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Haunted by Dead Souls and Lively Angels: Jennifer Homans’s "Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century" [by Mindy Aloff]

Balanchine_teaching_11 Balanchine_teaching_plie

Mr. B. airborne (left), and in a deep plié during a 1961 teacher workshop. Photograph © Nancy Lassalle

George Balanchine (1904-1983) is generally considered the greatest--and, with 425 known works, the most prolific-- choreographer of the twentieth century, possibly of any century. By the time that Jennifer Homans, his newest biographer (herself an erstwhile professional ballet dancer and the author of Apollo’s Angels, the much-heralded history of ballet) decided some ten years ago to write a book about Balanchine, his life and work had been examined intensely in several languages.

First off, in English alone, there were five critically appreciated book-length Balanchine biographies (by journalist Bernard Taper, whose book was based on his interviews with Balanchine for The New Yorker; by Richard Buckle, the critic and biographer of Serge Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky; by the ballerina Moira Shearer, star of the film The Red Shoes; by Robert Gottlieb, the head of Alfred A. Knopf and a member of NYCB’s board who had programmed company seasons for ten years as a volunteer; and by the music critic and biographer Terry Teachout). Francis Mason’s anthology of memoirs I Remember Balanchine, which runs to six hundred pages, could be considered a sixth biography.  Balanchine himself had (with the editorial assistance of Mason) already published a long autobiographical essay on his career up to his early years in the U.S. and--assisted editorially by Lincoln Kirstein, with whom he had co-founded both the New York City Ballet and its affiliated School of American Ballet--theoretical essays on music and choreography and on the filming of ballet. 

Kirstein, on his own, had published two books on the history of NYCB plus a personal memoir; and Balanchine had given long, unguarded interviews concerning his thought processes to Ivan Nabokov and Elizabeth Carmichael at Horizon Magazine, to the Russian journalist Solomon Volkov, and to essayist and poet Jonathan Cott. Furthermore, scores of his dancers and nondancing colleagues had produced remembrances of him, and biographies and other studies of Balanchine’s collaborators contain extensive information. There were the unpublished memoirs of him (by ballerinas Ruthanna Boris and Karin von Aroldingen)—not to speak of the many studies of his ballets, beginning with historian Nancy Reynolds’s Repertory in Review, critic Nancy Goldner’s two excellent collections of essays, and the collected reviews and penetrating essays of Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce. And there is the large section on him in the immense oral history by dancer Frederic Franklin, Balanchine’s choice as ballet master at Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where Mr. B worked in 1940 and then again, as the company’s resident choreographer, from 1944 to 1946.

And when Homans was starting, there were already available many analyses of his choreographic process in the video programs that constitute The Interpreters Archive and of The Archive of Lost Choreography, produced by The George Balanchine Foundation. (In these film shoots, currently numbering 75 and counting, the original principals and/or early principal casts of individual ballets, going back to 1925, coach younger dancers to pull from their dancing bodies what Balanchine had asked for when the works were being made.) 

So, when a press release from Random House, the U.S. publisher of Homans’s Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century, and the dust jacket of Granta’s British edition of the book present it as the “first major” biography of its subject, a reader familiar with the literature is brought up short.

More perplexing than that are the covers of the U.S. and UK editions. Their common source is an image by Martha Swope showing a rehearsal moment from Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, a ballet Balanchine made for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell in 1968, based on the number he’d choreographed for the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes. On both book covers, Swope’s photo has been severely tampered with, but more objectionable is that they present the relationship of Balanchine and Farrell as a summarizing illustration of Homans’s title, “George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century.”

Farrell was a very great dancer indeed, but to encourage the notion that her relationship with Balanchine overshadows his entire career is not only distorting but is also unfair to the book, which diligently attempts to relate his story from cradle to grave. Homans offers enough here for a small monograph about what made Farrell’s dancing unique to Balanchine, viz. that, by choice, she did not use her technique in service of conventional models of perfection, which was fortunate, as Balanchine did not want perfection. Homans is fascinated by how their mutual experiments with Farrell’s capabilities led the ballerina to make impeccably arresting musical choices freshly at every performance and to look beautiful even when her body was violating academic rules of classic dance: That is, Farrell somehow intuited what Balanchine really wanted from dancing and, even more, to his delight eventually taught him what he ought to want.

Continue reading "Haunted by Dead Souls and Lively Angels: Jennifer Homans’s "Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century" [by Mindy Aloff]" »

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