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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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