Burdened by Balanchine: Ballet Must Make Room Onstage for More Than One Genius

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Magic spells, poisons, potions and enchantments may be frequent plot devices at the ballet, but the art form itself is under a bewitchment of its own making. It's the Curse of Balanchine.

We are cursed with George Balanchine, cursed with an overload of his ballets as well as with the ubiquity of the sinewy style he favored, his preference for plotless works on a naked stage, his taste for fast, skinny, emotionally guarded dancers.

Maybe that doesn't sound so bad -- after all, that, in a nutshell, is what ballet looks like in this country. But it wasn't always so. Before Balanchine's dominating influence, in the early to middle years of the last century, ballet was more of a lively American folk art -- cavorting to music by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson -- than the highbrow prize of the connoisseur it became after Balanchine swept in, bringing Bach and Stravinsky with him.

Ballet started out here on a decidedly human scale: It nosed around gas pumps (Lew Christensen's "Filling Station"), sailing ships (Eugene Loring's "Yankee Clipper") and farm folk (Catherine Littlefield's "Barn Dance"). Its subject was the life of the times, and, in concise half-hour works, it centered on personalities: ranch hands, servicemen, outlaws and murderers.

Seen any of them onstage lately?

Balanchine's avant-garde creations knocked ballet sideways, changing it forever. But here's the problem: In his wake, ballet's range of expression has narrowed, not expanded. Gone, in new work, is theater, spectacle, satire, flesh-and-blood characters, the ache of real life, the escape offered by a sharp, piercing little story. Now more than ever, American ballet, artistically speaking, is a homogeneous entity. We are a thoroughly Balanchine nation.

That's pretty impressive considering that the New York City Ballet co-founder created his last work in 1982 and died a year later. Today, Balanchine isn't merely a legend -- he's a hot property. His ballets circle the globe, and in the United States are being danced by chamber-size and larger troupes alike, from the Richmond Ballet to American Ballet Theatre.

Balanchine's ubiquity creates a particular problem for Washington. The Kennedy Center presents more touring companies than any other venue in the country and, with other local stages in the picture, conditions are ripe for overload. In the past six months alone, audiences have seen the annual Balanchine-heavy runs by New York City Ballet and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, along with Balanchine works danced by ABT and the San Francisco Ballet. This week at the Harman Center, the Washington Ballet essays "Rubies," an excerpt from Balanchine's "Jewels."

From a marketing standpoint, this is not a surprise. Balanchine is the blue-chip stock of ballet. And unlike a lot of blue-chip stocks nowadays, it is still a stable investment. As the old saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM -- or for licensing a Balanchine work. After all, who can argue against the visual and musical joys behind his innovations in the speed, virtuosity and urbane glamour of ballet?

Look at the man's background: Balanchine, born in 1904, created his streamlined, stretchy, leggy style by merging old-school Russian technique with modern-art principles and the sex appeal of the Broadway chorus line. He was a product of St. Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theatre, whence would later come Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Serge Diaghilev made him chief choreographer of his Ballets Russes -- the trendsetting troupe of expatriate Russians who counted Picasso, MirĂ³ and Stravinsky among their collaborators. After it folded, Balanchine landed in New York in 1934, where he founded the School of American Ballet, now the nation's top ballet school. He dabbled in choreography for movies and musicals before launching the group that in 1948 became New York City Ballet.

All of those experiences -- the high-art chic, the showbiz, the forceful physicality of Russian ballet and the broken lines and fragmentation that Picasso and Stravinsky were exploring -- surface in Balanchine's work. The bulk of his ballets are abstract, musically driven "pure dance." Even his few narrative pieces are little concerned with reality. Most of his works evoke a cool, purified, distant universe. And always, refinement: He loved tutus and tiaras ("Theme and Variations," 1947), showgirl legs on untouchable goddesses ("Concerto Barocco," 1941) and bracing simplicity. His ballets costumed only in leotards and tights ("Agon," 1957) had the angular, dramatic shock of a Mies van der Rohe house.

Of the more than 400 ballets Balanchine created in his 79 years, roughly 75 are still actively performed. And they are, for the most part, so exquisite it's hard to complain about seeing them over and over. Who can tire of the radiant stasis in "Serenade," the spacious, deconstructed architecture of "The Four Temperaments," the mass precision of "Symphony in C"?

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