Corps Values

Mr. B: George Balanchine's 20th Century by jennifer homans. new york: random house. 784 pages. $40.

The cover of Mr. B: George Balanchine's 20th Century

A QUICK GLANCE at the facts of George Balanchine’s life suggests that he was destined to be a great choreographer. Born in 1904, he studied at what was then the most important ballet academy in the world, the Imperial Theater School in St. Petersburg; in the ’20s, he made dances in Europe for what was then the most important company in the world, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; by midcentury, in the United States and with his own troupe, he would finish creating what is still probably the most important choreographic canon in the world, Balanchine’s ballets. But Jennifer Homans’s new biography shakes this story free from a sense of fate. Homans is a former professional dancer (she trained at the school Balanchine cofounded), a dance critic, a scholar of history, and the director of the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University; her book offers more analysis than previous biographies, as well as more information. The story is not different, entirely—just more intricate, connected, complex. But nimble, too. Balanchine once summarized his aesthetic as “mobility,” and Mr. B is never slow.

A life of dedicated genius, then, unspools with renewed contingency. Georgi Balanchivadze wasn’t meant for ballet school. He merely accompanied his sister to an audition. But he got in, she didn’t, and he began life as a boarder that same day. Later, in the chaos of the Russian Revolution, he could have gone to Georgia—his father’s home—but chose to stay in dangerous, exciting St. Petersburg. His eventual emigration west seems chancy; one dancer scheduled to go with him died just weeks before in an ominous accident. Homans is especially good at sketching the crumbling world from which Balanchine emerged and the tumultuous years that hustled him into maturity: he was hungry and freezing, but he absorbed avant-garde aesthetics and began to create. He kept creating in Germany, England, France—settings equally influential, artistically, and with more to eat. No one knows for sure how he found Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario of modernist dance. If he hadn’t, he might not have found Igor Stravinsky, the composer for Balanchine’s first surviving masterpiece, Apollo (1928). Diaghilev died, and Balanchine almost did: he recovered from tuberculosis in a mountain sanatorium. After that? Different stages, places. He might have settled in Paris; a major company there needed a choreographer. A jealous colleague prevented that. Which left him ready to listen to Lincoln Kirstein, an American with money and taste and a vague plan for ballet in his home country. Balanchine left Europe in 1933. “He had a knack,” Homans writes, “for swallowing dying civilizations whole and getting out.” 

Not a strategy, exactly. Balanchine “let things happen to him,” Homans writes. “He was always ready to walk away and move on.” Homans describes this, persuasively, as a product of inner conviction. Balanchine was known for composure amid chaos, and it’s not hard to read the same in dances he made, where tradition centers innovation even as instability galvanizes discipline. It’s a key combination. He is famous for the purity of his plotless, character-less ballet (among plenty of obviously narrative pieces), but his choreography never just reinforces a classical standard. It pushes balance off-balance, recovers symmetry from threat, realizing its formalist urge by continually shedding and regenerating form. In Balanchine’s art, Homans summarizes, a choreographic “home” is “made and remade at every turn.” And in Balanchine’s life, an ordinary home was equally elusive. Even the United States provided no reliable support at first. Kirstein and Balanchine struggled to maintain a viable ballet troupe, despite the wonders of Balanchine’s new work—and Balanchine was almost deported, and he fell ill, and the two men parted, and then war broke out. After, did it really make sense to try again? They did, and again struggled financially, as Balanchine made more masterpieces and Kirstein somehow balanced the books. The founder of City Center, moved by what he saw, eventually gave Balanchine’s dancers a suitable venue. Still, only a lucky grant from the Ford Foundation, in 1963, made the enterprise secure. Balanchine never settled in. Facing a strike in 1980, he told dancers he was once more ready to walk. “This is the fifth company, and we will make the sixth.” He had less than three years to live. As a kid, I read about this moment with shock (in Toni Bentley’s Winter Season); surely Balanchine would not have abandoned the New York City Ballet! At this point in Mr. B I was nodding along. Balanchine’s statement was a petulant threat (he hated unions) backed by a long practice. He could start over. The whole thing could go another way, because it always could have. 

The sense of chance matters in part because of Balanchine’s place in ballet history. His art seemed to need, for a long time and perhaps still, the legitimizing effects of his genius. Jean Renoir “justifies cinema,” David Thomson wrote; George Balanchine justifies ballet. Preserving a tradition while demonstrating its continued relevance, his works settle the question of ballet as an aesthetically formidable genre. This made his death unsettling. Many dance writers and watchers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries worried over the preservation of Balanchine’s choreography and company while scanning the horizon for the next genius. (I’m not exempting myself from this.) Homans’s Apollo’s Angels, an elegant and authoritative history of ballet published in 2010, pretty much ends with Balanchine. After him she sees little: “Ballet is dying.” The epilogue is called “The Masters Are Dead and Gone.” A dozen years on, though, ballet is not dead. Balanchine’s legacy seems more variously secure and less rigidly defended. And Mr. B, without making predictions, tempers the dolorous ending of Apollo’s Angels. The biography tacitly supports ballet optimism by demonstrating, with its thorough configurations of circumstance, that great dances are difficult to engineer or maintain. (Balanchine was always altering his work—for new dancers, new venues, because someone forgot steps.) 

Great dances arise, moreover, from all sorts of contexts. Mr. B shows this, too. The timeless Concerto Barocco, for example, a jazzy, pristine, Bach-scored magnificence that is equally complex and limpid, premiered in Rio de Janeiro on a 1941 tour of South America put together by Nelson Rockefeller at the Roosevelt administration’s office of “inter-American affairs,” a trip during which Kirstein surreptitiously gathered information on antifascist politics and Balanchine recovered from marital heartache by “feeding” steaks to Marie-Jeanne—the dancer who made Barocco’s tricky math “so lush, so sensual,” in the words of an eyewitness. Homans’s synergy of analysis and research finds more in ballets as independent works by describing more about their incidental coming-to-be. Her thrilling description of Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972), dancers of which sustain “multiple rhythms and dissolving centers in their bodies” as if their “speed and skill . . . could keep the score on track,” gains from her narrative of the frenetic run-up to its premiere—the underrehearsed orchestra, the jittery cast. Biography is not just about establishing an original or authentic version of something, the book suggests. It’s also about remembering the potential in any set of specifics.

The most alluring specifics open the “closed world” of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. The deep, extensive sourcing in Mr. B uses journalism, diaries, manuscripts, official and unofficial records in multiple languages, and research in fields ranging from art history to political science—including important recent work from dance and music scholars like Stephanie Jordan, Elizabeth Kendall, and Kara Yoo Leaman. Even among this wealth, however, Homans’s interviews with dancers constitute a revelatory archive. They put readers in the rehearsal studio, the stage wings, the tour hotel. We can dip into decades of the company classes where Balanchine worked out his technique—and shared his metaphors, stories, and strange dreams (one day, of eating yogurt). This leads to some uncertainty, though, as Homans’s generalizations can be hard to place. “He had an X-Ray vision and a love of each and every woman . . . he really did know them better than they knew themselves”: Quotation-less prose like this seems too ready to channel a company orthodoxy. Or to channel Balanchine himself. Describing the end of his unofficial marriage with the great dancer Alexandra Danilova, Mr. B explains that “it is possible to have a brilliant mind and a simple, almost childish heart. A bereft heart. The kind of heart that hides from the mind and really just wants to be left alone.” Some of the almost-free-indirect discourse left me wanting a finer calibration of the varying distances biographical narration allows. Homans’s sketches of supporting characters—and there are so many to introduce—can be tightly vivid, but a few seem uncertain, too, in their point of view. At times I just wanted more—about Danilova, or Maria Tallchief (the great dancer whom Balanchine married in 1946). 

When it comes to the central figure, Homans presents a consistent if complex picture. Her Balanchine is, from almost first to last, an idealist, so troubled by the distance between humanity and divinity that he had to believe they could meet. A choreographer’s medium intensified the challenge. Perfection of the body does not mean a preference for matter over spirit so much as a conviction that matter could become spiritual. Supposedly “abstract” ballets, therefore, are full of feeling, and the ballet-maker who said “don’t think, just dance” depended on the personalities of individual dancers. Balanchine wanted them to find an essence truer than acting. He wanted the drama of their effort to cut closer than plot. In this was freedom: not “free will” or “happiness,” Homans explains, but “the pursuit of an existence beyond earthly three-dimensional space.” Homans deepens a generally familiar account with the abundance of her facts, insights, and quotations. She includes new-to-me selections from an article draft, “the only surviving evidence” in Balanchine’s “own hand of how he thought about making dances,” and a coauthored “white paper” about ballet in the US. She also pinpoints a source for Balanchine’s idealism: expulsion from Russian religion and Russian classical dance. He was always trying to re-create his homeland, Homans reminds us; look at how many people involved with his companies were recent immigrants. 

These immigrants built in and on a US culture, of course. Surprisingly, Homans’s book does less with Balanchine’s American worlds than his Russian, German, and French ones. Learning that other dance companies were jealous of the Ford Foundation grant, a reader might be jolted to remember how many other dance companies existed in this country. And while Balanchine came into his greatest strength in a specific postwar context, the book that skillfully limns the creative climate of 1920s Berlin has relatively little to say about the writers and painters and critics and designers of late 1940s and 1950s New York. Homans provides more on Broadway and Hollywood in the ’30s and early ’40s: though Mr. B treats this period as an “interregnum,” when Balanchine focused less on classical ballet and made money in films and musicals, it’s a crucial passage. He glued metal to his shoes so Ray Bolger could teach him tapping, used movie cameras and sets to rethink pas de deux blocking, collaborated with Katherine Dunham on steps for the all-Black cast of Cabin in the Sky. He took in social dances, chorus lines, Fred Astaire—whom he compared to Bach. 

What Homans justly calls “the vital influence” of Dunham, and the vital influences of the whole period, show up in Balanchine’s choreography—rhythm, lifts, group dynamics. They also clarify the potential and affinities of his overall aesthetic. Balanchine’s devotion to artistic idealism supports his attention to artistic form, his need to estrange the enlivening particulars of a human situation and the ordered paradigms by which it could be redeemed (or might be reduced). The gap between what is and what could be then becomes a field of possibility. A range of techniques operated there. When Balanchine worked with the Nicholas Brothers—the great Black tap-dancing duo he “personally recruited,” Homans writes, for Babes in Arms on Broadway—he asked if they had ballet training, and his question suggests recognition as much as condescension. (The connection comes from Constance Valis Hill’s scholarship. And this is not to say that Balanchine and his work were free of racist essentialism—far from it, as Homans explains in discussions of choreography and casting.) Certainly, the play of constraint and liberation evident on the stages and in the studios of postwar US art blends European aesthetic conventions with other, and especially African, artistry. Balanchine is part of this time and place. He had been working on a stripped-down, high-stakes classicism since the ’20s, certainly, but found its most powerful expression beginning in the ’40s—in Barocco, in The Four Temperaments, and then in many others, such as Stravinsky Violin Concerto, after.

Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in a pose from George Balanchine's Agon, New York, 1957. Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library
Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in a pose from George Balanchine's Agon, New York, 1957. Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library

One climax is Agon, from 1957—the moment when “Balanchine had become Balanchine,” Homans writes. She emphasizes its European associations: composed and choreographed by two Russians (it was Stravinsky and Balanchine’s most important collaboration), titled in Greek, organized into French baroque types (bransle, sarabande). But Agon is also very American, choreographed by a recent US citizen to a score commissioned from another for a newly world-class company and world-important city. Deliberate and risky, Agon’s steps exceed balletic (or other) technique while retaining the impression of exacting standards. Choreography toys with the edges of movement—how far can this go, what does it become?—and music, finding in the score both a spur to keep up and the space to respond. Suggesting various contemporaneous ideas of the mechanistic and the human, Agon makes a (strenuous) game from the restrictions and potential of embodiment. It culminates in a pas de deux of never-before-seen shapes and sequences created for Arthur Mitchell, who was Black, and Diana Adams, who was white. This was not long after Eisenhower “sent in the National Guard to enforce federally mandated desegregation,” Homans reminds us. The complexity of Agon is uninterested in any simplistic comment on its equally complex twentieth century. The dance, Homans writes, completed a “circling back,” proof for Balanchine that “ballet could be an emanation of God,” and it was also a widening out into a very real US, a question for his audience about how ballet could be an exploration of freedom.  

Which is merely to say that even plotless forms can reflect and revise a cultural and political situation. Explicitly, Balanchine barred politics from the studio, Homans writes, and centered his own views on opposition to communism. Mr. B focuses on US-Soviet tensions when it looks beyond the company in the ’50s and ’60s, especially when narrating a tour of the USSR in 1962—one of the book’s most affecting, best-realized passages. But other views crept in. 1960s counterculture, Homans shows, threatened and then reinforced the company’s hierarchical administration: that is, Balanchine’s near-total authority. Homans generally admires Balanchine as institution builder—“it all came from him”—but the book reveals the costs of his control (and also an alternative: the first company he created, in Russia, was a “collective of equals”). NYCB policies reinforced Balanchine’s whims and prejudices. Women, especially, lived the results. Balanchine married five different dancers, had affairs with others, and subjected even those he did not seduce to his erotic-artistic, personal-professional tastes. He took dancers out for dinner and bought them perfume; he also fired them if they gained weight and punished them for marriage or pregnancy. As artists, most dancers relished the chance to work with Balanchine, but as artists and people, both, they sometimes wondered if that chance was worth what came with it. When Tanaquil Le Clercq, Balanchine’s last wife, was stricken with polio, Homans records her “strange sense of relief.” Balanchine’s treatment of women weakened administrative operations, moreover—especially in his instructions about succession (the next director, he thought, had to be a straight man), and, earlier, in an obsession with Suzanne Farrell that nearly tore NYCB apart.

And artistic operations? Plotless forms reflect and revise their situation in part because culture and politics supply ready standards. Of femininity, maybe. “Ballet is woman,” Balanchine repeatedly affirmed, and Mr. B returns to the well-known phrase, explaining: Balanchine meant “women were beautiful and had more flexible bodies that could do more things.” Or that “in order to work, he had to be in love.” Homans’s more complete answer is idealism, again: belief in woman was belief in the Russian Orthodox Madonna, in Russia herself, in Balanchine’s own mother—who, after she summarily left him at ballet school, came to represent all he went on to lose. His quest for the “eternal feminine” specified his quest for the eternal, period; “everything a man does” could then be done, as he said, “for his ideal woman.” He said this while making Don Quixote, and he danced the title role himself. His Dulcinea was Farrell—the most intense of his love affairs, the greatest of his company’s dancers; “the only one, he later said, who truly submitted.” Farrell brought to life the lost dream. But Don Quixote was, most agree, a failure. None of the ballets Balanchine choreographed for Farrell is among his best. The late creative pinnacle of the Stravinsky Festival, in 1972, happened after Farrell didn’t “submit”: she married someone else, and (upon Balanchine’s retaliation) left the company. 

She later came back—and with all question of romance put by, danced with even more command and abandon. The critic Arlene Croce famously described her Diamonds, from 1975, as “a riveting spectacle about the freest woman alive.” Farrell’s combination of speed and depth, calm and daring—her very Balanchinean “balance/imbalance”—all pushed beyond a model of femininity that the choreography itself seemed to offer. The emptiness of perfection, with its necessity, is one paradox of artistic form and its possible liberations. In her book Second Skin (2011), Anne Anlin Cheng argues for Josephine Baker’s centrality to modernist culture because of her negotiation, as a Black woman, with the socially coded forms in which she had to appear—her manipulation of surface and depth, appearance and essence, what might be seen as ideal and what might be mistaken as real. Balanchine worked with Baker, as Homans reminds us—first in Paris, then in New York. With these details, and many others, Mr. B suggests that Balanchine’s century has more to reveal, in part through Balanchine’s dances. Recently, Russell Janzen wrote in the New York Times about dancing the pas de deux from Agon in the wake of sexual misconduct cases that prompted NYCB, among other organizations, to confront longstanding assumptions about women’s roles: Janzen and his partner wanted to do it differently, this piece from sixty years ago, though none of Balanchine’s steps would change. They used a suggestion from Mitchell, experimented, and liked the results. “Despite its rigidity,” Janzen writes, “ballet has given me a freedom I haven’t found anywhere else.” 

Siobhan Phillips is associate professor of English at Dickinson College and the author of Benefit (Bellevue Literary Press, 2022).