PERSONAL FAME was not George Balanchine's trip. Like most really productive dance people, he was preoccupied with drudging, mundane work that takes place indoors at all hours of the day and night, and didn't have any interest in cultivating a personality that glowed in the limelight. As head of the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, and choreographer of a remarkable repertory that has extended the concepts of 20th-century dance, he was an authentic culture hero. In life he declined that role, but now, less than two years after his death, the rush is on to canonize him. Several new books about his life and work, in addition to the two volumes considered here, have been issued in the past year. None of the current Balanchiniana contains much that will add in a startling way to the existing legend, but I assume that strengthening the legend is its purpose.
Bernard Taper's biography, Balanchine, grew from a New Yorker profile into a 1963 book, with an updated section added for a 1974 paperback. The new edition has been extended up to the choreographer's death in 1983, and renovated throughout with new material and editorial second-thoughts. Photographs seem scattered even more generously throughout the book than in the earlier editions, and Taper has unearthed rare material and made some intelligent juxtapositions -- a two-page spread of four successive Apollos, for instance. My favorite picture, from the '20s, shows a dapper Balanchine with cigar and cane, Serge Diaghilev, a blurred but smiling figure in the background, bundled in overcoat and scarf against the Monte Carlo sunshine.
Taper's book is still the most readable and reliable introduction to the sphinxlike Russian who inspired his own brand of balletomania from the Diaghilev era to the present day. Taper draws on personal interviews with Balanchine and his associates beginning in 1958 (unfortunately, none of his sources are thoroughly documented) and on information he gained watching classes, rehearsals and performances. His view of Balanchine, concentrated and anecdotal, shows the human side of a career that was celebrated as much for its unpredictability as for its persistence. Taper notes the milestones: the flight of an ambitious 20-year-old and four other renegade dancers from the traditionalist confines of jittery post-Revolutionary Russia; his triumphs and reverses after being brought to America by Lincoln Kirstein in 1933; the increasingly assured position of the New York City Ballet. Taper reports on great moments like the prodigal's return to Russia in 1962 as head of a world-class ballet company, and adds some colorful detail to the long, sympathetic collaboration with Igor Stravinsky.
TAPER'S VIEW, though privileged, is limited. Part reporter, part chronicler, he doesn't analyze or question why things happened the way they did. We learn nothing about how Balanchine, a foreigner and a visionary in a passionately partisan field, managed to build the empire he did. It's inconceivable, for instance, that control of the dance component of Lincoln Center or acquisition of a multi- million dollar grant from the Ford Foundation in the '60s could have been won on artistic merit alone, but that's how it's told by Taper. Balanchine's relation to the dancers, to the press, to his students, to the producing organization that he headed -- none of this is probed by Taper, who only sees and hears and reports what's offered to him by his principals.
Lincoln Kirstein's role is pivotal, but Taper doesn't indicate anything beyond the official and public dimensions of their partnership. How the team worked is one of the aspects of the Balanchine dynasty that's still to be written, Kirstein not only sponsored Balanchine's immigration and gave him a working foothold here, he knocked over impediments of every sort for 50 years: he raised money, enlisted powerful friends, excoriated the competition and the doubters, explained and rationalized an esthetic Balanchine couldn't be bothered to articulate.
Kirstein's obituary essay for his friend and protege is the most extravagant I've seen of all his gestures on Balanchine's behalf. First printed in The New York Review of Books, it now forms the centerpiece of a memorial volume, Portrait of Mr. B, published by Viking together with the Ballet Society, the umbrella organization Kirstein and Balanchine set up in 1946 to foster their aims. The book's photographs, unlike Taper's selection, are focused on the man as teacher, mover, molder of ballets and of ballet dancers. Except for a few performance shots, they show the master in action -- placing, adjusting, prodding, exhorting, showing how -- a Dr. Coppelius who with his vitality and faith elicits life from his pliant pupils. The Portrait also includes Edwin Denby's famous essay on Agon, two brief interviews Balanchine gave to Jonathan Cott, and a refreshingly concrete estimate of the man's personality by his successor as head of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins.
What Kirstein sets out to do in "A Ballet Master's Belief" is reveal that we've been in the presence of no mere mortal, no mere genius, but a heavenly being. Balanchine was deeply religious himself, and he believed that dancing is a moral pastime. He was also fond of playful metaphors, like comparing dancers to angels, and of semi-mystical references to his artistic preceptors. Kirstein takes all this with deadly faith; he intimates that Balanchine had a personal pipeline to the Infinite, and warns all nonbelievers and dissidents that engaging in other forms of dance is the practice of not just folly but sin.
Building his ponderous case for the moral superiority of Balanchine's art, Kirstein tries to make ballets into icons, their creator into a saint. This is not only extreme but premature. It's Balanchine's ballets that will ensure his immortality, if anything, and though he denied over and over that he was interested in seeing to their continuance after his death, he accepted totally the idea that wonderful composers live on through their music. We must trust his heirs not to seal him off in a shrine of myth-making and sentiment, but to keep his ballets around long enough for history to make its judgment. If he was blessed, he deserves no less.
Other books about Balanchine published recently:
Dancing for Balanchine, by Merrill Ashley assisted by Larry Kaplan (Dutton, $24.95). A personal account of a ballerina's own career under the direction of the master.
Balanchine's Mozartiana: The Making of a Masterpiece, by Robert Maiorana and Valerie Brooks (Freundlich, $18.95). An anatomy of a ballet and the creative processes behind it.
Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works (Viking, $20). A record of the more than 400 ballets created by Balanchine in a career which spanned three decades.