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The Russian Choreographer Fascinated by America

The Russian Choreographer Fascinated by America

A new biography of George Balanchine reveals a complex figure–avant-garde and rebellious, yet piously traditional.

Robert Steven Mack

More has been written about Russian choreographer George Balanchine than perhaps any other figure in ballet, but with Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, Jennifer Homans has crafted an authoritative portrait that combines in-depth research with a lyrical command of language. Weaving together her insights as a historian, dance critic, and former dancer, Homans helps readers appreciate the historical, artistic, and personal dimensions that make Balanchine’s plotless ballets so curious.

Homans’ portrait of Balanchine reveals a complex figure; he could be avant-garde and even rebellious, yet also piously traditional, treating dance as a portal to another world. With an opus spanning Russian to American influences, we come to understand why Balanchine called himself the “cloud in trousers”—a man caught between this world and the next, connecting to the higher realms through dance. In this respect, she captures the exhilaration and reverence with which dancers, being one myself, experience his ballets.

Born in 1904 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a Georgian musical and clerical family, Balanchine found himself abandoned at the Imperial Ballet School at the age of nine, just before the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. Homans describes how Balanchine was cold, isolated, and forced to cook rats to stave off hunger as he was surrounded by death and famine. Coming of age in the USSR, his fascination with the avant-garde put him on a collision course with authorities, so he escaped to Weimar Berlin in 1924. Forever after, he remained firmly anti-communist, much to the annoyance of his later peers and dancers, as he looked toward freedom, innovation, and a curious spirituality.

Homans details how the European art scene of the time shaped Balanchine as an artist, with Berlin especially offering him fertile ground for inspiration. Balanchine encountered contemporary artists like Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian abstract painter “naturally drawn to the body and to the senses as a possible pathway into a spiritual life, bypassing language, reason, and the intellect.” He also encountered Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, among other pioneers of modern dance, but he ultimately rejected such melodramatic expressionism. Homans leaves us contemplating the challenge Balanchine faced early on: how to abstract away the body in dance when the body is the instrument?

In 1925, Balanchine received an invitation from ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to join Ballet Russes. The aristocratic Diaghilev wanted to celebrate Imperial Russia while pushing ballet into the avant-garde, and his productions pushed the boundaries of ballet in ways that his homeland could never tolerate. Diaghilev gave Balanchine a compressive education in art, but his productions of “old exoticism" and “imperial nostalgia” were “anything but quaint” for Balanchine, who had left a Russia torn apart by war. Both artists wanted to move ballet into the modern era, but they had different visions.

Homans argues that Balanchine made this apparent in his 1928 ballet scored by Igor Stravinsky, Apollon Musagète, later called Apollo, that follows the coming of age of the Greek god of music and dance, Apollo. This streamlined, plotless, pantomime-less ballet was “Balanchine’s own kind of renunciation: of Diaghilev, of Weimar, and even of his own Russian past;” he even discarded costumes designed by Coco Chanel for mere black-and-white practice clothes. For Diaghilev, Apollo was a step too far, and Balanchine eventually turned to Lincoln Kirstein, a Diaghilev wannabe in New York City. Kirsten longed to bring serious ballet to the United States, and even paid for Balanchine’s transatlantic passage to the states in 1933. Together, Kirstein and Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and the New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 1948.

While Balanchine did leave Europe behind, Stravinsky remained his most important collaborator, and Homans makes the case that their 1957 collaborative work Agon changed ballet forever. Set to a jarring atonal score with dancers clad in black and white practice clothes, Agon stripped away artifice, plot, costume and set. It was a brilliant fusion of dance and music based on Arnold Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Technique that brought about a “democratization of tones,” mirroring Balanchine’s democratization of ballet: No more courtly settings and soloist divertissements; only the dancers and the music were left. Balanchine chose Agon for the NYCB’s State Department tour of the USSR in 1962, an intentional rebuke of Soviet authorities who preferred clear narratives that they could control. He also cast black dancer Arthur Mitchell with the white ballerina Diana Adams in the centerpiece pas de deux. Agon is one of the most important works in the repertoire today, but Homans helps us understand what we are feeling when we watch it and how the various artistic influences in Balanchine’s life converge to create the experience.

She does the same for The Four Temperaments, a ballet scored by Paul Hindemith that gives a “physical and musical portrait of extreme emotional states, bodies in a state of anxiety and pain,” and that is based on a medieval medical model of the four humors or bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For instance, the third variation, Phlegmatic, embodies indifference and lethargy, requiring simple but precise movements. In one particularly difficult part, the male soloist must bend down, lift one leg, holding his foot, knee bent, balancing on one leg, staring directly into the audience with a blank face, the slightest wobble perceptible to the audience. Later in the dance, four women flank the male soloist, dancing in and out of poses with the cool detachment of Vogue cover girls; there are no bravura jumps and turns and no dramatic mugging. In writing that “none of this would be conveyed externally through acting or facial expression; the dancers wore blank faces (masks of a sort),” Homans helps us understand how the challenge Balanchine is presenting is to do less, rather than show more.

Homans appears slightly less interested in exploring the American influences on Balanchine, but she does give them their due. Drawn to the frenetic creative energy of New York City, the Wild West, movies, jazz music, and tap dancing, Balanchine especially regarded Fred Astaire as the greatest dancer alive, a master of time and rhythm. Like Astaire, Balanchine was fascinated with black music and culture, freely incorporating what he liked, working with African American anthropologist Katherine Dunham to absorb African American rhythm. Balanchine choreographed on Broadway and in Hollywood to sustain himself in the 1930s and 40s, while waiting for Kirstein’s ballet company to take shape. These experiences are evident in his later ballets, when Balanchine incorporated jazz syncopations, flexed hands, and turned-in legs. Some readers may look at this section as confirmation that Balanchine committed cultural appropriation, but Homans offers no simplistic assessment. Balanchine was a product of his time who drew upon many influences and his interest in Black music comes across as part of his larger fascination with American culture.

Even in his classical work, Balanchine added an American element to the way his dancers performed: faster, streamlined, higher, longer, less embellishment. Balanchine wanted the dance to stand on its own—“see the music, hear the dance.” Apart from his Terpsichorean muses, Balanchine wasn’t interested in big stars. According to Homans, he required dancers to give themselves to his creations in totality and to lose themselves in the music, similar to how Balanchine lost himself quixotically in his world of music, ballet, and womanly muses. Indeed, Homan’s treatment of Balanchine’s tragically flawed romantic affairs with much younger ballerinas show his passions onstage and offstage intermingling in sometimes destructive ways, sometimes creative ways. In a post “MeToo” era, these affairs make Balanchine an understandable target, but Homans shows a complicated entanglement of unrequited love.

Combining a poetic flourish with a historian’s respect for complexity, Homans shows how Balanchine used the human form to become a purer expression of the music that inspired him. Homans acknowledges, perhaps with a hint of self-awareness, the religiosity Balanchine inspired in his dancers. So, how can Homans, who trained at the School of American Ballet when Balanchine was still alive, be considered objective? Certainly, there are more critical volumes still to be written, but Homans suffuses Mr. B with a deep knowledge of dance and Balanchine’s corpus that can only be gleaned from personal experience. She manages to articulate not simply a historical narrative but also the less tangible aspects of Balanchine’s effect on an ephemeral artform.

Even those skeptical of the sometimes cult-like worship of Balanchine will come away newly fascinated by the historical, personal, and artistic dimensions of his legacy. In Mr. B, we’re left with a lyrical portrait of a larger-than-life craftsman and learn how the “Cloud in Trousers” ultimately changed ballet forever.

Robert Steven Mack, a research associate at American Purpose, is a professional ballet dancer, filmmaker, and writer. He is pursuing a master of public administration in media, the arts, and public policy at the O‘Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University.

Image: The Kansas City Ballet performs Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. (Flickr: KCBallet Media, photo by Steve Wilson)