So we all know Balanchine was a genius. But apart from his achievements of irreversibly changing ballet vocabulary and staging (he doesn’t ‘create’, God does) one of the most diverse, lasting repertoire of ballet works today, he was also a man of character – of passionate drive, and nonchalance.
“George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker” written by Robert Gottlieb documents the illustrious development of his career and works, and attempts to explain his deep philosophies of dance and music; but possibly most fascinatingly, allows us a glimpse into daily life of the man, compiling true and intimate memories through people who actually knew him. It is one of many biographies about this amazing artist, and a rather nice short and light one to start off with.
It is truly a remarkable story, spanning across the globe from Russia, to Europe, to America; and in different fields, from operas, to ballet companies, to film and Broadway. It is easy to speak of Balanchine’s successes and label him a superhuman; however, this story reveals the hardships and failures that went along with cultivating his talents. Funny to think he was not interested in dance when he was first accepted in to Mariinsky. It is always inspirational to learn the story of how someone seemingly ordinary can become so extraordinary. Though there are discrepancies regarding his own dancing as written in the opinions of the book, there is absolutely no doubt of Balanchine’s choreographic merit.
In addition being a talented musician Balanchine integrated dance and music in intricacies that were never seen before. His works can be seen as simple and yet rich simultaneously. He had great relationships with as well as respect for his dancers, and it shows in the final product onstage. Mr. B, as they called him, inspired them in every rehearsal, specific to his esthetic but always willing to explore, sometimes even using mistakes for the piece. As much as he admired beauty, especially that of the female ballerina, he valued musicality, dynamics and agility in a dancer. For him, dance in one word: energy.
(with Stravinsky, a life-long partnership)
In spite of his vibrancy, Balanchine was, I dare say, a quiet man. And it is predictable considering his childhood isolation from basically being dumped at the school by his parents for his better future and leaving his home country at teenage years only to not see most of his family again. He certainly loved his family, but did not speak of them often, which leads me to a thought, how special is a blood relation? Sure, family is family, and the bonds are irreplaceable and infinite, but do between parent and child, or sibling to sibling, they need to be built just as in any other relationship?
Of some similarity was a sort of disattachment in his marriages. Balanchine had several muses, five of whom became his wife at some point in their lives, and when he loved he was truly passionate. He put women on a pedestal in a sort of veneration, which is not suited for everyone. Often it was a splitting in their professions that caused drifting between the couple as Balanchine needed a muse for creation and inspiration.
Dismissing any eccentricities that I must admit defines every artist, Balanchine was a generous man to the ballet world. He pushed the boundaries of an existing art form while remaining true to its core and virtuoso. I can only imagine from this reading what it must have been like to be taught by him, meet him, or simply to have a peek of him in the studio.
(Photos from two of my favourite Balanchine ballets: Serenade and Apollo)