There was ballet. And then there was George Balanchine--who revolutionized and enhanced the art for all time and on an international scale.
Mr. Balanchine, cofounder and chief choreographer of the New York City Ballet and widely acknowledged as one of the great creative artists of this or any era, died early yesterday morning at age 79 in Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. The cause of death was pneumonia, a complication of an illness diagnosed as a "progressive neurological disorder" Mr. Balanchine had suffered from for months.
In March, the New York City Ballet issued a statement indicating that Mr. Balanchine's illness would not permit his active return to the company, and announcing the appointment of Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins as ballet masters-in-chief. Mr. Balanchine was named ballet master emeritus.
Mr. Balanchine leaves one relative--a brother, Andrei Balanchivadze, of the Soviet Union. Memorial services will be held at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Monday; a funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, preceded by a 9 a.m. mass. All of these will be held at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign on Park Avenue and 93rd Street in Manhattan. Interment will be private.
"Although Mr. Balanchine is no longer with us," the New York City Ballet said in a statement yesterday, "the body of his repertory has its own permanent life, not only in performances by his own company, but wherever, all over the world, his works may be seen."
Among many statements from artists and others who knew Mr. Balanchine, choreographer Robert Joffrey said, "He's done more for American ballet than anyone. He has focused it and put it on the map." Singer Beverly Sills, general director of the New York City Opera, called him "one of the great creative geniuses of the 20th century. His influence on the world of dance, and indeed on the entire artistic realm, will live on forever."
Mr. Balanchine formed a unique amalgam from the dance legacy of his native Russia, from the fruits of his precocious apprenticeship under Diaghilev and his enduring artistic liaison with Igor Stravinsky, and not least from the stimulus of his adopted American homeland.
A year after he arrived in this country in 1933, in partnership with Lincoln Kirstein, he established an academy--the School of American Ballet--and a company, eventually to become known as the New York City Ballet. From the school and for the company he created a new kind of ballet dancing, a new, streamlined breed of American dancer, and an extraordinary repertory of ballets--among them such gems as "Apollo," "Prodigal Son," "Serenade," "Concerto Barocco," "The Four Temperaments," "Theme and Variations," "La Valse," "Agon," "Jewels," "Symphony in Three Movements," "Union Jack," and "Vienna Waltzes." Together they led the United States toward its present preeminence in world ballet, and helped raise ballet art to unprecedented heights of esteem and popularity.
Company members and even those within the New York City Ballet's inner circles, including Robbins and Martins, spoke to him and of him, almost invariably, as "Mr. Balanchine" or "Mr. B," an indication of the sense of distance he customarily maintained.
He was born in St. Petersburg on Jan. 22, 1904, as Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze--it was Diaghilev, when he hired him for the Ballets Russes in 1924, who suggested the change to George Balanchine. He received his early training at the Imperial School of Ballet and danced with the Maryinski Theater Ballet as a youth. After Diaghilev's death in 1929, he worked with several other companies, including the Royal Danish Ballet, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Paris Opera and a troupe of his own, Les Ballets 1933, before immigrating to the U.S. at Kirstein's invitation.
Women and ballet were a single indivisible category in Balanchine's view of the world--his four marriages (to Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil Le Clercq), as well as his youthful open romantic entente with Alexandra Danilova, bound him to ballerinas with whom he was intimately associated on professional and artistic levels. It was no secret that most of his major ballets were inspired by his feminine idol at any given period in his life.
Mr. Balanchine became an American citizen in 1939, and remained thereafter vociferously proud of his foster homeland. In matters of dress, he liked the Western style, and habitually wore string ties or bandanas (or ascots, on occasion) in preference to conventional neckties. There was a conspicuous irony in his admiration of America and its ways--he adored democracy, insisted on a "no-star" system of rank and publicity in his company, and ruled it in as absolute and totalitarian a fashion as those of the czars and commissars. He looked upon the company as his children, and they submitted to his hegemony over their lives, for the most part, willingly and unquestioningly.
He was also capable of being petty, even cruel, on occasion, and he could be ruthlessly demanding in pursuit of perfection: the number of dancers reduced to tears in class or rehearsal was legion. When Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina upon whom Mr. Balanchine had lavished the most generous creative attention in his career, announced in 1969 that she was marrying Paul Mejia, a young dancer in the company, Mejia was dismissed and Farrell permitted to join him in virtual exile for five years (she returned to the New York City Ballet and Mr. Balanchine's good graces in 1975).
In public, he was relaxed, offhand, witty, opinionated, alternately humble and boastful. He loved to excoriate other choreographers, without naming names, for what he considered choreographic "crimes" against composers--"It's so awful to see what they do to his Brahms' Piano Concerto, the B Flat, for example. They can't put you in jail for it, so people go right ahead," he once declared. His Russian accent and his personal mannerisms--the subject of innumerable clandestine imitations within the company and without--lent his presence a colorful aura that he well knew how to exploit. Yet all of the public badinage seemed a mask, a role he played, to fend off any genuine probing of his innermost self.
Despite his considerable pride, he was devoid of airs or pretensions. He never adopted the title "artistic director," preferring "ballet master" with its implication of craftsmanship and professionalism. And if imagination was the father of so many of his ballets, necessity was--as he never failed to point out--the mother of most. He created ballets to fill the specific needs of the company, its dancers, its management, its sponsors and its public--for all their inspiration, these were works "made to order".
In the archives of artistic endeavor since the dawn of Western society, George Balanchine has earned a secure place among the elect. In his own realm of dance, his position is even more imposing. The recently published "Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works" (Eakins Press Foundation, 1983, a monumental volume) contains 425 entries, dating from 1920 through 1982, and ranging from full-length ballets to minor, incidental contributions Mr. Balanchine made to such enterprises as shows or films. It's a phenomenal number by any standard, and even if the bulk of these items has already disappeared, the residue of recoverable material is enough to make Mr. Balanchine's repertory the most voluminous in ballet history.
But numbers alone scarcely signify the extent of his genius. Perhaps more than anything else it is the encylopedic range of his themes and manners that seems so awesome. The Balanchine repertory encompasses the Old World ("Ballet Imperial," "Coppelia") and the New ("Stars and Stripes," "Western Symphony"); the traditional ("The Nutcracker," "Chopiniana") and the contemporary ("Agon," "Episodes"); the serious ("Symphony in Three Movements," "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze'") and the lighthearted ("Harlequinade," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier"); the recondite ("Ivesiana," "Metastaseis and Pithoprakta") and the popular ("Who Cares?" "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ); romanticism ("Liebeslieder Walzer," "Meditation"), lyricism ("Emeralds," "Elegie"); architectural elegance ("Symphony in C") and much more. With the possible exception of the ice rink, there isn't a medium or an audience for dance Mr. Balanchine didn't address, including Broadway musicals, opera, films, television and in one celebrated instance ("The Ballet of the Elephants," in collaboration with Stravinsky, for 51 animals and 50 ballerinas), the circus.
His worldwide influence has been so great as to be almost incalculable--aside from his effects, direct and subliminal, on the choreography of his contemporaries, a list of companies around the globe that have staged Balanchine ballets takes up six pages in the Eakins catalogue, and among them are virtually all the leading classical troupes of this country, including American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the San Francisco Ballet and the Pennsylvania Ballet as well as the major European companies outside the Soviet Union.
The fundamental ingredients of the Balanchine style can be fairly well pinpointed. Most notable is the virtually infallible sense of kinetic logic in his work--the sense of connection, relatedness and purpose that makes dance movement seem to flow from phrase to phrase in a natural and inevitable progression. Allied with this was Mr. Balanchine's gift for structural economy--his dances are often complicated but never unintelligibly dense, and he had an aversion for superficial or merely virtuosic embellishment--he used lifts sparingly, for instance, and always for specific formal or expressive ends.
His basic step vocabulary was the academic one he inherited from his St. Petersburg schooling, but from "Apollo"--his first original work to Stravinsky's music, in 1928--onward through his later "neo-classic" ventures, he introduced more and more daring eccentricities, dislocations and inversions (flexed, rather than pointed, feet, saucily jutting hips, turned-in postures, odd, gymnastic falls and supports).
He loved to exploit the native American speed, energy and athleticism he so vigorously cultivated in his dancers, but he shunned such traditional bravura maneuvers as multiple fouettes or circles of barrel turns. Though he seldom used actual jazz or popular dance steps per se, he could imbue the very texture of a ballet with the rhythmic elan and syncopation of jazz. In ensemble work, he was fond, like Petipa, of shifting, intricate geometric configurations, and he was also given to elaborately evolved braidings, loopings and tunnel formations, in which the dancers would weave exquisite, airy tapestries through a linking and unlinking of arms and hands. He also, like any artist of consummate powers, could devise seemingly endless moments of inspired surprise--unexpected shapes, twists or gestures that would suddenly illuminate or epitomize an entire passage.
Above all, there was Mr. Balanchine's profound musical sensibility. A thoroughly trained musician--his power to read even the most difficult scores fluently at first sight astonished even his musically sophisticated colleagues--he acknowledged music as his primary source of inspiration. Yet he never let the relation of his choreography to the music be one of timid subservience. The dance had to have an independent life of its own; it had to answer to the music, to be faithful to its structure and spirit, without being a mere transcription or analogue.
He could also unearth and disclose facets of musical import that the ear might never perceive unaided. Stravinsky was a convincing witness on this point: "To see Balanchine's choreography of the 'Movements' is to hear the music with one's eyes; and this visual hearing has been a greater revelation to me, I think, than to anyone else. The choreography emphasizes relationships of which I had hardly been aware--in the same way--and the performance was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result," he once wrote.
Stravinsky was the composer Mr. Balanchine turned to most frequently and worked most closely with on a personal basis, but the list of composers whose music Mr. Balanchine chose to choreograph testifies to the tremendous girth and variety of his musical appetite, running from Bach, Handel, Beethoven and Mozart to Iannis Xenakis, Virgil Thomsom, Henri Sauguet, John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. As Kirstein once put it, "He raped the musical repertory."
So comprehensive and diversified is Mr. Balanchine's lifework that it contains within it the contradiction of every generalization that's ever been made about his choreography or his predilections--the exceptions are as common as the rules.
Mr. Balanchine has been widely heralded (or in some quarters, castigated) as the champion and purveyor of "abstract," plotless ballet. It is true that he insisted on the primacy of movement in the gamut of dance expression, and that his works helped greatly to educate the public to the values and pleasures of "pure" dance. "We must first realize that dancing is an absolutely independent art, not merely a secondary accompanying one," he once said. "The important thing in ballet is the movement itself, as it is the sound which is important in a symphony. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle, not the story, is the essential element."
Yet he was also the creator of such works as "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Don Quixote," "Prodigal Son," "La Sonnambula" and numerous other ballets of an indisputably narrative character. He may have been the creator--he was certainly an ingenious exponent--of the "neo-story" ballet, to coin a term. In a ballet such as the extraordinary "Divertimento" from "le Baiser de la Fee," he gave us, if not explicit narrative, then assuredly an emotional and dramatic gist, along with design that may be properly termed abstract.
Mr. Balanchine was also said to be partial to women in his choreography, his company and his ballets--"Ballet is woman" was probably his most frequently quoted aphorism. In writing about his quasi-autobiographical version of "Don Quixote" he said: "Every man wants an inspiration. For the Don it was Dulcinea, a woman he sought in many guises. I myself think that the same is true in life, that everything a man does he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life and you believe in something and I believe in that."
Yet the man who "discovered" and nurtured the careers of Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, Melissa Hayden, Patricia McBride, Violette Verdy, Gelsey Kirkland, Suzanne Farrell, Merrill Ashley and Darci Kistler, to skim the distaff surface, was also mentor and proud advocate of Andre Eglevsky, Francisco Moncion, Edward Villella, Jacques d'Amboise, Arthur Mitchell, Helgi Tomasson, Ib Andersen and Peter Martins, among many other male dancers of superlative caliber.
It has been observed that over the years the New York City Ballet has found employment for at most one or two black dancers at a time, and that the company did not exactly set a sterling model for affirmative action. On the other side of the ledger are deeds that speak by themselves for Mr. Balanchine's basic convictions: aside from his fostering of Arthur Mitchell as a dancer of sovereign classical mettle, and as early as 1940, Mr. Balanchine staged "Cabin in the Sky" for Broadway, one of the few with an all-black cast of the period. As a memorial to the slain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 Mr. Balanchine choreographed Stravinsky's "Requiem Canticles" for a one-time only performance; in the following year, Kirstein and Mr. Balanchine were named officers of the new Dance Theatre of Harlem, which had a healthy stock of Balanchine ballets to help launch its first seasons. In 1929, Mr. Balanchine choreographed and danced in a film called "Dark Red Roses"--it was the first "talkie" to be made in England. Also in London, for Sir Oswald Stoll's Variety Shows, Mr. Balanchine choreographed a version of Liszt's "Liebestraum" using the Coliseum's giant revolving stage as a phonograph record, with a small dog in the middle as "His Master's Voice," and the dancers as phonograph needles.
His "breakthrough" choreography for the 1936 Rodgers & Hart musical "On Your Toes," introducing dance as an integral plot element, spoofing classical ballet and adopting the Broadway mode and tap dance in the celebrated "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" finale, was brought back to life in the Kennedy Center's revival, now playing on Broadway. In "Babes in Arms," another Rodgers & Hart show of the period, Mr. Balanchine introduced a further, much imitated innovation--the "dream ballet." In Hollywood in 1940, Mr. Balanchine staged a condensed version of "Swan Lake," Act II, for Darryl F. Zanuck's "I Was an Adventuress," with a cast including, along with ballerina Vera Zorina, Erich von Stroheim, Peter Lorre, and Mr. Balanchine himself, portraying the orchestral conductor Fortunio Bonanova.
In 1950 Mr. Balanchine undertook the first of several collaborations with Jerome Robbins, then a member of the New York City Ballet--the ballet, "Jones Beach," was about seaside flirtations; the dancers wore bathing suits by Jantzen, and in one section 7 ballerinas on pointe danced as mosquitoes. When CBS-TV aired the first commercial color telecast in 1951, part of the program consisted of excerpts from Mr. Balanchine's then-new ballet "La Valse," to the celebrated Ravel score. In 1953, Mr. Balanchine provided the stage direction for the American premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" at the Met. And in 1967, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Mr. Balanchine's first original full-length ballet (choreographed and premiered in 1962), became the first feature-length ballet movie produced in this country.
When Mr. Balanchine made a boner, it was often--in the words of Fiorello La Guardia--"a beaut." Perhaps the most notorious instance, not long before the avalanche of masterpieces for the '72 Stravinsky Festival, was the 1971 ballet "PAMTGG." The title was derived from the slogan "Pan Am Makes The Going Great," and the musical score was an elaboration of a TV jingle--intended as a futuristic airport ballet, with elaborate and stupefyingly costly plastic costumes by Irene Sharaff, the piece was dubbed by one reviewer "an SST-sized flop."
Mr. Balanchine left us his own prescription for the ideal choreographer: "You must go through tradition, absorb it, and become in a way a reincarnation of all the artistic periods that have come before you . . . . Then you put everything together--your dancing technique, your preparation in tradition, your knowledge of music, your ability--and something happens. A ballet is born." More extravagantly and completely than anyone else we know of in history, he fulfilled this order. He was a conduit from the past of ballet to its future, and he created a new species of ballet at once classical, contemporary and American.
For all his scope and diligence, he left some things undone. His last completed opus turned out to be "Variations for Orchestra," fittingly enough to the music of Stravinsky, a brief, poignantly intricate, intimate and idyllic solo for Suzanne Farrell. But he dreamed of mounting a sumptuous production of Petipa's "The Sleeping Beauty" someday for his beloved New York City Ballet--it was the work in which he himself first appeared on stage, as a child, and the youthful enchantment never left him. He staged excerpts from it, but he always spoke of the complete ballet as of something almost unattainable--it would cost too much, take too much time, require too lavish a setting. There were also unfinished creative projects, most notably the "Birds of America" ballet--a tribute to Audubon--that he planned and spoke of for years.
For many of those immersed in the dance world in recent decades, the idea of ballet without George Balanchine has seemed inconceivable.
His absence raises sundry difficult and perturbing questions. What will become of his ballets without his nourishing care and vivifying touch? What will be the future of the New York City Ballet under the leadership of Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins? Will--or should--the dancers strive to retain the "Balanchine look?" Can they do so, and for how long?
His death has opened a creative chasm in the dance world that may take decades to fill, if it is ever filled.