When balletomanes consider the dancers who stirred the creativity of George Balanchine (1904-1983), they might think of Maria Tallchief (his third wife) or Tanaquil LeClercq (his fourth) or Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent (his muses). One name that probably does not spring to mind is Lidia “Lidochka” Ivanova, who befriended the young Balanchine (then known as Georgi or Georges Balanchivadze) when they were students at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg and appeared in several of his earliest creations.
In Bernard Taper’s Balanchine: A Biography (1984), as well as Robert Gottlieb’s more recent George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (2004), Ivanova merits only a handful of passing references. But while this prodigiously researched study succeeds many times over in fleshing out the record, our expectations that Ivanova will turn out to be a muse in the mold of Maria Tallchief and company are short-circuited right off the bat. In the introduction, we learn that Ivanova “wasn’t George’s personal muse” at all; instead, she was his preternaturally gifted classmate and occasional onstage partner before she died mysteriously in 1924. Misleading title aside, the book succeeds as a detailed study of the pair’s upbringing and training rather than as an argument for Ivanova’s supposed influence on Balanchine’s great ballets.
To be sure, Elizabeth Kendall, who evokes dance beautifully on the page, argues that elements of Balanchine’s 1934 Serenade (to name one) took inspiration from Ivanova’s death. But while Kendall is persuasive when she writes that the ballet’s female corpse that “enters heaven vertically, in a ray of light” is meant to echo “the ray of light Lidochka once died in onstage in Valse Triste,” she is on far more tenuous ground when she tries to relate the ballet’s use of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings back to Ivanova. True, Ivanova once performed to that same music, but Kendall loses us when she writes, “And all of Lidochka’s friends knew how she felt about Tchaikovsky.” Since when is liking Tchaikovsky a novel opinion?
Furthermore, while Kendall suggests that Balanchine was still referencing Ivanova in various ballets for the rest of his career, it is worth remembering how promiscuous the choreographer was when it came to his muses. It is hard to imagine that Balanchine was still pining over Ivanova when the choreographer himself suited up in the titular role in his version of Don Quixote, a famously public display of his affection for Suzanne Farrell (who appeared as Dulcinea).
Even if Kendall’s premise falters, however, her fresh research into Balanchine’s initial entree to ballet—via performing, not choreographing—makes for fascinating reading. Unsurprisingly, given the religious dimension of Serenade (not to mention the biblical basis of Prodigal Son, his 1929 dance for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), Balanchine’s first childhood “performances” were religious in character: “He made up games in which he was a priest, with two chairs serving as altar. He blessed small objects. He imagined himself as a holy figure in church robes.”
His older sister Tamara was supposed to be the dancer in the family, but it was Balanchine who impressed the higher-ups at the Imperial Theatre School, to which he was shipped off at age 9. The daily routine of the school, with its separate floors for boys and girls, is painstakingly reconstructed by Kendall. In describing the desperately sad separation of Balanchine from his mother, though, Kendall falls back into one of her most frustrating habits: asking questions instead of making statements.
Did he pause tactfully to let the mother detach the child from her embrace? Did Georgi glance down one last time as he climbed the stairs to the boys’ quarters? Did she turn back to look up at him?
Here, the intent is poetic, but elsewhere, Kendall—faced with incomplete records in archives scattered across countries—frankly admits that she simply does not know the answers, as when she wonders about two dances in which a 14-year-old Balanchine is purported to have appeared: “Or at least he was listed—in a surviving program, both numbers are crossed out. Were they canceled?” We appreciate Kendall’s candor, but the cumulative effect of such questions is to make a hard-to-follow book—which tells its story with the Russian Revolution and its aftermath hovering in the background—even sketchier. As Kendall, writing of the influence of Ivanova’s father on the dancer’s life, puts it, “Answers can only be suggested.”