All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchineby Terry Teachout
Hartha Graham said that watching George Balanchine choreograph a ballet was like "watching light pass through a prism. The music passes through him, and in the same natural yet marvelous way that a prism refracts light, he refracts music into dance." Twenty years after his death, the ruthless, enigmatic founder of New York City Ballet still dominates the world of… See more details below
Hartha Graham said that watching George Balanchine choreograph a ballet was like "watching light pass through a prism. The music passes through him, and in the same natural yet marvelous way that a prism refracts light, he refracts music into dance." Twenty years after his death, the ruthless, enigmatic founder of New York City Ballet still dominates the world of dance. He worked with Serge Diaghilev-and Sam Goldwyn. He made ballets to the music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky-and to "The Stars and Stripes Forever." A Russian emigre who fell hopelessly in love with American culture, his four marriages and countless affairs (all of them with beautiful young ballerinas) became tabloid fodder. Though he turned ballet into a truly modern art, his plotless, seemingly abstract dances were as romantic as the genius who made them. "Put a man and a girl on the stage and there is already a story," Balanchine said. "A man and two girls, there's already a plot." In clear, elegant prose, Terry Teachout tells the dramatic story of the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century-and explains why his ballets will be even more significant in the century to come.
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ALL IN THE DANCESA BRIEF LIFE OF George Balanchine
By TERRY TEACHOUT
HARCOURT, INC.Copyright © 2004 Terry Teachout
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE UNKNOWN GIANT
IN 1987 I WENT TO LINCOLN CENTER TO WATCH New York City Ballet dance Concerto Barocco, a ballet by George Balanchine set to Bach's Two-Violin Concerto. I knew the music well, having played one of the solo parts in high school, but except for an isolated Nutcracker seen on a college trip to New York, Barocco (as dancers and regular balletgoers call it) was my first Balanchine ballet. Indeed, I hadn't seen very many ballets of any kind, nor was I much impressed with the ones I had seen. So far as I could tell, they consisted for the most part of thin women in white skirts pretending to be birds, fluttering through elaborately costumed pantomime shows whose quaint plots were too silly to take seriously. I didn't know a lot about Balanchine, but I'd just seen a TV documentary about him that led me to believe that his dances were different, so I decided to give Concerto Barocco a try, in much the same spirit of adventure that might have led another person to go to the Museum of Modern Art, or to a jazz club.
The New York State Theater, New York City Ballet's headquarters since 1964, doesn't exactly inspire aesthetic confidence, at least not at first glance. A vast shoe box of glass and dirty travertine marble designed by Philip Johnson, it is squat on the outside and strange on the inside. The public areas are full of undistinguished modern sculptures. A monstrous spherical chandelier dangles threateningly from the gold-plated ceiling. The proscenium arch is topped with an ornament that looks like the leatherette dashboard of an early sixties mid-price sedan, while the five horseshoe-shaped rings that overlook the orchestra seats are faced with circular lamps that bear a distinct resemblance to the headlights of the same sort of car. The balconies are too high, the auditorium too deep, and unless you're lucky enough to be sitting in the first fifteen rows of the orchestra, you feel as though the stage is a mile or two away. It's not at all the sort of place where one might go expecting a revelation-though that was what lay in store for me.
At five minutes past eight, the houselights went down and the curtain flew up, revealing eight young women dressed in simple white ballet skirts, standing in front of a blue backdrop. The scrappy little band in the pit slouched to attention, the conductor gave the downbeat, and the women started to move, now in time to Bach's driving beat, now cutting against its grain. As the solo violinists made their separate entrances, two more women came running out from the wings and began to dance at center stage. Their steps were crisp, precise, almost jazzy. For a moment I was confused. The stage was bare, and the dancers' unadorned costumes offered no clue as to who they were or what they were doing, though I could tell that they weren't "acting," not in any conventional sense. They made no obviously theatrical gestures, exchanged no significant glances, yet I felt sure they were telling some kind of story. Was I missing the point? All at once I understood: the music was the story. The dancers were mirroring its complex events, not in a singsongy, naively imitative way but with sophistication and grace. This was no dumb show, no mere pantomime, but sound made visible, written in the air like fireworks glittering in the night sky. When it was over, eighteen breathless minutes later, the audience broke into friendly but routine applause, seemingly unaware that it had witnessed a miracle. Rooted in my seat, eyes wide with astonishment, I asked myself, Why hasn't anybody ever told me about this? And what kind of man made it?
I have heard similar words-sometimes the very same ones-from almost everyone I've taken to see New York City Ballet since then. Rarely do Balanchine's ballets fail to amaze a first-time viewer. The only difference is that while I already had a vague idea of who George Balanchine was in 1987, most of the people who now accompany me to the ballet do not.
Within the tight little world of dance, of course, he is a titan. For all intents and purposes, the history of modern ballet starts with his Apollo (1928, music by Stravinsky) and Prodigal Son (1929, music by Prokofiev), and New York City Ballet, the company he founded, has performed his work continuously from 1948 on. But what of the larger world of art and culture? New York City Ballet no longer gets written about much in the national press, nor does it appear on television. I know few art-conscious Manhattanites who go to its performances more than sporadically-or to any other dance performances, for that matter. Nowadays there are no "hot tickets" in dance, no events that attract the attention of a truly general audience, and few at which artists from other fields are likely to be seen. For the most part, ballet and modern dance have retreated to the periphery of American cultural consciousness, just as dance criticism has all but vanished from the pages of American magazines; you don't have to know who Balanchine was, or what he did, in order to be deemed culturally literate. Most of my acquaintances regard my love of dance as a harmless idiosyncrasy, and when I assure them that Balanchine was every bit as important as, say, Matisse, they look at me as though I'd tried to tell them that Raymond Chandler was as important as Proust.
During Balanchine's lifetime, though, such comparisons were commonplace (though they were more often made with Picasso, an artist with whom he had far less in common). Back then it didn't seem odd for Arlene Croce to declare in the pages of the New Yorker that "if George Balanchine were a novelist or a playwright or a movie director instead of a choreographer, his studies of women would be among the most discussed and most influential artistic achievements of our time." For now that dance is largely ignored by the media, it's easy to forget that there was a time when "everyone" in New York went to New York City Ballet-and not just the beau monde, either, but poets, painters, playwrights, composers, even intellectuals, all of whom went because they knew Balanchine to be a genius at the peak of his powers. In his review of the premiere of Agon (1957, music by Stravinsky), the great dance critic Edwin Denby mentioned in passing that "Marcel Duchamp, the painter, said he felt the way he had after the opening of Le Sacre." One need not admire Duchamp to admit the force of his comparison to the epochal premiere of The Rite of Spring, the 1913 ballet score by Igor Stravinsky that opened the door to musical modernism, or of the fact that so pivotal a figure in the history of art took the trouble to be present on both occasions.
Nor was Balanchine known only to the illuminati. In 1954 he choreographed Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker for New York City Ballet and appeared on the cover of Time. From then until his death in 1983, and especially after his company took up residence at Lincoln Center, he was one of the best-known artists in America. To be sure, his was far from the biggest name in dance, for those were the days of the "dance boom," the dizzy quarter-century-long interlude when Edward Villella danced on the Ed Sullivan Show, Jerome Robbins ruled Broadway, and the defections of Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov were front-page news everywhere. Still, a star he most definitely was, not least because of his many collaborations with the legendary composer of The Rite of Spring. Balanchine and Stravinsky had worked together as far back as Apollo, and in 1972, the year after Stravinsky's death, New York City Ballet put on a weeklong Stravinsky Festival at which twenty new ballets were presented, among them Duo Concertant, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and Symphony in Three Movements, three of Balanchine's supreme achievements. And the choreographer was not considered a mere theatrical valet to his older colleague, either. In most of what was written and said about the two men between 1948 and 1983, it was taken for granted that they were peers, and more than enough tastemakers had seen Balanchine's work to make the assumption stick.
Times have changed, and while Stravinsky remains a cultural icon, Balanchine is barely more than a distinguished shadow, the unknown giant of modern art. Yet he is omnipresent, not merely in the New York State Theater but wherever dancers are to be found. If his name is now less familiar to the general public, his work is performed far more widely than it was during his lifetime. Some two dozen of his ballets are danced by companies around the world, many of which are led by men and women who worked closely with him in their youth. Barocco, Apollo, Prodigal Son, Serenade, Ballet Imperial, Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments, Divertimento No. 15, Agon, Jewels, Stravinsky Violin Concerto: these are, with Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle, the true "classics" of the present-day ballet repertory, the staples whose presence on a program is a guarantee of artistic seriousness and technical accomplishment. As you read these words, it's more than likely that someone somewhere is seeing one of them for the first time, and probably asking the same questions I asked myself in 1987. How, then, can it be that Barocco, Apollo, and Agon are not as celebrated as, say, The Rite of Spring or Remembrance of Things Past? And-just as important-what singular manner of man called these astonishing works into being?
ONE REASON WHY Balanchine is not as famous as he should be is that mere words, no matter how precise or evocative, can do little more than suggest the emotional effect produced by looking at one of his ballets. For one thing, the works themselves are kaleidoscopically varied. Some, like Agon and Episodes (1959, music by Webern), are knotty and spare, seemingly as abstract as a painting by Mondrian, though Balanchine disliked that adjective, preferring to call them "plotless." ("Dancer is not a color," he would say in his sniffy, Russian-scented English. "Dancer is a person.") Others, like Ballet Imperial (1941, music by Tchaikovsky) and Symphony in C (1947, music by Bizet), are resplendently festive, and a few, including The Nutcracker and a full-evening dance version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962, music by Mendelssohn), have story lines fanciful enough to enrapture a nineteenth-century balletomane. Several of his plotless ballets are spectacular crowd-pleasers cunningly engineered to send an audience home happy. Stars and Stripes (1958), set to the marches of John Philip Sousa, ends with a giant American flag fluttering in the breeze. Balanchine was proud of his ability to please the public, which he believed to be an indispensable part of the choreographer's craft. In the thirties and forties, he even worked on Broadway and in Hollywood, staging dances for On Your Toes, Cabin in the Sky, and Where's Charley? in between ballet assignments. As he said time and again, "You can't be like the cook who can cook only two dishes: you must be able to cook them all."
Balanchine may not have invented the plotless ballet, but he grasped its expressive possibilities more completely than anyone else, before or since, and the key to these dances is invariably to be found in their scores, be they by Sousa or Webern. During his early years as a member of the Maryinsky Theater's corps de ballet, he simultaneously studied music across the street at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he majored in piano; took lessons on violin, French horn, and trumpet; and learned how to read orchestral scores and prepare his own piano reductions of instrumental works by Berg and Stravinsky. (He would even become a passable conductor, popping into the New York City Ballet pit from time to time to lead the company orchestra.) When he began to make dances, he used his theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience of music in an unprecedented way. Instead of concocting redundant visual equivalents of the rhythmic surface of a symphony or concerto, he plunged into its inner structure, moving his dancers in silent counterpoint to its unfolding action. He made no bones about placing music at the center of his modernized version of nineteenth-century classical ballet-which came, logically enough, to be known as neoclassicism:
I can always invent movement, and sometimes it can be fitted into the right place, but that is not choreography. It is the music that dictates the whole shape of the work. I do not believe in the permanence of anything in ballet save the purely classical. Classicism is enduring because it is impersonal.... Choreographic movement is an end in itself, and its only purpose is to create the impression of intensity and beauty.
Yet his plotless ballets have something in common beyond their reliance on music: no matter how involved their steps may be, the viewer comes away remembering not the skill of the dancers but the inexplicable occurrences scattered generously throughout each dance. Jerome Robbins, who worked alongside Balanchine at New York City Ballet for nearly four decades, observed with admiration that "Balanchine's ballets are all full of the most extraordinary encounters and events." One such event takes place in the slow movement of Concerto Barocco. As the music begins, one of the two ballerinas leaves the stage, replaced by a man who dances a pas de deux with her partner. What happens next has been beautifully described by Edwin Denby:
Against a background of chorus that suggests the look of trees in the wind before a storm breaks, the ballerina, with limbs powerfully outspread, is lifted by her male partner, lifted repeatedly in narrowing arcs higher and higher. Then at the culminating phrase, from her greatest height he very slowly lowers her. You watch her body slowly descend, her foot and leg pointing stiffly downward, till her toe reaches the floor and she rests her full weight at last on this single sharp point and pauses. It is the effect at that moment of a deliberate and powerful plunge into a wound, and the emotion of it answers strangely to the musical stress.
Such emotive language would scarcely have been justified by a purely academic combination of steps, yet the sequence of events that Denby describes appears to have no literal "meaning." Is it derived from the music? So it seems-yet once again, there is nothing explicitly imitative about what Balanchine makes his dancers do. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to say that they do what music does and words cannot.
Excerpted from ALL IN THE DANCES by TERRY TEACHOUT Copyright © 2004 by Terry Teachout. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
TERRY TEACHOUT is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary. He played jazz professionally before becoming a full-time writer. His books include All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, and A Terry Teachout Reader. He blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.
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