Was Choreographer George Balanchine Ahead of His Time-Or of It?

A new book examines the genius and the complexity of the man called the Father of American ballet

Over the past few years, the coronavirus pandemic has upended schools, businesses, and modes of travel in ways that few could have imagined. Our cultural institutions also have not escaped these impacts. Live performances and exhibitions have been suspended and reimagined, raising questions about how the arts will be manifested in the future.

This is no more true than with dance and, specifically, ballet, a form that requires complex movements among performers.

“Dance, and ballet especially, has been historically slow to change,” says Jennifer Homans, founding director of NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. “But the issues of technology and virtual worlds of embodiment have been brought to the fore by the pandemic because so many performances had to go online.

“So the question is: What does a performance look like online? Is it just flat and inexpressive, or do you do it differently? How do you make dance interesting when it’s not in-person? Or do you just say, ‘We’re not going to do that. We are going to be the arena where there is full embodiment. And we need that because so much of our lives are now virtual.’ “

Mr. B book cover

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Ballet as an art form has existed for more than 400 years-notably chronicled by Homans in her award-winning Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet in 2010. An understanding of its rich past may offer guidance in finding a way forward. To help guide her, Homans, a Global Distinguished Professor at NYU, turned to choreographer George Balanchine, who created more than 465 works-and which nearly every ballet company in the world has performed.

In her newly released book, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, Homans, who trained at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, seeks to illuminate the character of the man dubbed “the Father of American Ballet.”

NYU News spoke to Homans about the new publication, the dancers who worked with this groundbreaking choreographer, and how his impact extended far beyond the stage.

You write that in researching the book you delved into archives around the globe as well as “into the vast areas of literature, music, and art”-not to mention the Bible. While incorporating different forms of expression is not unique to ballet, how does it do so in ways that are simply not possible with other “texts”?

Written texts are verbal, and dance is a nonverbal art form. It is of itself, and this was Balanchine’s interest. A rose is just a rose-this is a commonplace idea. But he wanted to apply it to dance-so, a dance is just a dance.

He dealt with abstraction, which in the context of postwar painting usually means getting rid of the human figure, of places, of objects. But, how do you do that in an art form in which the human form is the subject? Balanchine both worked with and against the idea of a story. He always said, there’s a story the minute two dancers walk on stage-but his most abstract dances did not follow a literary story; they were pure music and dance. Just an empty stage, lights, a neutral blue backdrop, dancers, and music.

He did also work with texts. In his production of Don Quixote, for example, he took episodes from Cervantes’ novel. He himself, in the opening performance of the evening, played Quixote. It was an experiment, his own struggle with what to do with text. How do you create a dance that’s going to tell a story, but in dance alone?

He used texts, but he also tried to move dance away from them. It was a paradoxical relationship.

What role did music play in this struggle?

Dance is in a coordinated-but at times tense-relationship with the music. People think of dance as being to the music. He created dance that did not necessarily follow the music, but interacted with it. They were almost like independent texts. You would put these two things together and there would be a tremendous artistic effect in the struggle between them. Dance was a commentary on the music. The musicians involved knew this analytically, but the dancers often didn’t. They were just feeling it and doing it.

You analyze Balachine’s return to the Soviet Union in 1962-his first time back since he left in 1924. One of his hosts dubbed Russia the “home of classical ballet,” to which Balanchine replied, “No, Russia is home of Romantic ballet, America is the home of classical ballet.” Was this Cold War politics or a delineation of true artistic difference?

A bit of both. He was not from an aristocratic background, but he was very much in the White Russian camp and had a deep hatred for the Soviets. A lot of his career was in conflict with what he saw happening to the old Russia, which was probably a fantasy in his mind anyway. Though, the idea that Russia is the home of Romantic ballet was also a delineation of true artistic difference. By that time the Soviets were deeply into dram-balet, a socialist realist form of dance. There were workers. There were people in the fields. And there were always stories.

For Balanchine, he was saying America has-in other words, I have-developed a new and modern dance on a classical basis at the company he co-founded and directed, the New York City Ballet. It’s just dance as dance. It’s not drawing on a 19th century art form, which indeed the Soviets were. It’s drawing instead from the 17th century and 16th century idea of classicism, which in part means creating a worldly vision of the cosmos.

The Soviets reinvented the romantic ballet as an expression of Soviet ideals. Balanchine reinvented ballet in a classical form to express, what he would say, is a freer society.


George Balanchine with the New York City Ballet in Amsterdam, 1965. Ron Kroon / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

You write that Balanchine’s dancers “had a level of professional independence and a possibility of self-fulfillment” that was unusual for many American women in the 1950s. But you also refer to the “power he held over their lives,” sometimes interfering in their personal relationships. Was he ahead of his time-or of it?

One thing I try to do in the book is give a testimony of the women who danced for Balanchine. Balanchine said, “Ballet is woman.” It’s probably apocryphal, but it certainly was his view. Men were important, but not the way women were. His dancers were often young. Sometimes, sixteen or seventeen. They would arrive in New York with a spirit of adventure. Sometimes they would arrive with their mothers. Often they were from divorced families or families without a father. In the early years, they were often from Central European backgrounds. There was a kind of immigrant culture at the New York City Ballet.

It was a little society that he created, and there was an almost cultish aspect to it. I think he was in love with all of his dancers; and they were in love with him. He was jealous, and not really, or exclusively, in a sexual way. He knew that dance took everything. It’s a monkish kind of art, and he didn’t want them to be distracted. So he didn’t like boyfriends, and he didn’t want them to get married, because then they would be, as he put it, “Mrs. Him”. He wanted them to be themselves. These women say that he knew more about them than they knew about themselves, that he gave them their best selves. Some felt it was oppressive, but the majority felt the experience of working with such genius outweighed all.

For Balanchine, the relationship between love and art was crucial. He was married five times. All of his wives were his dancers. His marriages were all artistic relationships. When the women wanted something more, or when he became interested in another dancer, they usually left. There were also other issues-such as weight-and as instruments of dance, he wanted them thin. He chose gorgeous women, by his estimation of beauty. It was all about his vision. And he was ruthless in achieving it.

There were ways in which the company was ahead of its time. It was his vision and there was an autocratic aspect to it in that sense-but there were no stars. This was not Hollywood. He was not like some other dance companies that were focused on the star capacity of their dancers. His were listed alphabetically. They were paid on a scale. There was a ranking, but it was a meritocracy.

You also emphasize that Balanchine changed the way we see the human figure. You write he saw that a woman “could help him reengineer the human body-and maybe reveal her soul.” What do you mean by that?

He was born in 1904. People then, especially women, were much more restricted and covered by material and constrained by corsets. The world was changing-speed, technology, machines, the possibility of movement. His primary interest was in making human movement bigger and freer. He would say-more, more, more. “What are you saving it for? You might be dead tomorrow. Live this dance NOW in the biggest way.” That doesn’t mean something bombastic, but it means the fullest presence possible. He’s famously known for changing dance technique, stripping the body down so that you could see the full human body. It’s not covered up. He wanted to reveal the human form, and he wanted to reveal what it could do. He was very interested in extremes. More turn out, more speed, more precision. When you start to see a body moving that way, it changes the way you move yourself. It’s a very expansive vision of the possibilities of the human form, which is inspired in part by the body as a machine-but, as he once put it, a machine that thinks.

Again, again, again, he would make them repeat movements until they were more alive. For that 30-minute period when you’re on stage, you are conquering death. You’re more alive than you could ever be. And this was an interest of people at the time. How can we conquer death and live in a forever moment? By dancing.

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