That George Balanchine was a great artist everybody now seems to recognize. What is less talked about is what a colossal career he had.
He made his first ballet at age 5 and never stopped until age 78, when, gravely ill with a neurological disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, he finally was persuaded to check into a hospital. He died there a year later, in 1983, having created not just 400 ballets but also the finest ballet troupe in the world, the New York City Ballet, and also this country's premier dance academy, the School of American Ballet.
Working on these three fronts--his repertory, his company, and his school--he created a wholly new style for ballet. Taking the noble old Russian style in which he was trained, he shot it through a sort of cyclotron, so that it came out re-energized, accelerated, "packed," with the dancers doing six steps in the time it formerly took them to do one.
As he worked out this style, it spread. More than 50 American ballet companies now perform Balanchine's works. (Indeed, most of the leading American ballet companies now are directed by his ex-dancers.) And as his style spread, it changed the way people saw ballet. To eyes used to his work, other styles, however glamorous, came to seem finicky (the English style) or stagy (the Russian). He shifted the axis of the entire art. No other artist in the 20th Century--not Picasso, not Stravinsky--has had so huge an effect on his field.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 7, 1991 Home Edition Book Review Page 11 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
In Joan Acocella's review of "I Remember Ballanchine" (June 30, Page 1), Suzanne Farrell's "Holding on to the Air," not Gelsey Kirkland's "Dancing on My Grave," should have been cited as an example of a "memoir by a dancer who remembers (Ballanchine) with love." Also, a caption was omitted for the accompanying photograph. The photo was of George Balanchine in rehearsal at the New York City Ballet, demonstrating a move to David Richardson.
Compared with his achievement, the literature on Balanchine is still very small. There are two inadequate biographies, a superb catalogue of his works, and an assortment of memoirs by dancers who remember him with love (e.g., Gelsey Kirkland, "Dancing on My Grave"). But the list is growing, the most recent entry being "I Remember Balanchine," a collection of mini-memoirs gathered via interview and edited by Francis Mason, the editor of Ballet Review and the co-author of "Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets."
This book is like a big cocktail party, with lots of foreign accents (the Russian friends) and lots of jewelry clanking (the ballerinas). Two of Balanchine's four wives are there, and a number of his girlfriends. His conductors also are there, and his wardrobe supervisor and his urologist. But mostly what we have are his dancers, telling how he trained them and what he was like. Certain things they agree on: how hard his daily class was, how they scurried to please him.
Again and again they tell us how he favored women over men, how he begged his dancers not to emote but just to dance ("Nobody, dear, is interested in your tears," he told one dancer), how what he wanted more than anything else was a fresh, clean look. They also swap stories, so that we get to find out what his favorite wine was (Chateau Haut-Brion) and what he felt was the proper way to make borscht (bake the beets, don't boil them) and how, when he was at his country house, he so much enjoyed washing his car that when he was finished with his own, he would often proceed to wash the other cars on the block.
We are told what his morning routine was: how, after breakfast, he would sit in his underwear and iron his clothes for an hour or so while talking to his assistant, Barbara Horgan, over the phone. We find out how much money he made (not much, and what he made he often gave back to the company) and what he thought of other choreographers ("Tudor should have been a nuclear scientist or something"). We also get a lot more gossip about his marriages than we should have gotten, considering that all the wives are alive to read this book.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of private agendas. The Soviet ballet historian Yuri Slonimsky, whose feelings about Russia's greatest choreographer electing to spend his career outside Russia can easily be guessed, is at pains to point out that all of Balanchine's work is directly descended from the Russian influences that he absorbed before he fled his country at age 20. Paul Mejia, who was squeezed out of New York City Ballet when he married the woman Balanchine was in love with, Suzanne Farrell, goes on at length about how much he is like Balanchine and how Balanchine had "adored" him. William Weslow, another dancer whom Balanchine got rid of, gives an interview that would make a very interesting psychoanalytic study: It is all about touching and being touched by Balanchine, hurting him and being hurt by him, and the pleasures of hurting. Readers interested in the dirty parts will want to turn immediately to Weslow's section.
Through all this, a picture of Balanchine gradually silts up. He was a calm, quiet, unpretentious man with a beautiful, slightly Oriental face--hawk nose, high cheek bones--and a facial tic that made him seem to sniff. (When Weslow once imitated his tic in front of him, he said, "Don't do this nose. I do this nose. You dance. ")