the Revolutionary years, emphasizing the awful conditions of deprivation but downplaying the explosion of modern arts and theater during the same years.
As a low-ranking dancer in the Mariinsky, Balanchivadze had time to begin teaching. He was gaining exposure to the modern choreographers of the Revolution, including Fedor Lopokov and Kasyan Goleizovsky. Still attached to the Mariinsky, he started an independent group that toured with his own innovative choreography and more traditional works. When the Young Ballet began attracting a positive audience, theater management threatened punishment. The group booked engagements in Europe over the summer break, perhaps not intending to return. They foraged for jobs once across the border and eventually gained an audition with Diaghilev, head of the illustrious Ballets Russes.
In her detailed account of the tour that turned into exile, Homans barely mentions Bronislava Nijinska, whose subsequent career contrasts with Balanchine’s. Nijinska had returned to Russia in 1913 after Diaghilev dismissed her famous brother Vaslav. She opened a school where her progressive teaching and her embrace of advanced theories of acting and dancemaking were gaining notice. Before the authorities could shut her down, she left for Europe. By 1921 she’d made her way to Diaghilev. By all accounts she was an excellent choreographer and dancer, but she wasn’t beautiful enough to take leading roles. She never surpassed her greatest work, Les Noces (1923).


During Balanchine’s years with Diaghilev (1925–29) he made five new ballets, reworkings of earlier ballets, assorted divertissements for repertory works, and incidental dances for many operas. Whenever the company was on break he seized opportunities to choreograph. He didn’t disdain working in variety shows and independent ballet companies in London and Paris, in addition to making a dance for Lydia Lopokova on Dark Red Roses, an early sound movie.
Apollo (1928) wasn’t his first encounter with Stravinksy’s music. Before he joined the Ballets Russes, he drafted Pulcinella (1923). It was never performed, but he choreographed it again, with Jerome Robbins, in 1972 for the Stravinsky Festival at the New York City Ballet. For Diaghilev he made Le Chant du Rossignol (1925). Apollo lasted longer and traveled farther than any of them.
The composer was turning away from his earlier lavish scores (Firebird, Petrouchka) and the folk-derived dissonances of Les Noces and Le Sacre du Printemps, making his way to a cool neoclassicism. He said he was paring his music down to essentials, and Balanchine did the same. For Apollon Musagète, Stravinsky eliminated most of the eccentricities and modernisms that Ballets Russes audiences had come to expect. Apollo comes of age with the inspiration of the Muses. The dance had few ballet steps, mainly walking and simple gestures, and Stravinsky’s pristine music.
Homans believes the ballet is expressive in specific ways. Does the audience understand that in his first solo the young Apollo “falters and stumbles midstream; his chest caves, and he falls to his knees, physically exhausted”? The third of the competing Muses, Terpsichore, “is the only one who offers herself fully and without words . . .” After the duet, Terpsichore touches Apollo’s outstretched finger in a gesture from Michelangelo, but does the audience get that “God is a woman . . .”? Perhaps the cultured audiences of 1920s Paris and London understood all these classical references, but they can’t be available to everyone. The assumption that the audience is literate enough to understand abstraction is a deeply elitist notion, and one that underlies the Balanchine cult. Today’s audience probably doesn’t recognize the narrative meanings, nor do today’s ballets demand that we do. When an anti-expressionist ballet does appear in repertory, the dancers often “act” the gestures in order to show us the meaning.
In venerating Apollo, Homans hardly mentions the relationship of the music to the dance. Of course, much has been written about everything Stravinsky, but in the ballet repertory, Apollo signifies the composer’s turn away from colorful effects and full orchestral sound, into an astringent atonalism. Here he rendered the rhythms of speech, not the regular cadences of folk dance. The string ensemble brings out the irregular rhythmic emphasis without clangor, or even surprise, and the Muses respond with lively solos. Balanchine has written about Stravinsky’s pulse as an ongoing force in which even the pauses urge the music on. Balanchine’s dance has the same propulsiveness. It isn’t about poses. The classical step vocabulary in Apollo is skewed inward, with a diagonal stress in the upper body. Instead of symmetrical curves, the dancers’ arms often reach in opposite directions, like those of swimmers. The other striking thing about Apollo is the ingenuity with which Balanchine arranged what is essentially a cast of only four dancers, distributing the three Muses together to partner Apollo, often in diagonal lineups.
Balanchine made one more ballet for the Ballets Russes, Prodigal Son, based on the Biblical story. The death of Diaghilev and the disbanding of the company in 1929 forced Balanchine and Nijinska into competition as wholly different freelancers. Both of them had to depend on friendly job offers. Balanchine was quiet, accommodating, but determined to make work in his own way. He met Lincoln Kirstein, came to America, and became a legend. Nijinska, crusty, demanding, and a woman, struggled in comparative obscurity in North and South America. During his years with Diaghilev, Balanchine had met other emigrés who would become his lifelong artistic colleagues. Homans offers an impressive list of dancers, writers and musicians. Diaghilev also brought in avant-garde painters and constructivist artists to work on the ballets. After Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine’s adaptability, together with his stellar contacts, helped him to survive. His financial allies, however, were Americans, beginning with Lincoln Kirstein.


Kirstein, a rich and cultivated Bostonian, had already embarked on a career as a patron. He’d founded the literary journal Hound and Horn when still a student at Harvard, with the help of an increasing cadre of influential friends. By the time he met Balanchine in 1933, he was a committed balletomane. He’d seen all the dance in New York, Paris and London, and he recognized in Balanchine a big, energetic talent. Determined to establish an American ballet company, when he made his proposal to Balanchine he’d already been exploring possible locations for a Balanchine enterprise here. Balanchine was at the end of another failed freelance venture, Edward James’s Ballets 1933, and he agreed to take up Kirstein’s plan. They set out for Hartford, Connecticut, where the adventurous curator Chick Austin had agreed to provide a base for a company at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Within weeks, Balanchine became disenchanted with Hartford, and the project moved to New York City. The School of American Ballet opened, and Kirstein became promoter, apologist, fundraiser, and administrator for all the exploits of Balanchine. He served in these roles, among many others as a supporter of the arts, for more than forty years.
The school came first. School of American Ballet drew students from all over the country, in varying states of preparedness. Balanchine began training them. Homans doesn’t specify whether he actually had a ballet in mind as he created new combinations to improve their skills. But in the summer of 1934, the school was invited by one of Kirstein’s associates, Edward Warburg, to a “party” at his father’s estate in the outer suburbs of the city. According to legend, it rained on the day of the performance, and it was rescheduled the next day. Shown in sequence, with recorded music (Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings), the exercises became a ballet staple in the Balanchine repertory, Serenade.


New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Serenade. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik.


A whole book about a single ballet is rare. So I eagerly approached Serenade: A Balanchine Story[2] by Toni Bentley, who was a member of New York City Ballet from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s. Written in a rambling but readable style, the book spreads out from Bentley’s account of the ballet as she danced it. She isn’t afraid to do this despite the master’s famously quoted admonition, “Don’t act, dear; just dance.”
Toni Bentley knows what she’s doing as a writer. Serenade is ingen­iously plotted, carrying the reader from the first days of a dancer’s training through this performance, with learned digressions about the images she and her fellow dancers are creating. Writing in a quasi-poetic style, Bentley shows that, with five books to her credit, she hasn’t lost the unquestioning reverence she had for Balanchine in her first, Winter Season, published over 40 years ago. “Mr. Balanchine is our leader, our president, our mother, our father, our friend, our guide, our mentor, our destiny,” she wrote then. Now she describes him in more sensual but still mystical terms.
While recounting the action, Bentley veers off to glance at ballet history—the origin of the step vocabulary, the music, ballerinas and ballet masters of the past, happenings in her own years with NYCB. It’s an interesting performance. Bentley creates a sort of dialogue between author/narrator and commentator/pundit, bringing up a recurring question in my own life: is the dance that the dancer experiences the same as what the viewer sees? Bentley links some of Balanchine’s images with painting and sculptures, but as audience in the heat of the performance, I probably haven’t caught them. She names certain figures in the ballet, but since the program identifies no story or specific characters, only an insider can recognize them as Bentley refers to them.
Despite her erudite references, Bentley laments that dance can’t be inscribed in a permanent notation. It can, but few of the operable systems are used to any extent, supplanted by the more convenient medium of videotape. But dance repertory is in no way comparable to that of literature or music. The dance companies responsible for it don’t maintain standard repertories or even hold onto new works for much more than a season. Think “museum,” which is a dire word in dance culture, only slightly more toxic than dance history.
Bentley is casual about crediting the art’s own important creators. She acknowledges the “ubiquitous and immortal” work of Marius Petipa but topples him off his pedestal when she learns of his treatment of women. She doesn’t bother to track down sensational claims. In a section devoted to Marie Taglioni, who may have been the first ballerina to dance on her toes, Bentley remarks that she was a magical figure despite being “ill-made . . . quite without beauty . . .” When you look for the source of this insult, Bentley footnotes Jennifer Homans’ earlier book, Apollo’s Angels. But I tracked this down and found that Homans herself had borrowed the quote from the critic André Levinson, who was quoting his own book on Taglioni, as translated by Cyril W. Beaumont. Bentley ignores these layers of intervention, as if the words were objectively true—more certain than the ethereal lithographs that portrayed Taglioni in the years before photography. The quote prompts Bentley to offer a few paragraphs about the nineteenth century’s exploitation of women. So how does she account for her own commit­ment to a ballet culture descended from these abuses? Well, it gives the dancer power over men, she concludes.
In a section about the nineteenth-century ballet Giselle, Bentley acknowledges her ties to the ghostly Wilis—“virgin femmes fatales”—as decreed by Balanchine. “In Balanchine’s world . . . it is the man, not the woman, who is imprisoned in the ever-thwarted pursuit of the ideal romantic partner while we . . . forever escape his possession.” In her introduction to Sisters of Salome, her 2002 book about five seductive dancers of the early twentieth century, Bentley describes her own pleasure and feeling of control as she dances an erotic striptease in a sex club. But if indeed a prisoner of love, Balanchine nevertheless controlled his dancers’ bodies, belittled their boyfriends, married five of them and dumped a few. Did he actually want to keep these women all to himself? Without recognizing a contradiction, Bentley seems willing to submit.

After Serenade, Balanchine continued to establish himself in his adopted country. With short-lived reconfigurings, the company became consolidated as New York City Ballet in 1948. By that time he had mounted innumerable guest ballets and revivals, choreographed for operas, musical shows and movies, and acquired a reputation as a brilliant American dancemaker. We know just a few of these works. Given how hard it is to convey anything about dancing itself, most of the Balanchine literature has centered on personal reflection, opinion, and anecdote—both Homans and Bentley offer plenty of racy gossip coated in high-mindedness. It was Lincoln Kirstein who supplied the intellectual cred. Kirstein’s idea of an American ballet leaned toward scenarios about folk heroes like Davy Crockett, while Balanchine was staging gangsters and showgirls, football players and floozies. Toward the end of the ’30s, Kirstein started a dance company of his own, Ballet Caravan. The company toured for a couple of years. Balanchine made it a ballet or two, but its main contributions to American dance culture went elsewhere. Lew Christensen eventually headed the San Francisco Ballet; Eugene Loring had a successful career choreographing for the movies; and Erick Hawkins became the partner of Martha Graham.
When war intervened, Kirstein enlisted as a private. Late in the war, he was assigned to the unit that searched for artworks stolen by the Nazis and hidden in Europe, the so-called Monuments Men. Art was only one of Kirstein’s many interests. He served as an informal adviser to the founders of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Before the US entered the war, he started another magazine, the esoteric but influential Dance Index. Homans devotes only a few sentences to this periodical and little to Kirstein’s writing as a whole. In fact, he had a prolific writing career, using his irascible enthusiasms to promote American art, music, and dance in so many books, essays, and program notes that it took his associates a 150-page volume to list them.[3] The reclusive Kirstein always took roles in the background, as editor, manager, anonymous proselytizer, so it’s not surprising he’s less well known than Balanchine. Another hefty biography[4] was needed to focus on Kirstein.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Homans to take on Kirstein too, but it’s likely Balanchine’s career would have been very different without Kirstein’s many published reinforcements, not to mention the financial help of his influential friends. Kirstein outlived Balanchine by 13 years, hanging on at NYCB and SAB through the difficult transition to a new artistic director through Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins. His provocative writings alone spawned a new generation of loyal dance writers, of which Jennifer Homans is an heir.


The story thus far only takes us to 1945 or so. Homans goes on to recount fascinating years, fabulous dancers, absorbing ballets, and devastating relationships. The company is taken into City Center and becomes the New York City Ballet. It gets major funding and, when Lincoln Center is built, occupies its own theater and enjoys a pre-eminence in the city’s arts. Balanchine presides, predominates, and —-not only in her eyes—-ascends to a semi-divine status until his death in 1983. This impressive book is a great addition to a far-reaching literature of memoirs, reflections, documentations, and commentary, but there still isn’t a comprehensive critical study of Balanchine’s choreography.
Homans left me with questions. I’d like to know more about the relationship between Balanchine and Kirstein, for one thing. They were such different personalities. Lincoln, a man of many involvements and talents; a visionary who wasn’t a creative artist; a socialist who didn’t mind soliciting money from his friends and associates once he went through his own fortune. Balanchine, a pragmatic, gifted problem solver with one focus, to make dances; a lover of women and luxuries; uninterested in politics but a conservative and a strong anti-Communist. One facilitated the other’s aims, but they seem to have cooperated at some distance.
Homans doesn’t try to analyze or even describe most of Balanchine’s vast output of ballets. Understandable, but the ones she does describe are portrayed as fixed entities, although cast and production changes, plus the choreographer’s second thoughts, have resulted in alterations to those that remain. There’s not much about how Balanchine wove together the dancing and music in specific ballets. Yet this is one of his distinctions. Homans barely deals with Jerome Robbins’ ballets, which added a different dimension to the repertory. There isn’t much comment on how Balanchine treated women in his teaching and his ballets: a form of empowerment or an instrument of subtle abuse?
Most troubling of all is the deification, the sense that nothing as good can come out of ballet again. I’ve been in love with Balanchine’s ballets for years, but I’m not ready to declare that ballet is dead now that he is.


[1] MR. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, by Jennifer Homans. Random House. $40.00.
[2] SERENADE: A Balanchine Story, by Toni Bentley. Pantheon. $30.00.
[3] Lincoln Kirstein: A First Bibliography, compiled by Harvey Simmonds, Louis Silverstein, and Nancy Lassalle (New Haven, 1978).
[4] Martin Duberman, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein (New York, 2007).