For some reason my local library only had ballet books about Balanchine’s company, New York City Ballet. I found Once a Dancer by Allegra Kent there when I was about 13. My high school library had the Bernard Taper biography, considered the final word on a great creator for many years, as well as Violet Verdi’s colorful book on the Balanchine technique ( or style. This post is not about that debate).
Later I found Holding Onto the Air by Suzanne Farrell, and I ordered Suki Schorer’s golden jacketed book from Discount Dance Supply. The internet was still young then, but it enables me to also find In Balanchine’s Company, by Barbara Fischer. For years I thought George Balanchine had truly invented ballet for the 20th century. That before him there was nothing, no ballet whatsoever in the Americas before his defection, and that ballet in the old world was unpopular and fading, despite the success I read of the Ballet Russ.
In my mid twenties while living away from home for school I met a couple of Russian ballet teachers living and working in Utah. From there are whole new side of ballet history both in the US and the world was opened up to me. I finally learned of the great debate about Balanchine’s innovations. Were they a style or a new technique altogether? My new Russian ( and later Korean, Japanese, Ukrainian, German more cosmopolitan American) friends baffled me at first by insisting that Balanchine was just another great choreographer and company founder among several. I realized I didn’t know the histories of companies like American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, or even my own home state Ballet West. Some, like ABT had actually proceeded Balanchine! Others had been influenced by him or his dancers. But he had not been so alone and original as I was led to believe, both by the memoirs of the dancers mentioned above and my own fantasy of someday becoming a ballet dancer.
Now I don’t want to play down what he did. I had a chance to learn for a full week for four hours a day from a current NYCB soloist. And honestly for me, there are parts of the style that can be considered technique, and that in some ways contradict the Vaganova style I’ve been immersed in lately, but these elements are essential to the look. Both Balanchine and Kirsten understood branding and marketing very well, and having a company that looked different from European companies and their new world transplants was an important element of their eventual success. So, these extra-technical elements are important, even if they aren’t widely used outside Mr. B’s choreography.
I completed something of a circle this summer however. Firstly, I had my first ever ballet contract, which I signed and everything. I finally had my ballerina dream come true if only for a summer. Second, as mentioned, I was ale to to work with a real live ballerina from Balanchine’s company, someone who was dedicated enough and talented enough to be carrying on the hard won legacy. ( Some of the books I’ve read gloss over the many failed companies before NYCB, and how hard is was for Kirsten and Balanchine, how close they came to giving up and going back to Europe). Third, I stumbled across Jacques D’Amboise’s book I Was A Dancer.
About three chapters in I realized this was the first male voice I’d listened to on the great ballet idol. All those others books had been by women. This is a little weird because outside the ballet world academia is leading the charge to get more women’s voices heard, “Her”story etc etc. Inside the ballet world, the experience as a company member, and in Balanchine’s case, a “muse” is nearly always female. its not till we start hearing from directors and choreographers that the voices, until recently, have also been predominately male.
This post isn’t about the gender history war either though.
its about understanding ballet heritage better, and for me, Jacques’ book was an delightful eye opener. Balanchine was no longer simply a creative god. He swore, he pouted, he raged, at silly things, he made rude remarks about dancers, musicians and board members, and the days leading up to his death were more messy than any of the ballerinas let on. It was fascinating to have Jacques tell me (and his writing does feel very personal) about Balanchine’s ugly side, and his sad, painful decline. I was glad, it made some things about his history and over all the history of ballet in America, especially how NYCB went forward after the founders’ deaths, make so much more sense. These were just men trying to make a business run. A business in making art, but a business with budgets and a calendar and all that. The female dancers, for all their beautiful reminiscences of fascinating rehearsals and never-to-be-forgotten tours and performances seem never to have brought up the gritty stuff that Jacques tells about with clarity, charity, and humor.
This was a wonderfully refreshing book because I’ve been guilty of hero and “director” worship as a young and growing artist. Jacques showed that even the great Mr. B wasn’t the perfect dance/dancer creator I had always wished I’d known. I had a handful of teachers I worked so hard for. I know I romanticized the relationships Balanchine fostered with each of his ballerinas in turn, and I wanted to be someone’s inspiration like that. As I grew older and found I had no real talent and had to work amazingly hard just to keep up (and even then often failed), I also learned that many of my beloved mentors were also human. They didn’t need or have the energy to lavish creativity on me, they had their own lives and business ventures to shepherd. I had dear, dear friends who helped me and encouraged me a lot, I still do, but I feel like I’ve done a lot of the work myself. I didn’t have a single teacher pushing me to grow so that I could be used in his or her special creations.
In fact, very few artists get that privilege. It just took me a long time to realize that my not getting it didn’t mean I shouldn’t still try to succeed in dance or music on my own terms.
I’ve read a few more books by current or recent Balanchine dancers, and I’ve followed the company in the news. Most recently I’ve kept up with Kathryn Morgan’s saga and learned a lot about how a dancer even gets into that peculiar company. Maybe I wouldn’t have been ready for it, but I wish I’d had a little more reality mixed in with Farrell’s dream-like memoir at an earlier age.
Balanchine was Georgian. So of course he ate borscht. During one of his hospital stays he requested borscht, and Jacques kindly inserted George’s exact recipe into his book. Since I’m sure enough things similar can be found online, I’m copying it exactly from a photo I took of that page during my reading, misspellings, capitalization, and odd colon use included. (The book wasn’t mine, so this was the best way to record it until I could share it here.)
Copied down by Jacques’ wife Carrie:
Robert Indiana’s Borscht: 1) BROWN 1 lb. BEEF CHUNKS on all sides in oil in skillet; 2)HEAT 2 quarts (8 cups) CHICKEN BROTH in large soup pot: 3) ADD beef chunks; 4 CARROTS, quartered lengthwise and a half; 4 turnips, peeled and quartered, 2 onions, peeled and halved;1/2 bunch CELERY, halved (use upper branches and leaves, reserving lower half for another use); 4) PLACE 1 CABBAGE, cut into 8 wedges (gently place cabbage wedges on top, in a wheel shape);5) CENTER (on top) 1/2 bunch PARSLEY, 1-2 lb.; 3-oz can ITALIAN TOMATOES (with half of the liquid); 6) ADD 1 tsp DRIED DILL, 4 BAY LEAVES, 1 tsp. FINES HERBES, SALT< and PEPPER; 7) SIMMER covered for 2 hours (when reheated, use sour cream dab). SERVES 8.
I think in some ways, as great an artist as he was, Balanchine was much more human than I used to think, which gives me hope as both a human and an artist.