God of the Dance

Classic Arts Features   God of the Dance
As Houston Ballet celebrates the centennial of Balanchine's birth, Laura Jacobs measures the impact of ballet's grandest master.

On January 22, 1904, the great but aging choreographer of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre, Marius Petipa, the man who gave us so many ballet classics (including The Sleeping Beauty), opened his diary and wrote, "All my work is reduced to ashes." That very day, also in St. Petersburg, Georgi Balanchivadze was born, his timing precise and poetic from the start. Inside 24 hours Petipa was answered: classical dance received its future, and the world was given one of the greatest artists of all time, George Balanchine.

Fateful synchronicity and elegant coincidence turn up throughout the life of this amazing artist‹so much so that one begins to believe, yes, all was ordained. At the age of 9, Balanchine would begin study at the Imperial Theatre; he would make his first ballets in the ragged years after the Russian Revolution. In 1924, he would leave his native land with a tiny touring troupe, and down to his last dollar in Paris, would receive a miraculous telegram from another Russian emigre, the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who needed a choreographer for his world-famous Ballets Russes. At 21, Balanchine began making the ballets, among them early masterpieces, that would catch the eye of balletomane Lincoln Kirstein, a rich young intellectual who was himself an impresario in the making. Kirstein wanted to form an American company, launch an American classicism, and he believed that Balanchine was the man to do it. What followed‹first in Connecticut, then in New York, and with detours to South America, Paris, and Hollywood‹was a steady ascent to greatness in little Kirstein-Balanchine companies called the American Ballet, then American Ballet Caravan, then Ballet Society, and finally, definitively, in the autumn of 1948, the New York City Ballet. At this point Balanchine was in his prime and entering the pantheon, compared not to other artists of the dance, but to artistic genius in all fields.

For example, he was said to be like Mozart in the ease and inevitability of his composition, that heartfelt lyricism reaching into wisdom. In his love of Russian themes ‹ folk and fairy tales, snowbound maidens and hands of fate‹he was Tchaikovskian. Yet with that other Russian, Igor Stravinsky, Balanchine pushed the old world into a newly minted modernism, a time-space continuum with machine-age values, a stress on precision, power, rhythm as history, energy as beauty. Balanchine was sometimes compared to Picasso, because his ballets were so often abstract (though with beating human hearts), and also for the sheer scale of his gifts, the way he dwarfed every other choreographer in his lifetime (his ballets number 425). And Balanchine's relationship with his ballerinas‹his muses‹whom he cultivated in daily class, reinvented in his ballets, loved and sometimes married, calls to mind film director Ingmar Bergman, with his similar dream harem of star women. When the comparisons stop, however, Balanchine stands alone in his own wordless yet fully dimensional world, a repertory that is a metaphysical place of visions and risks, joys and losses, flowering love and lengthening, longing, shadows. Music is the floor, space is the ceiling, and the moment‹now‹is everything.

There is no way to explore the breadth and depth of Balanchine in a short essay. In this centennial year, ballet companies around the world are performing the master's work, local lecture programs and international symposia are scheduled, and at least four new books are rolling into print. As a subject for scholarship, Balanchine studies are still in their formative years, but no bookshelf should be without Bernard Taper's Balanchine, Francis Mason's I Remember Balanchine, and Robert Garis's Following Balanchine. Here in Houston, from May 27 through June 6, Houston Ballet honors the centennial with "A Balanchine Celebration," a program of three important masterpieces.

La Valse is first on the program, and it sees Balanchine in his sometime mode of doomy chic. Brilliantly costumed, marvelously eerie, this society dance of mysterious ingenues and the men who pursue them takes a nihilistic plunge. Though choreographed in 1951, it feels like French surrealism of the Forties. In fact, it was made for Tanaquil Le Clercq, who later became Balanchine's wife and whose father was French. In retrospect, the ballet's strange darkness now seems to intuit tragedy for Le Clercq, who contracted polio in 1956 and never walked again.

Theme and Variations ‹ circa 1948‹ends the evening with Balanchine on bended knee to St. Petersburg style. Intimate, majestic, glittering, it's a full-length Tchaikovsky ballet captured inside a crystal ball. A classic.

In between, at the heart of the program, is Apollo, a Houston Ballet premiere. This is Balanchine's oldest surviving ballet, a 1928 work of iconic significance, and a must-see. The story of the young god learning from three muses and then taking his ordained place on Mount Olympus, Apollo is in many ways a portrait of the artist‹Balanchine!‹ as a young man. It contains echoes of Petipa's Sleeping Beauty (a huge influence on the young Balanchine), but where Beauty begins in the court of the Sun King, Apollo lifts to the heavens of the Sun God. In a single work, Balanchine has made a leap from land to air, from classicism to neoclassicism, from 19th-century Tchaikovsky to 20th-century Stravinsky. Indeed, like the young Apollo, he too has grown: from apprentice to artist, from little Georgi to god of the dance.

Laura Jacobs writes for Vanity Fair and The New Criterion. A collection of her dance criticism, Landscape With Moving Figures, will be published by Dance & Movement Press in 2005.

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