All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine

All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine

by Terry Teachout

Twenty years after his death, George Balanchine still dominates the world of ballet. Not only have his works been danced by the New York City Ballet continuously since 1948, but they also have been performed by more than two dozen other companies throughout the world. In clear and elegant writing, Terry Teachout brings to life the dramatic story of George… See more details below


Twenty years after his death, George Balanchine still dominates the world of ballet. Not only have his works been danced by the New York City Ballet continuously since 1948, but they also have been performed by more than two dozen other companies throughout the world. In clear and elegant writing, Terry Teachout brings to life the dramatic story of George Balanchine, a Russian émigré who fell in love with American culture, married four times and kept a mistress on the side, and transformed the art of ballet forever.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Terry Teachout is the kind of tour guide a first-rate biography requires-vivid storytelling by a guide who is both appreciative and independent."-Ken Auletta

"A lively and unvarnished portrayal of a complex and fascinating figure."-The Baltimore Sun

Publishers Weekly
"Balanchine was every bit as important as... Matisse," says literary critic Teachout (The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken), who writes for the viewer who doesn't know a pass from a pas de chat, but has, like Teachout, been "amazed" by one of Balanchine's works. His book is pithy, conversational and vivid, touching on all the major points of Balanchine's life. When a journalist asked Balanchine about his life, he replied, "It's all in the programs." But there was more to it, for his choreography is inexorably bound with the ballerinas he loved. He married four (Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil Le Clerqc), and lived with a fifth (Alexandra Danilova). In later years, he also pursued other dancers, most notably Allegra Kent and Suzanne Farrell. "Woman is the goddess, the poetess, the muse," he said. His company, trained in his fast, energetic, lean style, was the perfect vehicle for his works-among those discussed by Teachout are the elegant and jazzy Concerto Barocco, the acidic, spare Agon and the mysterious Serenade. Balanchine's ballets are modern masterpieces, and Teachout, moving chronologically from work to work, uses them as stepping stones to tell Balanchine's own story. This is highly recommended as a first book on the life and art of George Balanchine for students and the general reader. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Writers' Representatives. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The centenary of Balanchine's birth is being celebrated in a year-long tribute by the New York City Ballet and all-Balanchine programs by dozens of dance companies. Teachout, cultural critic for the Wall Street Journal, has written a volume as sleek and elegant as the dancers in a Balanchine ballet. Intended as an introduction rather than a full-scale biography, this book goes right to the essence of the Balanchine aesthetic, offering artful observations and insightful commentaries on several of the master's pivotal works, e.g., Concerto Barocco, Serenade, and Apollo. Teachout's recollection of a first viewing of Concerto Barocco is representative: "This was no dumb show, no mere pantomime, but sound made visible, written in the air like fireworks glittering in the night sky." His brief appreciation is accompanied by a critically annotated list of books. Dance and performing arts collections will surely want to acquire it, as will general collections serving patrons about to attend their first performance of a Balanchine ballet.-Carolyn M. Mulac, Chicago P.L. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Polymath critic Teachout (The Skeptic, 2002, etc.) cogently introduces general readers and dance neophytes to the choreographer who reinvented ballet for the 20th century. Yes, it's a biography: the author takes us from the birth of Georgi Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg in 1904 through George Balanchine's death in 1983, when he was revered as the presiding genius of the New York City Ballet, nurturer of countless brilliant ballerinas (many of whom he loved and married), and creator of a brilliant variety of dances that brought ballet into the forefront of modern culture. Teachout notes that the trauma of separating from his family during the Russian Revolution may well have led to Balanchine's inability to form lasting relationships, both personally and professionally, as seen by his using and discarding Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, Tannaquil Le Clercq, and Suzanne Farrell, among others. But what really interests the writer is the choreographer's relationship with Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Wolfgang Mozart, his deep understanding of music, and his ability to make choreography that "instead of concocting redundant visual equivalents of the rhythmic surface of a symphony or concerto . . . plunged into its inner structure" in ballets that defined the art form for his age, including Apollo, Concerto Barocco, The Prodigal Son, The Four Temperaments, Stars and Stripes, and, of course, perennial crowd-pleaser The Nutcracker. Teachout covers everything from early work with the Ballets Russes in Paris through aimless years on Broadway-which Balanchine loved, as he did every aspect of American popular culture-to fulfillment upon the opening of NYCB in 1948. The writing isgraceful, with a judicious use of primary sources, and Teachout movingly conveys his love for Balanchine's art in a short text that makes no pretense to be the last word but fulfills its author's intention that it serve as a layperson's introduction. The perfect first book to read about Balanchine, and intelligent enough to have value for more knowledgeable admirers as well. Agency: Writers' Representatives

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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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 midprice 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.

Copyright © 2004 by Terry Teachout

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Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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