In the year and a half since the death of George Balanchine, the predictable crop of commemorative materials relating to the great choreographer and his work has already yielded a rich harvest. No doubt much more will be forthcoming, and as time puts greater distance between ourselves and Balanchine's life, the perspective on his creative legacy may well become both broader and deeper. But this first outpouring is uniquely valuable in at least one important respect -- the sense of living contact with the master, and hence the felt immediacy of his presence.
Perhaps the most vivid item is a current exhibition at New York's Museum of Broadcasting. "A Celebration of Balanchine: the Television Work" is a powerfully nostalgic and revelatory exhibit of more than 30 hours of video, shown three times daily in 90-minute segments.
The contents cover everything from Balanchine's earliest contact with the medium in the mid-'50s to the systematic sampling of his masterworks in public TV's "Dance in America" series of recent years. Though the exhibit ends this Thursday, the museum's extensive Balanchine holdings are available for individual viewing and study. Also obtainable is a catalogue, with a listing of all known Balanchine performances on TV, and several illuminating essays and interviews on his relationship to the medium.
Though, characteristically, Balanchine began to plan and project in terms of the new technology as early as 1935, he was a somewhat reluctant convert later on, sobered by the obstacles of industry commercialism and lack of concern for artistic effect. "No matter how promising something seems to be when you are first planning it, by the end the artistic considerations get all swallowed up," he told an interviewer in 1962. Yet we have his continued willingness to experiment to thank for a veritable treasure of early documents, recording his work, his dancers and his company -- the New York City Ballet -- at stages of development that might otherwise have passed without trace. And once he was presented with a chance to work hand in hand with producers, writers and directors -- as he was with the "Dance in America" series -- he became as adamant a champion of television as he had once been an adversary.
The earliest among the gems in the Museum of Broadcasting exhibition is an excerpt from "The Ed Sullivan Show" dating from 1955 which has the host introducing the dancers with the phrase "And now, ladies and gentlemen, a complete change of pace." What follows is a beautiful rendering of the "Sylvia Pas de Deux" by the late Andre Eglevsky, the Russian-born virtuoso who was a leading NYCB dancer in the '50s, and Diana Adams, a Virginia-born ballerina who made her stage debut in "Oklahoma!" in 1943, danced some years with Ballet Theatre and became one of Balanchine's NYCB starlets starting in 1950. The whole thing is strongly symbolic of Balanchine's typical melding of Old and New World strands.
Balanchine can be seen in a number of the excerpts, rehearsing and coaching dancers, talking with hosts and interviewers, and in at least one case, performing in one of his ballets (the non-dance role of Drosselmeyer the toymaker in "The Nutcracker" in a 1958 CBS "Playhouse 90" production). An earlier CBS broadcast, in the "Breck Golden Showcase" series, displays Balanchine's first made-for-TV creation, "Noah and the Flood," a collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. Though Balanchine himself was extremely disappointed with the results (the above quote refers to "Noah"), the highly stylized abstractions of the piece not only foreshadow the stagecraft of such later works as the "Persephone" of 1982, but also show how in tune with video concepts Balanchine's mind could be.
Among the precious rarities of the museum's collection are a pair of "Bell Telephone Hour" excerpts, one -- introduced by actress Jane Wyman -- showing the youthful Edward Villella and Patricia McBride in 1961 dancing the "Bluebird Pas de Deux," and another, from 1965, with Jacques d'Amboise and Melissa Hayden in a duet to the snow scene music from "Nutcracker." The choreography herein preserved has long since disappeared, and the dancing of these matchless Balanchine prote'ge's preserves the Balanchinean stylistic ideal of an early period in NYCB history. Interpretations of Balanchine "classics" that have remained in the repertory have also changed much with the years, as an intense but soft-edged duet from "Agon" featuring Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams indicates in a Canadian Broadcasting Co. program from 1960.
The print medium has also seen a blossoming of Balanchiniana. Here's a capsule rundown on the most significant recent publications: "Balanchine: A Biography," by Bernard Taper (Times Books). This is the third, revised edition of the only full-scale biography of Balanchine in English, by the author of two earlier New Yorker profiles of Mr. B. who is also a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. It's far from the last word, either in terms of personal history or artistic development, but it's a fine, eminently readable first approximation, much enlivened by the residue of Taper's privileged personal contacts with Balanchine, inside and outside the studio.
* "George Balanchine," by Don McDonagh (Twayne Publishers). A compact, often insightful monograph focusing on key choreographic landmarks, by a prominent dance critic and scholar.
* "Choreography by George Balanchine, A Catalogue of Works" (Eakins Press/Viking). The definitive choreographic reference, originally published in 1982 in a large-format limited edition at $75, now available in a scrupulously produced hardcover at $20, with recent addenda and corrections extending to such items as this year's staging of "Tarantella" by the Washington Ballet. The 425 entries span Balanchine's work in every medium from the ballet stage to the circus, and the exhaustive cross-referencing further testifies to the volume's caring and exemplary scholarship.
* "Portrait of Mr. B." (Viking). An exquisitely rendered collection of pictures by photographers ranging from Walker Evans and George Platt Lynes to Fred Fehl and Martha Swope, covering the subject from Russian childhood to American maturity, with commentary by Peter Martins, Lincoln Kirstein and Edwin Denby, as well as two of Balanchine's last interviews.
* "Ballet: Bias & Relief," by Lincoln Kirstein (Dance Horizons). A casket of intellectual jewels by the man who brought Balanchine to the United States, helped him found the NYCB, and remained his closest friend and colleague. The essays, some old, some recent, touch upon Balanchine in many ways direct and indirect, as well as such other figures as Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Graham.
* "Balanchine's Ballerinas," by Robert Tracy and Sharon DeLano (Linden/Simon & Schuster). A unique collection of extended interviews with ballerinas closely associated with Balanchine, from Alexandra Danilova and Tamara Geva to Suzanne Farrell, Karin von Aroldingen and Darci Kistler, conducted by a dancer who was a scholarship student at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. Profusely illustrated, but lacks an index.
* "By George, Balanchine" (San Marco Press). A charming Balanchine souvenir in mini-paperbound format, this collection of aphorisms by the master (sample: "I like tall people. I'll tell you why I like tall people. It's because you can see more") would make an ideal inexpensive ($4.95) holiday gift for Balanchine aficionados.