Terry Teachout on how we tell the dancer from the dance.
Dec 6, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 12 • By JUDITH GELERNTER
All in the Dances
GEORGE BALANCHINE considered his ballets ephemeral: "A breath, a memory, then gone." He worked hard in the moment and, following a near fatal illness in his youth, for the moment, so it is easy to understand his dismissive "when I die, everything should vanish."
But, in fact, much of his work remains. As Terry Teachout shows in his brief life of Balanchine, All in the Dances, dance companies around the world are still performing his work. This year, to honor the centennial of his birth, ballets have been staged at home and abroad, often by graduates of the School of American Ballet, which he helped found. Many will continue to be seen live at Lincoln Center's State Theater, because they remain in the repetoire of the New York City Ballet. Some have been recorded and may be seen at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, while others are commercially available on videotape and DVD.
And yet, though his ballets flourish, the man himself seems to be growing increasingly obscure. Balanchine neared celebrity status around mid-century when he was featured in a New Yorker profile and on a Time magazine cover, and when an excerpt from one of his ballets was featured on the Ed Sullivan Show. But survey results recently presented to the NYCB board of directors show that 85 percent of New Yorkers under age thirty-nine have never heard of George Balanchine.
All in the Dances is in a position to return Balanchine to the spotlight. Teachout's biography includes all the essentials: Balanchine's parents' musicality, his childhood music and dance training, his method of working, how he conducted himself with students in class and with particular dancers, what he considered his best ballet, and how he viewed his adopted country of America. The text modulates between public and private life without drowning us in irrelevancies and deepens our insight by quoting comments by the man and those who knew him.
The biography, though brief, makes a contribution to the literature. Teachout, who was just named to the National Council on the Arts, does not overturn many of the standard interpretations found in the 1988 biography by Richard Buckle and John Taras or the monograph, updated in 1983, by Taper. Instead, he distills countries, companies, artists, and ballets to leave a clear picture of a complex life.
Adulation for a genius is apparent throughout All in the Dances. To maintain this tone, certain unpleasant behaviors are hushed, glossing over Balanchine's illness and divorce tragedy with his last wife. Treating him as a great man, the book holds Balanchine at a distance. Curiously, he did not think of himself as a great man. He thought of himself as a man in the dance trade and compared himself to a cook or a carpenter. He disliked the word "create" in relation to his ballets. In his words, "only God creates; I assemble." Many of his students and friends affectionately called him "Mr. B."
The casual reader of this vibrant narrative will absorb the notion that Balanchine was a master but might be left guessing exactly why he was considered as such. That ambiguity runs through the literature. The first sentence of Don McDonough's 1983 work reads: "The exact nature of his contribution remains elusive even in the minds of many of his admirers."
BUT BALANCHINE understood his contribution. It was innovation. The first program of the young choreographer, entitled "The Evolution of Ballet: From Petipa through Fokine to Balanchivadze," is less "smile-making," as Teachout puts it, than revealing. It shows that Balanchine knew where he fit in the choreographic succession.
Balanchine was schooled in St. Petersburg, the seat of the ballet tradition. The ballet center had been transferred from the French courts when the tsars imported highly trained French dancers such as the choreographer Petipa of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker fame.
Petipa's imperial ballets were performed in sumptuous romantic style with fantastic or fairy tale plots, expressive gesture, strict ballet vocabulary, and lavish costumes and scenery. Fokine, a Russian of the next generation, danced in Petipa ballets and introduced changes in the formula when creating his own. He made some abstract ballets that were structured more along the lines of the music than the plot. In 1939, some time after Fokine had been working in America, a New York Herald Tribune critic referred to him as "the world's most famous choreographer of ballets." Balanchine trained at the school of the Imperial Theater and danced in ballets by Petipa and Fokine. What he did not know at that time was that his career, just like Fokine's, would take him to the Ballets Russes in Paris (where he too frenchified his name), and then to America.