George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (Eminent Lives Series)by Robert Gottlieb
Written by the gifted author, editor, and dance critic Robert Gottlieb, George Balanchine describes the life and art of the celebrated, revolutionary ballet choreographer. Here is a necessary and singular look at the life of one of the great figures of the 20th Century: the dynamic Balanchine, founder of The New York City Ballet, collaborator of/b>
Written by the gifted author, editor, and dance critic Robert Gottlieb, George Balanchine describes the life and art of the celebrated, revolutionary ballet choreographer. Here is a necessary and singular look at the life of one of the great figures of the 20th Century: the dynamic Balanchine, founder of The New York City Ballet, collaborator of Stravinsky, and inspiration to countless fans over the course of his long and storied career. George Balanchine is another engaging entry in the HarperCollins’ “Eminent Lives” series of biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures.
The New York Times
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The Ballet Maker
George Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg in 1904, the year after Marius Petipa (The Sleeping Beauty) created his last ballet at the Maryinsky Imperial Theatre and the year before Michel Fokine (Les Syiphides) created his first. It was the year in which Isadora Duncan made her first appearance in Russia, encouraging Fokine and others in their impulse toward change. And within the next five years the Russian exodus to the West had begun: Pavlova to her eternal touring, Diaghilev with his Ballets Russes to Paris, with Nijinsky and Karsavina in tow. Dancers in St. Petersburg were asserting their views and demanding new rights, which led to a crackdown by management. Russian ballet, on a more or less even keel for decades (apart from the usual internecine conflicts), was in turmoil, and the conservatives chose to consider these disturbing phenomena as hotheaded rebellion rather than as necessary correctives.
The political situation was, of course, equally incendiary. On Balanchine's first birthday, January 22, 1905, a group of protesting workers with their families were fired upon in St. Petersburg, and many of them were killed. The slide toward World War I revolution, and communism had begun.
The immediate world Balanchine was born into, however, was not caught up directly either in politics or in ballet. George's father, Meliton Balanchivadze, was a successful musician -- a composer who specialized in folk song from his native Georgia "The Georgian Glinka." He was a widower in his mid-forties with two grown children when he married Maria Nikolayevna Vassilyeva, a girl less than half his age. (Their son George would also marry much younger women.) Their marriage produced three children: George came between his sister, Tamara, and his brother, Andrei. It seems to have been a happy early childhood, despite financial vicissitudes -- Meliton was a good-natured, generous, perhaps somewhat profligate man, who dealt with money casually when he had it and wasn't particularly perturbed when he didn't: another quality he shared with his son.
In later years Balanchine reported that after winning a huge amount of money in a state lottery, Meliton not only lost it all through extravagant generosity and foolish investments, but was prosecuted for "willful bankruptcy" and sent to debtors' prison. The children weren't told the truth, and were surprised and delighted when their father suddenly reappeared after an absence of two years. (This is the first of several bits of the Balanchine legend that may be too good to be true -- the kind of romantic exaggeration he enjoyed. The more likely story, as related years later by Andrei, is that Meliton was put under house arrest as a debtor for four months.) Fortunately, although the family had to give up their apartment in the city; they were allowed to keep their small dacha, three hours away by slow train in what is now southwestern Finland. There George spent his fifth through ninth years, studying with a tutor and taking piano lessons from a severe German lady. There was also a German nurse, who left when he was very small but whom in his old age he still recalled "with tenderness."
Meanwhile, he and his sister and brother were leading a healthy, active outdoor life in the woods surrounding the Balanchivadze home. George remembered those years with nostalgia and affection -- not only this idyllic life in the country but also his earlier time in St. Petersburg. He spoke to Solomon Volkov, author of Balanchine's Tchaikovsky, about playing on Poklonnaya Hill, with its three ponds; about walking along the embankment of the Neva; about trips to the zoo; about how he, Tamara, and Andrei "waited impatiently for the cannon at the Fortress of Petei and Paul to boom at noon." And there was the glory of the Orthodox liturgy; which "made a wonderful impression on me when I was a child, too. The priests came out -- all dressed opulently, in gorgeous miters, looking just like saints. The boys in the church choir sing so delicately, like angels." As he said to Volkov, "Childhood impressions are always the most powerful," and the beauty and power of the Orthodox liturgy never lost their hold on him.
For a family like his, the question of a secure future for the children was preeminent ...George Balanchine
The Ballet Maker. Copyright © by Robert Gottlieb. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
The former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, Robert Gottlieb was on the board of directors of the New York City Ballet for many years. He writes literary criticism for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker, and is the dance critic for the New York Observer.
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