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George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (Eminent Lives Series)

George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (Eminent Lives Series)

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by Robert Gottlieb

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Balanchine’s reputation as a choreographer is so immense that his personality can be eclipsed, at least for those who never knew him. Gottlieb, an ardent fan since 1948, did come to know him a bit while serving on the board of New York City Ballet. In this brief yet energetic biography, he moves briskly through an extraordinarily eventful life. The early chapters detail Balanchine’s fine musical education in Russia (piano, harmony, counterpoint), his dancing (curtailed by an injury when he was in his twenties), and his many false starts as he tried to gain a foot-hold in the West. A colleague of the period recalled performances in an insane asylum and a beer garden (“We followed a dog act”). Once in the States, Balanchine embraced every aspect of his new home, working on Broadway and in Hollywood, wearing bolo ties, and—in such works as “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”—adapting the vocabulary of classical dance to the rhythms of America.
Jennifer Dunning
Mr. Gottlieb is at his best when he writes about Balanchine at work, as in his description of the creation of "Concerto Barocco." Balanchine the artist comes suddenly and immediately alive in Mr. Gottlieb's graceful description of the making of that seminal Balanchine classic in 1941. A member of the original cast, he writes, remembers that there was a movement in the adagio that Balanchine called "the Harlem strut." "There was a lot of kidding around in the rehearsals," he quotes that cast member, Fred Danieli, as saying. "We did that strut as a joke, and Balanchine liked it and kept it in."
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
One would be hard-pressed to find a better match for Balanchine for this entry in the Eminent Lives series than Gottlieb, the distinguished editor and dance critic who for years was on the board of directors of the New York City Ballet. Although he knew Balanchine, Gottlieb is quick to point out it was not a close relationship: "To me... he was a god, and I saw my role as being some kind of messenger of the gods." But Gottlieb captures both the divine and human, offering an elegant, sharp and sophisticated take on the choreographer's life. In many instances he elaborates on points made in Bernard Taper's seminal biography, Balanchine. And he adds personal moments, such as Balanchine's comment regarding his choice of successor at the New York City Ballet: "Balanchine made that very clear to me as we were standing in the wings together.... `It has to be Peter [Martins].... He knows what a ballerina needs.' " This loving tribute captures Balanchine's legacy: his energy, confidence, lack of pretension and, most important, his joy in creation. B&w photos. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This new work about Balanchine is like a ballet by the master himself-it goes right to the heart of things. At first one is surprised by its brevity. But Gottlieb, once editor in chief of Knopf, Simon & Schuster, and The New Yorker and for many years intimately connected to the New York City Ballet, offers an informed study that is at once concise and nuanced. Gottlieb covers all the basics, from Balanchine's early training with the Maryinsky, to his first choreographic efforts while on the run throughout Europe, to Lincoln Kirstein's fabled intervention and Balanchine's arrival and eventual triumph in America. The result is a nicely compressed introduction for newcomers that still offers insights to Balanchine fanatics; Gottlieb often relates accepted versions of events (Balanchine could ignore or embroider the facts), then does his research and surmises what really happened. Those wanting more discussion of the ballets themselves might try Robert Garis's Following Balanchine or Terry Teachout's new work (see below), but this is an eminent summation of what was indeed an "eminent life." For all dance collections and any general collection needing updated coverage on Balanchine. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/04.]-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another brief biography published to coincide with the centennial of the legendary choreographer's birth, gaining color and immediacy from the author's behind-the-scenes knowledge of the New York City Ballet. Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, served on the NYCB board of directors for more than a decade and knew Balanchine personally, though not intimately. The author makes excellent use of quotations from his subject and from generations of dancers' memoirs to vividly capture the choreographer's personality. Early chapters on Balanchine's youth in Russia and apprentice years at the Ballets Russes in Paris highlight the charm and calm professionalism that enabled him to make radical breaks with ballet tradition without alienating his dancers-as seen in such late 1920s masterpieces as Apollo and Prodigal Son. As the narrative moves on to Balanchine's rootless early years in America, working on Broadway and in Hollywood while he struggled to establish his own school and company, Gottlieb continues to emphasize the important role played by the women and men who studied with Mr. B and incarnated his visions in the flesh. (For once, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Melissa Hayden, Jacques d'Amboise, Edward Villella and Peter Martins get equal time with Balanchine's more famous muses/wives.) Gottlieb began attending the ballet in 1948, NYCB's inaugural season, and his descriptions of such historic premieres as Firebird, Agon, Stars and Stripes and Don Quixote benefit from his firsthand knowledge. Readers will also get a solid understanding of the backstage contributions made by NYCB administrators Lincoln Kirstein, Betty Cage, Eddie Bigelow and Barbara Horgan. Atthe center of it all stands the choreographer, much loved (even by his ex-wives) yet fundamentally unknowable, more deeply engaged with his art than with other human beings. Since Balanchine took that art form to new heights over the course of his lifetime, that doesn't seem like such a tragic trade-off. Livelier and gossipier than Terry Teachout's earnest primer, All the Dances (p. 953), though less explicitly instructive about Balanchine's historic significance. Ballet lovers, of course, will want to read both.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Eminent Lives Series
Product dimensions:
5.34(w) x 7.34(h) x 0.87(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

George Balanchine
The Ballet Maker

Chapter One

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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