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Brilliant Balanchine

The great choreographer was, to his credit, reactionary on gender and much else.

George Balanchine
Russian-born American choreographer George Balanchine (1904 - 1983), 24th August 1965. (Photo by Rowntree/Express/Getty Images)

Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, Jennifer Homans, Random House, 784 pages.

Could it be that traditional gender roles will only survive on the ballet stage? True, the people who make and oversee dance in America today—the artistic directors, choreographers, designers, costumers, and dancers—are among the most woke people on the planet, as are those in the audience. Yet in an age increasingly defined by androgyny, gender-fluidity, and other challenges to nature, the ballet stage is a place where the femaleness of females and the maleness of males is accentuated.

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Ballerinas are asked to imbue every flick of the wrist or tap of the toe with ladylike graciousness, and their male partners are generally asked to function as pillars, stolid statues to better buttress all of that leaping, pirouetting, and twirling. Surely the present gender confusion will one day come to ballet, with male dancers forcing their way into female roles, but for now the ballet world still respects gender differences. 

Perhaps this is due to the lasting influence of Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine (1904–1983), who, as the co-founder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet, created dances that thrilled for their musicality, startled for their abstraction, and, above all, bewitched for their constellation of female stars, the ballerinas who were the grist for Balanchine’s choreographic mill and the objects of his personal desire. Sometimes literally so: Maria Tallchief, was Balanchine’s fourth wife; Tanaquil Le Clerq, his fifth; Allegra Kent; Suzanne Farrell; Karin von Aroldingen; on and on. “Ballet is one place where art flourishes because of a woman; woman is the goddess, the poetess, the muse,” Balanchine wrote in Life magazine in 1965. “That is why I have a company with beautiful girl dancers.”

Of course, Balanchine’s work endures not simply because he venerated women. He untethered the art form from its dainty, precious European roots and imbued it with midcentury American vim and vigor. Still, a monumental new biography makes clear that his veneration was essential to his acts of creation. “To make dances, he needed to be physically attracted to a dancer, and she had to be a great dancer—or to have that potential, some ember or light inside her,” writes Jennifer Homans, the dance critic at the New Yorker. 

In this exhaustive but elegantly written work, Homans does not gloss over Balanchine’s essential worldview and decidedly pre-women’s liberation working methods. “Because women were his primary material, and because he was a man who loved women, sensuality and love were always a part of it,” writes Homans. She never lets Balanchine off the hook when he deserves blame—anyone who married as frequently as he did is bound to leave a trail of betrayal and ungallant behavior—but she fundamentally apprehends and honors the choreographer’s idea of women as beings to be revered and as living embodiments of his artistic genius.

The book covers all of the central incidents of Balanchine’s life and then some: his initiation into the art form at the Imperial Theater School in St. Petersburg; the hold his Russian Orthodox faith had on him (“When he died, his assistant found a small, carefully mounted bishop’s staff on his bedside table, along with icons of St. George and St. Nicholas, and a blessing crucifix”); his crucial association with Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes; and his pivotal partnership with New York philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein and their frustratingly fitful attempts to bring into existence a first-class American ballet company, a starry-eyed notion that nonetheless ultimately birthed the New York City Ballet in 1948.

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Homans captures the serendipitous—or is it merely haphazard?—nature of creating a masterpiece. Balanchine’s early triumph Serenade was choreographed in 1934 for 17 dancers from his School of American Ballet, but its actual numbers depended on the day. “Another day only nine came to rehearsal, so he made a dance of nine; then six, so six; then one was late—and so in the dance, a girl arrived late and found her way through the other sixteen like a woman lost in a forest of trees,” Homans writes. 

Little here will be altogether new to admirers of Balanchine, but Homans is on fresher ground when reckoning with her subject’s romances, which run afoul of every modern workplace norm but which led to the creation of a number of the best ballets of the last century, including La Valse, Ivesiana, and Jewels. “Pursuing a woman, winning her, and nurturing and lavishing in everything he knew upon her—that was the primary object of his life and art,” Homans writes. “Without love and eroticism, he would shrivel up inside and run dry.” Here must be admitted an inconvenient truth: an enormous amount of great art, including the entire corpus of Alfred Hitchcock, springs from a man falling in love with a woman.

In the case of Balanchine, this knotty tangle of the personal and the professional played out in several particularly intense relationships. In the early throes of his relationship with his eventual fourth wife Le Clercq, Balanchine was besotted, but after she was maimed by polio, her husband, while remaining outwardly devoted and inwardly guilt-stricken, allowed himself to become besotted anew by Farrell, whom he met when she was 17. She was an unassuming Ohioan with a “little-girl voice” whose extraordinary fluidity and self-possession on-stage rendered her, in Homans’ words, “a grand obsession” for the choreographer. “You wouldn’t notice her if she was standing still, but the moment she moved, she was unavoidable.” Although Farrell says she and Balanchine were not lovers, he regarded her marriage to a dancer as an act of treachery that necessitated her (temporary) banishment from City Ballet. 

Homans makes clear that, in addition to these grand melodramas, tiny crushes on his muses happened all the time: with Diana Adams, Kay Mazzo, Christine Redpath, the latter “full-bodied, a tomboy who could hold her own with the rough-talking stagehands, responded to his advances, went to dinner, received wine, worked hard on her dancing, and was given plum roles until she hit a brick wall inside.” Remarkably for a book written in the era of #MeToo, Homans by and large regards these relationships, which were apparently mostly nonsexual, as what they are: the benign overtures of a remarkably civilized gentleman. “He was always polite and never pushed,” she writes. His art simply required him to stay in a condition of enchantment. It was, she adds, “a seduction few refused.” 

To a remarkable degree, the Balanchine who emerges in these pages is a man out of time: Even casual balletgoers will be familiar with the expressions of down-home Americana in several key works by this Russian émigré, including Western Symphony and Stars and Stripes. Fewer will be aware of his admiration for General Eisenhower, whom he praised in a letter as “the man to lead this country in its fight against communism”—a fight he would join, he added, by creating ballets that enriched the “spiritual life of the nation.” How refreshing it is to read of a major cultural figure from midcentury bewitched by “beautiful girl dancers” rather than Joseph Stalin. 

By the late 1960s, Balanchine hardened into a genuine reactionary: He forbade drug use in his troupe, outlawed long hair on his male dancers, and instructed all in his charge to keep their theater free from “garbage and dirt from the street Hippies.” He was in favor of the Vietnam War and thought well of Richard Nixon. So sincere and robust was Balanchine’s appreciation of the American scene that he created dances both in homage to Martin Luther King Jr. (Balanchine boldly cast African American dancers, including the great Arthur Mitchell, in his works long before such casting was accepted) and Pan Am airlines. He pursued abstraction, Homans writes, because he realized it clashed with Socialist Realism. His masterpiece Agon, she notes, “was also a weapon in the Cold War.”

Homans marshals these details into a portrait of a man committed to the beauty and precision of his chosen form. The “discipline, hierarchy, and revelation” required of those in the company amounted to a “counter-Enlightenment way of life.” By the same token, Balanchine’s infatuations with his ballerinas are only interesting to the extent that they tell us something about his art, and here too Homans successfully ties the threads together. “It was an aesthetic above all of women, because women were beautiful and had more flexible bodies that could do more things,” she puts it, plainly.

Let us praise the legacy of George Balanchine, whose works tell us not only that the sexes exist and that they are different but that there is glorious beauty in the differences. 

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