Tiny Pretty Things: The Melodrama that Ballet Deserves

(No spoilers except for one that doesn’t really count but I flag it anyway!)

I waited until after finishing the final episode of Tiny Pretty Things to read reviews online, and was not entirely surprised by the reactions. There was the predictable highbrow takedown in the New York Times, whose main advice was “don’t bother,” expressing utter shock–and we are talking pearl clutching *shock*–that a Netflix melodrama about young dancers would include so much sex. There was a more positive but still lukewarm review in the Guardian that basically called the show harmless fun, and various other perspectives that lamented the show’s uneven acting and excessive and confusing subplots, comparing it (mostly unfavorably) to the likes of Centerstage or Fame.

In fact, the show owes more to How to Get Away with Murder than the likes of Centerstage, and indeed many elements seem like a clever “save as” of the Viola Davis hit: a diverse cast of young, talented, attractive students; antihero adults with their own bad habits and secrets; dark and brooding interior spaces; a fast-paced and high stakes professional environment; and excessive and sometimes confusing subplots. And yes, like so many successful tv melodramas, there is a lot of sex: sex between the students, sex between the students and some of the adults, and sex between the students and other non-students, with a lot of the sex taking place in dark and brooding interior spaces fuled by the pressures of the fast-paced and high stakes environment in which the students and adults find themselves and occasioned by the excessive and sometimes confusing subplots. 

If you aren’t able to take pleasure in what Tiny Pretty Things is, it’s not surprising that you’ll miss out on some of the interesting dynamics and messages lurking beneath all the sex, drugs, violence, and everything else that compels us to binge watch tv melodramas. To put a finer point on it: faulting the show for too much sex or unbelievable plot twists and soap-opera acting is missing the point, because mixed in with the melodramatic tropes is some good dancing as well as a not entirely unrealistic depiction of some of the not so pretty realities of the culture of contemporary ballet pedagogy and performance. 

As was the case with Mozart in the Jungle, which pledged allegiance to classical music in the form of celebrity cameos and other insider nods, Tiny Pretty Things creates a pretty believable version of the world of ballet, in no small part thanks to the core cast of actors who do their own dancing. This means no editing is necessary as the students move seamlessly from dancing to other activities, and it also means we get to see a lot of actual dancing in every episode, something in short supply on mainstream platforms. By making this choice the creative team perhaps knew they were creating a critical Catch-22, that is, by casting dancer-actors you are not likely to get either the very best actors or the very best dancers, since almost no one falls into that narrow category. It’s baffling that no one acknowledges this simple fact when critiquing the show’s acting or dancing, but for me the pleasure of seeing a “real” cast of dancers was enough to look past anything else.

The writers and producers were smart to add real-life and big-name ballet ethos to the proceedings, tapping none other than Tiler Peck to pop in for a few episodes. Peck plays a version of her actual self: an accomplished soloist and choreographer who has embraced her celebrity to popularize ballet and is coming to cast students from the Archer School in a special music video project. As in other moments in the show, Peck’s appearance includes a few well chosen turns of phrase only obvious to the initiated, such as when she is convincing one of the students to join one of her projects, as she says that it will be like “when Misty toured with Prince.” Peck’s acting will not likely get her an Emmy, but that’s why I loved her even more for appearing in the show. Having Tiler Peck giving a Charlize Theron-level performance was not the point. Just like her character’s interest in embracing popular media, Peck was willing to run the risk of appearing in the show since it might help a few people get interested in ballet or facilitate a conversation about how it needs to change, and her character arrives as an embodiment of positive energy and change.

Peck serves as a crucial foil for perhaps the most interesting character and the beating heart of the plot, the tragic figure who leads the Archer School, Madame DuBois. “Madame,” as she is known to all characters regardless of their status in the ballet hierarchy, does not seem to even have a first name, which is perhaps her character’s most perfect trait. Fully embodying if not metaphorically consumed by her cosmopolitan honorific, Madame is the product of a system in which she now wields supreme power, and as a result she is by turns feared, revered, loved, hated, flattered, and undermined, sometimes in the same scene or even the same sentence. In the later episodes a few layers of the onion are peeled back, allowing us to understand how much she had to give up to be “Madame” and making us understand how hard she had to fight to maintain her arcane parochial status and title.

Madame has a killer wit and an even more killer body even as she has long left a career on the stage behind, turning out looks and phrases that would make the shadiest drag queen snap and giving off Showgirls or Dynasty levels of power campiness. It’s never fun to realize that an accomplished female lead character has become so accomplished despite (or more often because of) some profound traumas and tortured compromises, but in this sense Tiny Pretty Things is keeping things real. Unlike the anachronistic feminist holograms on other streaming shows (looking at you, Mrs. Maisel and Patti LuPone in Hollywood) Madame DuBois might at least help us continue to grasp why Hillary Clinton is not settling into her second term as the forty-fifth President.

Let’s also acknowledge that if honorary degrees were awarded for passing the Bechdel Test, Tiny Pretty Things would earn a Ph.D. Relationships and scenes between women abound, among the students, between dancers and mothers, and of course between Madame and students and parents. A healthy percentage of the named male characters are not heterosexual, and the excessive sex scenes include some quite revealing male-male action. And while Madame is certainly not on the side of the angels, the people perpetrating the truly terrible things are mostly straight white dudes with gay and lesbian characters mostly there to right wrongs or at least mitigate the damage. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot to criticize about this show. The show indulges in some lazy and problematic tropes with respect to race and to a lesser extent class. Did the most layered black character really have to have the only mother in the show to have spent time in prison and a brother who is in a wheelchair? Did the other significant black character have to have a southern accent with no real backstory to go along with it, making it seem as authentic as a sombrero on Cinco de Mayo? Did the one Muslim character need to be portrayed with Homeland levels of mysterious brooding and danger? And when one of the main (white) characters seeks refuge from the toxicity of the school and her frosty WASP mother (who happens to be the chairman of the board) did she really have to go to a working class Little Italy style famiglia where the mother is always stirring sauce with one hand and drinking red wine and gesticulating emphatically with the other, all while her sensuous dark-haired children who are more in touch with their feelings and bodies dance to old-time popular music in the living room? In the end, Tiny Pretty Things fails to decenter the whiteness that is regrettably still at the core of ballet, which in some ways makes it a more timely and accurate barometer of the state of the art form. Because this is a melodrama and everything has to be on the surface, the show at least is obliged to throw these terrible dynamics into vibrant relief, as the diverse cast of dancers literally do battle against the corrupt white power structure. 

Indeed, halfway through the series in a somewhat throwaway scene, the detective attempting to unravel the core crime at the heart of the plot, and who happens to be a lesbian, almost throws in the towel, confessing that she thought by investingating the rules, order, and chain of command in ballet that it would help her “tease out the mysteries of another world [the US military] that still puts down women and silences dissent and controls the every waking moment of anyone dumb enough to walk in and join up.” Her commanding officer (a white guy, of course), makes an appeal to reason, telling her that “Ballet’s got nothing to do with what happened to that girl!” Her impassioned response made me clutch my pearls more than any of the show’s sex scenes: 

[Spoiler coming but not really since it’s pretty much revealed in the first five minutes of the show.]

“[Ballet] has everything to do with it, Dan. It’s not just one person who threw Cassie Shore off that ledge. It is four hundred years of this twisted, beautiful art form that the western world conspired to create. I have fought a lot of things, but I don’t have it in me to fight this.”

If nothing else had rung true in all of Tiny Pretty Things, the detective’s brief monologue had me nodding vigorously alone in front of my bourbon. My first thought was, yeah you got that right, detective, and I bet you haven’t even seen La Bayadère. And my second thought was that this must be a version of what Phil Chan or Chloe Angyal has to scream into their pillow or scrawl into their journals on a weekly basis. In other words, despite its faults, like so many problematic objects–including ballet itself–Tiny Pretty Things contains the kernels of its own critique. In fact, the inability of the show offer a nuanced depiction or actual critique of ballet is perhaps its most profound contribution to conversations about the art form today. Tiny Pretty Things may not be the melodrama that ballet wants, but it’s the one that it deserves.

Ugly Crying at Hamilton, and Uglier Crying over U.Va. and *Thomas Jefferson’s Education*

As a graduate of the University of Virginia who relished the beloved traditions of my alma mater, I’m grateful that one of its own professors, Alan Taylor, has chosen to take as an object of inquiry the founding and founder of the school itself. Thomas Jefferson’s Education is a timely and necessary corrective to the received wisdom eagerly and uncritically promulgated during admissions tours and which suffuses so many of the University’s cultures and traditions, whether the irrational worship of its architecture or obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. If like me you thought the one of the more unseemly things to have happened in the history of U.Va. was the habit of interjecting the phrase “not gay” into the Good Ol’ Song, you are in for a big reality check.

I began Taylor’s book while on vacation in February 2020 and picked it up again over Fourth of July weekend, realizing that the need for personal re-education about American’s past could no longer be put off. And with Hamilton suddenly available for streaming and on everyone’s mind again I was also newly curious to see a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian provide some real talk about a Founding Father.

A few quick caveats about Thomas Jefferson’s Education if it wasn’t already becoming clear:

  1. If you are looking for a straightforward chronological history of the University of Virginia this is not the book for you.
  2. If you are seeking to read about how brilliant and amazing Thomas Jefferson was, this book is also not for you.
  3. If, like me, you were crying like a baby while watching Hamilton stream on Disney Plus because man, you didn’t realize how much you needed to be reminded that America can produce things that are powerful and beautiful, BUT you felt a twinge of guilt as you choked back tears because you knew full well that it glosses over a lot of the Bad Stuff – in part through its jocular treatment of Jefferson – this book could be the thing for you. (Of course as soon as you’re done you can watch Hamilton a second or third or fourth time and cry over its power and beauty.)

Taylor’s book offers a fascinating and unabashedly granular deep dive into the political and economic dynamics of colonial and post-Revolutionary Virginia. Like much of America, Virginia was built by the enslaved labor of African Americans, and along with many other aspects of the state Jefferson used the profits of this uncompensated work – along with his charm, power, and influence – to shape the character of its educational systems, culminating in the unlikely and chaotic founding of U.Va. Taylor offers an honest and unvarnished take on Jefferson and the men and women who surrounded him. Hewing closely to sources, Taylor is attuned to Jefferson’s contradictions and faults and metaphorically takes him down off of the pedestals on which we often encounter him, including on the Grounds of U.Va. itself. Thomas Jefferson’s Education is compelling but not light reading, and the play or musical it might inspire would more likely be commissioned by the Volksbühne than the Public Theater.

As a white person seeking to re-educate himself about US history and the legacies of racism and white supremacy I am especially grateful to understand the problematic history of the college that educated me. I was shattered to learn details of the myriad ways that enslaved African American workers suffered to produce capital for the landed classes, including but not limited to the construction and operation of the buildings in which my fellow students and I studied and lived at U.Va. Among the many heartbreaking passages was the following detail about early medical education at U.Va.: “Not even death could end coerced service by enslaved people to the University. At night, medical students exhumed recent graves of slaves to get cadavers for dissection and study.” This macabre incident would be troubling enough as the subject of an entire chapter, and is all the more disturbing as the brief concluding moment of a litany of other abuses and horrors.

Taylor is a measured and meticulous historian and his book is all the more devastating and convincing thanks to his even-handed approach. This book is far too methodical to be construed as any sort of explicit call to action. Nevertheless, its findings have reoriented me about the truth about my college and I suspect would have the same effect for other alumni and current students. Armed with Taylor’s insights I feel empowered to demand that my school acknowledge the ugly truths about its history rather than celebrate what I now realize are fantastical and in fact damaging mythologies about its origins, especially but not limited to tales of its troubled “founder.”

Reading and Watching Mark Morris, Pre- and Post-The Stuff

When and how to pick up much less finish a book is always a mixed bag, especially when the collapse of the world order and the rapid transformation of art forms you’ve devoted your life and career to are playing out at the same time. As the memes have reminded, 2020 has already done a number on all our plans, but I finally caught up on some of my dance reading goals.

Since since March 6 when I last saw a live dance performance – the first and only performance of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by San Francisco Ballet, which was as perfect as one could hope for – I finished several dance books. I hadn’t intended to read any of these as a way of navigating the strange moment we are living through, and yet like everything these days, you can’t help but process everything through a COVID lens.

Here’s the first in a series of dance reading reports.

Mark Morris and Wesley Stace, Out Loud: A Memoir

Like all memoirs, Mark Morris’s memoir was always already going to be suffused with nostalgia, and the book catalogs with care and and even more careful score-settling his many interactions with family, partners, lovers, enemies, frenemies, collaborators, patrons, and critics. The book now almost reads like a report from an alien world, when people travel and perform for large groups of in person audiences and hold rehearsals and celebrations in cramped interior spaces.

Out Loud is everything one might expect from an iconoclast who finds himself about as firmly ensconced in the arts establishment as is possible. Indeed what’s so fascinating about Morris’s career–and why it’s thrilling to read about it in his own (openly ghostwritten) words–is the incongruity of his outsider ethos and his Great Artist stature. You can give him MacArthur grant and put his name on a building across the street from BAM, but Morris still insistently inhabits an outsider position, the precocious queer kid from Seattle with musically omnivorous taste who couldn’t be bothered to finish high school and now has a half dozen Ivy League honorary doctorates.

And yet, for many decades Morris’s stature has been anything but incongruous with his ethos. In fact his stature, almost to his chagrin, it seems, has become inseparable from his ethos. Morris finds himself as one of the Last Great Choreographers of Modern Dance, one of the few canonical exponents of an art form that will not be canonical for too long, since we are finally getting over our addiction to canons. In this light, it’s equal parts cringeworthy and satisfying to hear Morris rail against political correctness and say that he doesn’t know why people freak out about bullying in schools because he is grateful he got roughed up (!?) because it made him figure out who he was. The fact that a radical outsider can end up as a grumpy old man screaming from the front porch is, at least for me, a weirdly hopeful message about how the center and periphery can shift in the course of one person’s lifetime.

As an arts administrator and collaborator, I was grateful to see Morris grant significant airtime to many key players who contributed so substantively to his success. Among them are dancer Tina Fehlandt, one of the founding members of Morris’s dance group, the originator of dozens of his most iconic roles, and now responsible for staging his dances on companies all over the world. MMDG Executive Director Nancy Umanoff also is given her due, given credit for everything from crisis management to capital fundraising and everything in between. I suspect that Nancy is presently working harder than ever and I hope that Tina will be back to work on the stage soon.

Earlier this year San Francisco Ballet performed Morris’s Leroy Anderson-scored Sandpaper Ballet, and on opening night I happened upon the Great Man himself in the lobby in the last moments of intermission. I briefly said hello and told him how much I was looking forward to Sandpaper. He was gracious but of course his parting words were, “Enjoy my ballet, or else!” delivered with a smile and a vigorous wag of the finger. Of course like everything Morris does, this phrase was delivered with deadly serious playfulness, and I knew I was going to enjoy the ballet before he told me I had to. (And of course I did.)

Prior to this encounter I had overheard other patrons discussing Out Loud, specifically the passages towards the end when he discussed the choreography he has prepared to be performed after his death. In our innocent pre-COVID bubble this endeavor seemed to be raising eyebrows and eliciting amused eye-rolling if not pearl-clutching. “I mean, that’s just so morbid and who does he think he is?” Of course nowadays it seems like a concept that’s nothing short of genius. Let’s hope that we don’t see those dance anytime soon and that Morris and Nancy and Tina are all washing their hands and resting up for whatever is to come.

Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern: A Short Biography and Syllabus

Upon the occasion of the newly-opened exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, below is a short introduction to his remarkable life and work, and a list of writings by and about him.

Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) possessed a seemingly unlimited reserve of energy and ideas, and the quantity of his many unrealized endeavors is as noteworthy as his successes. It was in this expansiveness of imagination and willingness to put his artistic convictions into action that his true genius lay, no matter the obstacles or potential for failure. He thrived when at his busiest and was constantly engaged in multiple projects, all the while dreaming up new ones for the future. It is difficult to say exactly whence this disposition arose. To some, it was in part a product of his family’s wealth and connections—the unfettered mindset of individuals with significant financial resources at their disposal. Others posit psychological origins, pointing to his history of manic episodes and bipolar tendencies, or argue that he was able to get by on very little sleep. Whatever the cause of his passion, Kirstein was one of the most active and generous advocates on behalf of modernist expression in the twentieth century, in virtually all of its generic manifestations.

Kirstein was born in Rochester, New York, and was raised among the wealthy elite of Boston. His mother, Rose Kirstein née Stein was from a prosperous Rochester family; his father Louis Kirstein was a successful businessman—most notably as a partner in the Filene department store company—and a dedicated philanthropist whose sense of noblesse oblige would greatly influence his son. His parents, as well as his sister Mina Curtiss and brother George Kirstein were generous supporters, financially and personally, of his many artistic and organizational endeavors throughout his life. Kirstein attended the Berkshire School in western Massachusetts, and subsequently enrolled at Harvard University, graduating in 1930.

Kirstein’s parents were relatively unobservant Jews, although active in Jewish political and philanthropic causes, and his religious upbringing was nominal. In high school he was introduced to the practices of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff, who would prove a strong influence, especially in Kirstein’s early adulthood. In his later years he became interested in Roman Catholicism, although he never took any formal steps toward conversion. In 1941 Kirstein married Fidelma Cadmus, sister of his friend, the painter Paul Cadmus, and was a devoted husband until her death in 1991. He maintained numerous passionate relationships with men throughout his life, both sexual and nonsexual, but never explicitly identified himself as homosexual.

During Kirstein’s time at Harvard, his primary interests were literature and the visual arts. He wrote several books of poetry and an autobiographical novel, Flesh is Heir, published in 1932. Of more lasting significance than his own work was the literary quarterly Hound & Horn, which he co-founded in 1927 with Varian Fry and R. P. Blackmur. Modeled on T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion, the journal would in its seven years of existence publish original work by American modernist writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams and James Agee. Kirstein himself contributed two major articles on ballet, his earliest writings on dance.

During this same period, Kirstein and fellow students Edward M. M. Warburg and John Walker III, under the influence of Harvard professor Paul Sachs, organized the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. The Society mounted several shows of work by living artists, which met with indifferent to indignant reception among Boston’s conservative art patrons. Although short-lived, the Society provided the organisational nucleus of the institution that would become the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Although he never functioned in a leadership capacity, Kirstein would maintain close ties to MoMA. He was responsible for numerous exhibitions and the accompanying catalogues, including a 1932 exhibition of contemporary mural painting and a 1948 retrospective of Polish artist Elie Nadelman. He would continually advocate for the acquisition of more work by American artists and helped broker many relationships between the museum and artists whom he championed. In 1939 he donated his significant private collection of books, prints and dance memorabilia to the museum to establish the Dance Archives, the first such scholarly resource in the United States.

Kirstein had a long interest in ballet, particularly in the Ballets Russes and its founder and artistic director, Serge Diaghilev, on whom he modeled his own career as an impresario. He made yearly visits to Europe beginning in the 1920s and saw performances of Firebird and ballets by Léonide Massine and Balanchine. Through his friendship with Romola Nijinsky—for whom he served as ghost-writer for significant portions of her biography of her husband, Vaslav Nijinsky—Kirstein gained access to the circle of Russian émigré dancers and choreographers, including Balanchine. With Balanchine somewhat institutionally adrift since Diaghilev’s death in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, Kirstein found the choreographer receptive to the idea of coming to the United States to start a new company. Kirstein brought Balanchine to the United States in October 1933.

In the fifteen years following Balanchine’s arrival, the organization envisioned by Kirstein would assume many forms. Crucial to the enterprise in all of its incarnations, however, was the continuous presence of a training institution, the School of American Ballet (SAB), which opened its doors at a studio on Madison Avenue shortly after Balanchine’s arrival. Students from SAB first performed in June 1934 at a private performance at the estate of Felix Warburg in White Plains, New York—including the ballet Serenade, the first original work created by Balanchine in America. The company made its debut as the American Ballet in March 1935 at the Adelphi Theater on Broadway, garnering the notice of the new head of the Metropolitan Opera, Edward Johnson, who invited the group to become the Met’s resident ballet troupe. The arrangement would prove uncongenial and lasted only three years, but it did allow the fledgling organization to mount several significant performances: an all-Stravinsky program—conducted by the composer himself—that featured the American premiere of Balanchine’s Apollo­; and a dance-intensive staging of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice designed by the artist Pavel Tchelitchev, of whom Kirstein was a devoted patron. Kirstein articulated his frustrations with the Met, as well as his larger critique of the hegemony of Russian ballet in America, in his 1938 pamphlet Blast at Ballet.

Concurrent with the American Ballet, in 1936 Kirstein formed a second troupe called Ballet Caravan, conceived as a summer touring company (and confidently posited in Blast at Ballet as an antidote for the degenerate state of ballet in America). The Caravan allowed Kirstein to pursue more directly his vision of a company with a distinctly American profile, and afforded him an active, all-encompassing role as producer, allowing him to commission original music and designs from artists of his choosing. The dancers themselves created the choreography, in collaboration with a distinguished roster of American writers, composers, and artists, including Paul Cadmus, Ben Shahn, Aaron Copland, Paul Bowles, Florine Stettheimer and Virgil Thomson. Although the troupe did not survive the 1930s, the Caravan provided important exposure and choreographic experience for dancers such as Ruthanna Boris, Lew Christensen, William Dollar, and Eugene Loring. The Caravan was also notable for being less focused on classical ballet, and organisationally and aesthetically represented a rapprochement by Kirstein with the world of modern dance, towards which he was generally unsympathetic. True to its name, the Caravan was always somewhat makeshift in its organization and execution, and only two of its ballets—Billy the Kid and Filling Station, for which Kirstein himself wrote the scenario—garnered significant critical and popular acclaim.

In 1941 Kirstein and Balanchine formed the American Ballet Caravan, combining their two previous ventures for an extended tour of Latin America, funded by the State Department’s office of Inter-American Affairs, headed by Kirstein’s long-time friend and patron Nelson Rockefeller. The goal of the tour was to promote goodwill and counteract the region’s growing pro-Nazi sentiment. Kirstein returned to South America the following year, again at the request of Rockefeller. His official mission was to purchase new work by Latin American artists to augment the collections of the Museum of Modern Art—of which Rockefeller was President—but the real purpose was to gather off-the-record political intelligence.

Following a stint in the army, Kirstein’s next major undertaking was Ballet Society, created in 1946 and conceived as a non-profit membership-based subscription organization. As with Ballet Caravan, Kirstein held primary responsibility for both artistic and administrative planning and commissioned librettos, music, scenery and choreography from a wide range of artists, many of whom had been involved in his previous endeavours. Although Balanchine was not a central institutional force behind Ballet Society, he was a key collaborator for two of its most important works: The Four Temperaments, to a score by Paul Hindemith, commissioned personally by Balanchine several years earlier, and featuring elaborate costumes by Kurt Seligmann (subsequently abandoned in favour of simple practice clothes); and Orpheus, to a newly-commissioned score by Stravinsky, with designs by Isamu Noguchi (a frequent collaborator of Martha Graham) and starring Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clerq, Nicholas Magallanes and Francisco Moncion. Although its performances were critically acclaimed, Ballet Society was never self-supporting, despite its non-profit status and substantial personal contributions from Kirstein and other patrons. In 1948, however, when its demise seemed inevitable, the chair of the executive committee of New York City Center, Morton Baum, invited Ballet Society to become the resident ballet company of the city-operated venue. Thus the Kirstein and Balanchine enterprise finally achieved institutional permanence under the new identity of the New York City Ballet.

Although City Center provided the company with a more stable institutional base and covered day-to-day operating costs, there were few funds available for the creation of new work, and Kirstein continued to support new productions from his own funds and by soliciting donations from patrons. In 1952, Kirstein became Managing Director of City Center, and during his tenure secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support new opera and ballet productions. A committed leftist throughout his life, Kirstein was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement and participated in the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, later writing a poem about the experience. He helped numerous African-American dancers, especially men, gain admission to SAB in the 1940s and 1950s, and supported NYCB principal dancer Arthur Mitchell in founding the Dance Theater of Harlem.

As a member of the Lincoln Center planning committee Kirstein was instrumental in ensuring the company’s permanent home at the New York State Theater and SAB’s inclusion in the complex. In 1959 the Ford Foundation, at Kirstein’s urging, made a major grant to SAB that made possible national audition tours and an expanded scholarship program, effectively transforming the organisation into America’s leading training academy for ballet. This position was further strengthened in 1963 when Kirstein secured a second major commitment from Ford, a multi-million grant in support of a half dozen American ballet companies, the bulk of which went to support NYCB and SAB. Until his death, Kirstein served as the guiding institutional force of both organizations and of dance in the United States more broadly.

Alongside and frequently in tandem with his undertakings, Kirstein was a prolific writer, as notable for his many published books, articles, program notes and prefaces as for his prodigious personal correspondence and diaries. As a critic, historian and collector he played an essential role in the professionalization of the study of dance in the United States, not simply as an artistic practice but as a subject of intellectual study. As the founder of Dance Index, Kirstein oversaw the first scholarly journal in America devoted to dance. His work on Nijinsky helped to secure the dancer’s place in the history of ballet as more than an idiosyncratic performer and reasserted the place of male dancers in the history—and future—of ballet. His historical and critical writings are at once indispensible scholarly references and important primary sources in their own right, documenting the development of ballet and dance in the twentieth century. In addition to his donations to MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his personal papers and other collections constitute some of the most significant archival holdings of the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Selected Writings

Kirstein, Lincoln. (1983) Ballet: Bias & Belief—Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writings of Lincoln Kirstein, New York: Dance Horizons, Inc.

—. (1991) By With To & From: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, Ed. Nicholas Jenkins, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

—. (1935) Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Reprinted 1987, with an appreciation by Nancy Reynolds, New York: Dance Horizons, Inc.

—. (1994) Mosaic: Memoirs, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

—. (1970) Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet, New York: Praeger.

—. (1975) Nijinsky Dancing, New York: Knopf.

—. (2009) Program Notes, Ed. Randall Bourscheidt, New York: Eakins Press Foundation and Alliance for the Arts.

—. (1978) Thirty Years: the New York City Ballet, New York: Knopf.

References and Further Reading

Duberman, Martin. (2007) The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, New York: Knopf.

Garafola, Lynn, Ed., with Eric Foner. (1999) Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet, New York: Columbia University Press.

Garafola, Lynn. (2005) “Dollars for Dance: Lincoln Kirstein, City Center, and the Rockefeller Foundation” in Lynn Garafola (2005) Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 305–16.

Harris, Andrea. (2017) Making Ballet American: Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine, New York: Oxford University Press.

Kayafas, Peter, Ed. (2007) Lincoln Kirstein: A Bibliography of Published Writings, 1922–1996, New York: Eakins Press Foundation.

Reynolds, Nancy. (1999) “In His Image: Diaghilev and Lincoln Kirstein” in Lynn Garafola, Ed., with Nancy Van Norman Baer, The Ballets Russes and Its World, New Haven: Yale University Press.

—. (1977) Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet, New York: Dial Press.

Steichen, James. (2018) Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Nicholas Fox. (1992) Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928–1943, New York: Knopf.

The Times Are Evidently NOT A-Changin’ in Balanchine Land

Another week, another notable piece about the time of troubles at the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet. Last week, Joan Acocella offered a comprehensive overview of the turmoil at the company and school over the last year and a half, focusing on the tumultuous exit of Peter Martins amid allegations of abuse and harassment as well as the aftermath of dancer Alexandra Waterbury’s lawsuit.  Moving the story further into the future, Robin Pogrebin this week discussed how Martins continues to exert problematic control at the company through casting decisions for his own ballets, and how he continues to work in prominent roles on behalf of the Balanchine Trust. The revelations of Pogrebin’s piece show how hard it will really be to change things at NYCB and SAB, and how even with new leadership there are powerful forces–most notably at the Balanchine Trust–working to maintain the status quo.

The striking lede of Pogrebin’s recent piece was an act of artistic retribution evidently fueled by personal animus: Martins’ removal of Ashley Bouder from a lead role in his version of The Sleeping Beauty. Despite the fact that it has been a signature role of Bouder’s for years, it was suddenly taken away from her at the eleventh hour, widely understood as payback for her public statements against Martins. There has been justifiable dismay and shock at this behavior. Even more shocking, however, is the incident’s striking parallels with Balanchine’s treatment of his erstwhile muse Suzanne Farrell. Balanchine took away not just a single role but her whole position at the company overnight, not for speaking out against him in public, but because she chose to marry someone who wasn’t George Balanchine. (For the whole story you can read my summary here.) How these kinds of clear parallels continue to be overlooked in coverage continues to astound me. When and if Balanchine’s behavior is mentioned for context, it is glossed over or euphemized beyond recognition. Acocella’s piece followed this pattern, referring to “serial infatuations” on Balanchine’s part.

In any event, I don’t see how NYCB can continue to program ballets by Martins if he will be in a position to repeat this behavior in the future, and also disobey instructions not to go backstage as he evidently did during the run of the ballet. But that would take some real leadership and hard decisions. And when the husband of a current board member is acting as Martins’ official spokesperson in public and even going on the record in the New York Times, that doesn’t bode well for that kind of radical change. But lord knows there are plenty of other people–and gasp, even a few women–who could give NYCB a new Sleeping Beauty. And probably a board member or two who might be willing to pay for it.

And speaking of leadership (or lack thereof), the Balanchine Trust seems to be completely tone deaf to the current moment of turmoil, having decided that Martins is still perfectly acceptable as a brand ambassador for Balanchine’s works. Replying to a question about the propriety of Martins working as an official emissary for the Trust–at the Mariinsky, no less–Barbara Horgan seemed to dismiss the question out of hand:

“Peter came to Balanchine in 1967, he is very familiar with the Balanchine repertory — you can’t take that away from him. He’s a wonderful ballet master, and I think it’s a wonderful idea. Why not? Let him spread the magic around a little bit.”

She then went on to deliver the real kicker:

“I’m devoted to Peter,” she added. “What’s he supposed to be, in purgatory for the rest of his life? Give me a break.”

Peter Martins certainly doesn’t need to go into purgatory, whatever that might mean–maybe it’s near Stamford, or Hoboken? But for the sake of the Balanchine legacy, you might think that the Trust would deem it prudent to let him sit out a few coaching sessions for at least a few years. But then again, it’s not at all surprising that the Trust would circle the wagons around Martins given the track record of the man whose work it is their job to preserve and promote. Because the fact is the Balanchine legacy where women is concerned is pretty appalling, whether you look at the serial marriages, his well documented dalliances, and his policing of women’s reproductive decisions. (You can read my thoughts on that here.) You can put “Ballet is woman” on a t-shirt and regurgitate that bogus “c’est une question morale” talking point all you want, but Balanchine’s behavior speaks for itself. There may have been a time when it was charming for old world male bosses to pick out out perfume for favored female employees, but that behavior has not aged well, and it’s time to call it out for what it was.

You can’t take that away from him.” Think about Barbara Horgan’s words from the perspective of Alexandra Waterbury, who had a lot taken away from her. It’s true that Martins will never lose his expertise and history with Balanchine, but it’s probably the right thing for him to lose his public platform, at least for the time being. We can and should take that away from him. No more ballets at Lincoln Center whose casting he can manipulate, no work in the studio with the next up and coming Apollo. There are other people who can do that work–why not send them in his place? The idea that Martins should have carte blanche to “spread the magic around”–the words seem to do the cringing for themselves–is terrible from a public relations perspective, and even worse from an ethical standpoint given the credible allegations against him, and especially in light of the most recent incident with Ashley Bouder.

Because if we can reckon with the Martins situation, maybe, just MAYBE–but I won’t hold my breath–we’ll eventually have the courage to talk about Balanchine with the bravery that Hannah Gadsby taught us to talk about Picasso, encouraging us give the hurt and pain of victims precedence over the celebration of genius and the protection of artistic reputation. Maybe NYCB and SAB might start to question whether everything terrible at the organizations really did begin during the Martins regime, as everyone seems to want to believe so fervently. Maybe we can eventually start to talk about why and how Balanchine’s problematic attitudes towards women wove themselves into the DNA of his enterprise as much as his artistic sensibility. For now we’ll have to wait and see what new coverage comes next week.

Why and How I Left my “Skim Milk” Academic Job

Adapted from remarks delivered at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society in San Antonio, Texas

When I decided to go to grad school, a decision I reached around 2005, I had a pretty good life and career. I was a fundraising manager at the Kennedy Center, specifically working for the National Symphony Orchestra. I lived in a really dynamic city, got to meet really interesting people every day, and had amazing colleagues at work. I got to see free performances all the time, and even got to travel the world on the Kennedy Center’s dime. Fundraising is a weird but fascinating profession – it’s your job to get to know people that you might never have met in your “real life,” millionaires and even billionaires who have made their money doing all kinds of things. It’s your job to facilitate their relationship with your institution and of course collect donations from them in the process. Not only did I enjoy my work, but it was a pretty decent living. I had health insurance and even dental insurance fully paid for, and after my first year of employment the Kennedy Center started contributing to a retirement account and matching my own contributions. I had enough extra income that I could do a little traveling now and again, and every year I got a modest cost of living raise, and even a little more sometimes for merit.

But in the course of my work I began to feel increasingly estranged from the thing that had drawn me to it in the first place—the art itself. I always eagerly read the program notes at performances and began to wonder who are the kinds of people who write those? I began to explore other careers—should I become a journalist, or join the foreign service as a cultural attaché? In the end the most pointed advice came from the President of the Kennedy Center himself, Michael Kaiser, who advised me that the only place where you really got paid to think and write about art full time these days was academia, something I had already been thinking about anyway. With that push, and a GRE test taken the day after Thanksgiving, my journey to graduate school began, first with a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago, and subsequently with an PhD in musicology at Princeton. I started at Chicago in 2006 and defended my dissertation in 2014.

Without regurgitating my entire CV, I’ll summarize my graduate years by saying that I made good use of the time. I published in a variety of contexts, presented at conferences and organized a few others, and secured several fellowships for my dissertation research. I had ticked what I thought were all the most important boxes that would ensure academic success. But when it came time to enter into “the job market”–as it is obsessively discussed in academic circles–all my momentum seemed to push me not into my dream job, but into a brick wall. Maybe more precisely, it pushed me into an unhealthy obsession with checking the mysterious musicology jobs wiki. Over the course of several years before and after defending, I’d eagerly await new job postings towards the end of the summer and early fall, dutifully prepare my materials and send endless requests for letters of recommendation, and then dutifully check to wait to see if I’d be one of the chosen ones. After many dozens if not hundreds of applications and only one other campus visit for a postdoc, I finally got a break in the form of a real actual full time job, at Stanford University of all places, a school located somewhere that my partner actually wanted to move to as well. Although the road had been a little bumpy, the system seemed to have worked.

“Skim Milk” Academia

I felt a sense of relief that I had secured a job after only one year of awkward in between time after defending my dissertation. After my defense I had been an adjunct professor for one semester at Columbia University, where I was paid $5,000—yes, that’s $5,000, a small fraction of median income in the United States—to teach one semester of Music Humanities, a class required of all Columbia students (and which tenured professors are apparently so reluctant to teach that they are offered extra perks on top of their existing salaries and benefits to do so). Ironically, I secured a better salary working as a teaching assistant for two courses (and as an adjunct professor for another) at Princeton, not technically employed full time but at 50 percent one semester and 86 percent employment the next, enough to qualify for health insurance even the ability to contribute to a retirement account.

When I secured the Stanford job, I thought these days of contingent struggle were over. I had one paycheck, from one institution, with no hunting for classes and sections from semester to semester, and I had full access to a first rate research library and even a modest amount of research funds. But early on in my job there were some troubling signs. My orientation did not include any new tenure track faculty—it was just fellow lecturers from various departments, and no one seemed to bat an eye that those positions had their own separate process. One session I’ll never forget was an hour-long overview on first generation and low-income college students. Among other things, the presenters explained the various financial thresholds by which Stanford calculated financial need. I was surprised to learn that total household income of $125,000 constituted “low income.” But even more shocking was the threshold for “very low income,” which was $65,000. When that number flashed up on the screen I looked around at my fellow lecturers, whose names I barely knew, much less their personal or financial situations. But I caught eyes with at least a couple as if to say “duly noted” since $65,000 was pretty much not the floor but the ceiling of what we would ever expect to be paid by Stanford in our lecturer jobs. It was a sobering moment, and one that only sunk in with me much later: the income I was being paid was not a sustainable living, and this was according to the standards set by my own employer, an exceedingly well resourced research institution located in one of the richest communities in the US if not the world. And notably, these income thresholds did not take into account the astronomical cost of living in the Bay Area.

It’s now been almost a year since I left what I had thought was a good job teaching at Stanford. A lot of this decision had to do with money, but it wasn’t just about money. Ruth Bader Ginsburg coined a memorable turn of phrase in course of the legal debate over marriage equality that I’ve thought about a lot over the last year as I’ve tried to think about my employment transition. She adamantly rejected the argument that gay and lesbian couples should enter into a different kind of union not called marriage, because this would set up two kinds of marriage, real marriage and what she called a kind of “skim milk” marriage. And during my time at Stanford I increasingly realized that I had secured what could only be called a skim milk academic job, one that might be ok for a while, but one that really didn’t have much of a future.

As much as I liked many aspects of my job—first and foremost the really amazing students–I just couldn’t see where it would lead. What would it be like to be doing this job in ten years, much less in twenty? I had little self-determination in what I taught, and even if I did a better job than my tenured peers, there was no guarantee that I’d ever get to join their ranks. In fact, because I was teaching as a lecturer I knew I’d be a weaker candidate for a tenured position at Stanford if one were ever to come up in my field. This is thanks to the perverse and inhuman logic of academia that the person already working in your midst might be the last person you hire for a newly created opportunity. Although my colleagues and administrative staff assured me that they wanted me to stay on as long as possible, I was still on a year to year contract, and I was told—after repeated requests—that any kind of multi-year contract was out of the question since that’s not how the university operated. During the summer months I was assured that my new contract would be sent any day, and even though I genuinely did not fear for my job, I still anxiously awaited the actual letter and sent it back as soon as it came in. The position was evidently mine for as long as I wanted it, but I knew that in another economic crisis like 2008 that a relatively new and exotic program like mine could be the first on the budgetary chopping block, and Stanford would not be obligated to give me any kind of notice much less severance.

Life Beyond “The Job Market”

I readily acknowledge that my personal story is not the most hard luck one out there, and that there are contingent laborers in much worse circumstances than I was. But I think that’s precisely why cases like mine are important to talk about. I came out of a fully funded PhD program, I was more or less continuously employed, with employer-based health insurance, and I did not undertake any complicated moves around the country for 9-month “Visiting Assistant Professor” positions. All these advantages actually made me feel ungrateful when I began to even think about quitting, since I knew how much worse a lot of other people had it. And many fellow academics kept telling me—just keep publishing and working and the better job will follow. I also recognize that as a man and especially as a white man I’ve been able to avoid other challenges and emotional labor that many young academics face. In fact I was empowered and encouraged by gender and racial norms to advocate and demand more for myself without fear of being labeled as “pushy” or “difficult,” even if most of the time I was still told no.

All of this serves to illustrate the fundamental problems with academic employment today. Even with all my privilege, as an individual I was able to make the system only a little better for myself, and maybe a few other people whom I encouraged along the way. Ultimately the contingent labor system is set up for most of us to fail, and even worse make it feel like it’s our fault when we do, and even more worse, make us feel ungrateful when we finally decide to leave it behind.

I’m happy to report that as of a year ago, I’m back in the fundraising business, this time at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a small but mighty and dynamic school led by the indomitable David Stull. For my colleagues and donors the fact that I’m a musicologist is somewhat exotic, but having a PhD in higher ed administration does carry a certain amount of cachet, and this fall I was asked to cover an opera seminar for a colleague on leave. In my much more scarce spare time I write program notes for places like the Park Avenue Armory and Carnegie Hall, and November 1 was the release date for my first book, Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, published by Oxford University Press. During this past year of transition I somehow also managed to translate a book from German to English, a history of Renaissance music that will be published in about a month from California. I still proudly call myself a musicologist, even if my musicological training didn’t explicitly train me for many aspects of the full time job I currently hold.

Looking for a Job Outside “The Job Market”

If and when one starts to look for a job besides full time teaching and research—and I refuse to identify with or use the problematic term “alt-ac”—it’s a revealing experience. I had been out of the “regular” job market so long that it seemed shockingly humane and rational. You can look for jobs at any time of the year, not just during a narrow window in late summer and fall. That means you can also apply for jobs at any time of the year. Even more important, you can apply for jobs on your own—that is, without having to solicit a formidable dossier from your advisors and departmental staff or paying fees to companies like Interfolio. In most cases when you apply for a job—again, at any time of year—you’ll find out within a month or maybe just a few weeks if you’re moving to the next phase. And you’ll find this out directly from an HR department or other means—not by furtively checking a problematic website or otherwise hunting for clues on social media. If you’re turned down for a job, as I was many times in the course of my search, you can be sad for a moment but then move on to the next one, not wait for months to wonder if and when you might be one of the chosen ones.

But you probably won’t find a job through just online searches—you’ll get one through another person. I got my current job in part thanks to a fellow musicologist who introduced me to his colleagues at the Conservatory, and the rest is history. So if you’re a graduate student out there who encounters someone like me at your next conference, I encourage you not to walk away thinking “oh, well I don’t need to talk to them because I’m definitely going to make it,” I hate to break it to you—think again. And at the risk of being a little too blunt, you should be spending more time talking to folks like me asking how we got where we are and less time angling for an introduction to yet another tenured professor in your field. Because unlike that tenured professor, people like me have a wider network out in the rest of the world. People like me have a LinkedIn page that you can connect with. We can tell you how to write a cover letter and resume that leverages your academic expertise properly and compellingly. We can tell you what kinds of things you might try to do while you’re still a grad student that might help you get a lot of different kinds of jobs when you’re finished.

I’ll admit that there are days I’m still a little sad that I am no longer doing teaching and research full time, instead doing the hard but equally important work of securing resources for education and the arts. Sometimes it feels like I’m just back where I started before grad school. But then I remind myself that I’m back where I started in the best possible sense. I have a good life and career. I live in a really dynamic city, I get to meet really interesting people every day, and I have amazing colleagues at work. And most important, I would not be able to do what I’m doing had I not studied to become a musicologist. Had it not been for my journey through academia I wouldn’t have met the people who got me where I am today, and ultimately that makes all the joys and tears seem worth it.

George Balanchine, Suzanne Farrell, and Ballet’s #metoo Moment

Several weeks ago in a post on the current struggles at New York City Ballet I made reference to a significant incident in the history of the company that I argued deserves renewed scrutiny. This incident is the sudden rupture in the creative and personal relationship between George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell in 1969. In online commentary there was some debate about my take on this incident, with some claiming that I was misinterpreting the facts of the case or unfairly characterizing Balanchine’s behavior. I proposed that Balanchine’s dismissal of Farrell in the wake of her marriage to Paul Mejia amounted to a Weinstein-esque abuse of power, and should thus be understood as part of a larger culture of patriarchal control of women’s bodies at NYCB, behavior that should be reevaluated in light of the troubling treatment of women uncovered over the last year.

I did not and do not claim to speak on Farrell’s behalf and have no first hand knowledge of this incident, which took place before I was born. I only know what I’ve read and seen from reliable publicly available sources. In what follows, I’d like to contrast the way that this incident has been represented in various contexts–from Bernard Taper’s biography to Wikipedia to the Kennedy Center Honors–with Farrell’s own version of the story, as published in her memoir Holding on to the Air, still in print. (Farrell also recounts the incident in the documentary Elusive Muse.)

In short, I stand by my earlier characterization of the Balanchine-Farrell rupture, and reiterate my plea that coming to terms with troubling aspects of the Balanchine legacy should be a top priority as NYCB and SAB chart a new future. The romanticization or rationalization of Balanchine’s behavior no longer holds up to scrutiny, and if we cannot be honest about incidents such as this, whose facts are hiding in plain sight, how can we deal with the thornier challenges of the present, much less expect others to come forward with yet untold stories?

Suzanne Farrell’s memoirs, co-authored with Toni Bentley, make it clear that the circumstances of her sudden departure from New York City Ballet in 1969 were difficult on many levels and came on the heels of escalating behavior on Balanchine’s part in response to her romantic involvement with fellow dancer Paul Mejia. They follow the contours of accounts that have now become depressingly familiar. Powerful older man takes interest in younger talented woman and advances her career, man wants more than a professional relationship, woman chooses another man over the powerful man, the woman and other man are professionally punished for their choices, and the powerful man remains as powerful as he was before. It is worth noting at the outset that this incident took place when Balanchine was in his sixties, at the height of his fame and reputation, and Farrell was in her early twenties.

“Most men considered me too much trouble because of Balanchine’s watchful eye,” Farrell explains, recalling her surprise that Mejia took an interest in her in the first place, a relationship which at first amounted to artistic partnership and friendship. As their relationship developed, they tried to keep it as discrete and secret as possible. Eventually word got out and Balanchine became aware of the couple, with Farrell noting one of several “uncomfortable” encounters between the couple and the choreographer. She and Mejia met at a church on West 71st street for Sunday services only to realize that “there was George standing in the aisle.” Farrell’s mother discouraged her from continuing the relationship with Mejia, calling it “practically illegal” and predicting that it would cause trouble for her career.

When Balanchine realized that Farrell and Mejia’s relationship was serious, he made a surprising offer, “something he had never done in all the previous years” of their intense personal and professional relationship: he asked Farrell to marry him and to have a child with him. “Imagine what a wonderful, intelligent, beautiful child we would have,” Farrell recalls Balanchine saying. She also notes that such an offer sounded “very strange” in light of the fact that it was common knowledge that Balanchine did not think ballerinas should have children. This offer was made despite the fact that Balanchine was still married to Tanaquil le Clerq. “It wouldn’t be so bad to be Mrs. George Balanchine,” Farrell’s mother advised, further telling her daughter that “You can’t always have what you want.”

After Farrell declined Balanchine’s proposal, his behavior changed and he became more distant, which brought Farrell and Mejia closer together and helped lead them to the decision to get married following the company’s winter season. The news was considered radioactive, and company manager Betty Cage asked Farrell not to tell Balanchine while Don Quixote–which included especially iconic roles for her and Balanchine himself–was in rehearsal. Farrell and Mejia were married while Balanchine was out of the country, and upon returning from their honeymoon in Hawaii they learned in the newspaper that on February 5, seventeen days before their wedding, he had obtained a divorce from his wife. Farrell and others had optimistically hoped that her marriage would “act as a bucket of cold water that could cool the highly emotional situation” between her and Balanchine. But this was not to be the case. “Within a few weeks, when George returned from Europe,” Farrell explains, “I realized that my marriage had solved nothing.”

“I knew my career might change when I married Paul,” Farrell writes, “but I honestly didn’t believe it would.” At first things were normal, with Farrell receiving the same number of rehearsals, although with Mejia scheduled for “decidedly fewer.” Farrell learned from others that Balanchine had stayed in Europe for longer than planned after learning of the wedding and had to be induced to return. When he finally did he was distant to Farrell and refused to speak to her: “If we happened to meet in a hallway, he would turn and walk the other way.” But when the season began, Farrell was cast in her usual roles, giving her hope that all was well. After Balanchine complimented her on a performance, Farrell tried to reassure him that “You see, George, nothing has changed,” to which his face “remained impassive” and he said nothing and left the doorway of her dressing room.

As the distance between them increased, Farrell eventually confronted Balanchine directly, offering to leave the company, to which he replied that it was not necessary but suggesting that “perhaps Paul should leave.” Farrell’s “nightmare” of a rupture came to a head on May 8, 1969, the evening of the company’s spring gala, whose program included Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering and Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Lead dancer Edward Villella was dancing in the Robbins work and asked to be relieved of a role in the third movement of Symphony in C, a role that Mejia knew and danced well, but it was instead assigned to a dancer who had little experience with it. Mejia came to Farrell angry and frustrated, and Farrell decided to issue an ultimatum to Balanchine: if her husband did not dance in the role, they would both quit the company.

Farrell characterized this message as an “uncalculated gesture of sheer desperation” and upon receiving it the company’s managers begged her to take it back, but she insisted they deliver it, and looking back she says that she made the move knowing that subconsciously “something had to change in a big way.” When the couple arrived at the theater, Mejia’s name was still not on the cast list, but Farrell was still listed in her usual lead role, and she went to her dressing room as usual. After having applied her makeup and put on her toe shoes, she heard a knock at the door, whereupon the wardrobe mistress entered and removed her costume from its hanger. “Suzanne, you’re not dancing tonight,” she said through tears, and Farrell then realized that she “was no longer a member of the New York City Ballet.” Farrell and Mejia sat in the audience for the evening’s performance, a decision which seems “absurd,” but was made since they “didn’t know where else to go.” After the show, Farrell returned to her dressing room to pack up her belongings. “My whole life was in that small black suitcase,” and she now found herself “a dancer without a job” and felt “as homeless as any bag lady.”

Farrell and Mejia found themselves locked out of professional opportunities, both literally and figuratively. When the coupled tried to enter the State Theater to use a studio, they were turned away by a security guard who had clearly been given strict orders to do so. Later Farrell was invited by a friend to attend a public performance by the company in Saratoga and was denied entry and told explicitly that she was not welcome in the theater. In the press, Balanchine laid all blame for the incident at Farrell’s feet, saying that ultimately he had to make the artistic decisions and that he was “disappointed in Suzanne” and that “it would not be good for the company if they returned.” Farrell and her husband received no significant job offers, surmising that they were “hot goods,” which no one wanted to handle for fear of alienating Balanchine. The two found only sporadic work in the coming years, and Farrell eventually accepted an invitation to join the Brussels-based company of Maurice Béjart, where she would remain before being eventually invited back to NYCB many years later.

In my previous post I characterized Balanchine’s behavior towards Farrell as “destruction” as it relates to her career, and I don’t know what other word would be more appropriate. While her work in Brussels was certainly artistically meaningful and allowed her grow in certain ways, it was not a decision made from a place of self-determination or power. It was Farrell’s prerogative to dance for whatever company she wanted, and the fact that she would seek to use her stature to ensure fair treatment for her husband does not seem like an outrageous demand. But instead, Balanchine single-handedly brought the trajectory of her illustrious career to a halt and then blamed her for his actions.

You would not get a sense of the gravity of this incident and the personal and professional trauma to Farrell in several notable accounts. Balanchine’s biographer Bernard Taper characterizes their relationship as a “frustrated courtship,” and characterizes the decision to leave the company as Farrell’s:

“It is no secret that for several years before that he had been preoccupied with the young ballerina Suzanne Farrell, a preoccupation amounting to an obsession, and that, despite the forty years’ difference in their ages, he hoped to marry her. But she married a young man in the company named Paul Mejia at just about the time that Balanchine was getting his divorce, and in May of that year she and Mejia left the New York City Ballet because, she told the press, after their marriage Balanchine would not give her husband the roles he expected and deserved.” (324)

Making Farrell the protagonist of these incidents does not mitigate their antifeminist contours, on the contrary. What is more, Taper’s account paints Balanchine as the victim of this incident–and even more jaw-dropping, goes so far as to call him a recovering “survivor”–in the context of retelling the story of Farrell’s return to the company:

“Five years had passed since Farrell’s departure. By now, Balanchine had recovered from his infatuation, though the wound had been deep and painful and had taken time to heal. Still, Balanchine was a survivor, who believed in the simple motto…’Life goes on.” (341)

A good barometer of conventional wisdom, Farrell’s Wikipedia entry similarly paints this parting of the ways as entirely her fault and pursued of her own accord. “A muse of George Balanchine, she severed ties with him in the early 1970s, moving to Brussels and dancing with the Ballet of the 20th century.” It goes on:

“Though Balanchine divorced [Tanaquil] LeClerq to pursue Farrell, she instead married fellow dancer Paul Mejia. This caused the relationship of Farrell and Balanchine to be horribly severed. There was nothing but tension between them, and finally Farrell and husband Mejia left the company.”

The unspoken misogyny of this language is astounding. Farrell is rendered as the ungrateful muse, and you can almost hear Farrell’s mother in the background screaming “but he got divorced for you!” She is also given all of the blame for the deterioration of her relationship with Balanchine, and again the account of the couple’s leaving the company captures none of their pain and confusion, not to mention their economic anxiety.

A tribute video produced for the occasion of Farrell’s receiving the Kennedy Center Honors recounted this history using more benign euphemism, no doubt out of respect for the fact that she was in the audience, and perhaps with her editorial approval: “Even young muses grow up and need to stand apart from their mentors. She left New York, and danced with a company in Brussels.” If only it had truly been that simple and straightforward. It’s time to tell stories such as Farrell’s with integrity and honesty. We owe it to her and every other survivor.

Men Controlling Women’s Bodies is Nothing New at New York City Ballet. Just Ask George Balanchine.

Amid all of the discussion of the troubling news coming out of New York City Ballet in recent weeks, there is a curious gap in coverage. In an effort to explain how and why NYCB got itself into this situation, and in arguments about what needs to be done to get the company out of it, everyone seems to be overlooking something quite obvious. This something is George Balanchine himself, specifically his troubling legacy of behavior towards women.

Balanchine’s interactions with women have been characterized in various ways over the years that have made them either hallowed or excusable. Women were his muses, making it somehow ok that he traded in wives more frequently than many people replace their cars. Balanchine was a man of his times, as other arguments go, and we can’t apply “today’s standards” to behavior in past decades. “Balanchine himself was not without controversy,” as Sarah Kaufman noted diplomatically in a recent Washington Post piece, and had “a roving eye for ballerinas.” If only it were that easy.

The fact is, Balanchine had much more than a “roving eye” and his behavior can no longer be ignored or rationalized. His toxic relationships with women are one of many reasons that NYCB finds itself in the position it is today, struggling to understand how bad behavior was allowed to flourish for so long, both at the highest levels of leadership and in the lower ranks as well. At this moment, coming to terms with this unflattering side of the Balanchine legacy is arguably more important than preserving his choreography for future generations. Without an honest reckoning about its past, NYCB will never truly be able to move forward.

What kinds of troubling things did Balanchine do to women? The examples are many, and they have been documented in numerous publications and media over the years. They have been hiding in plain sight. They are not even open secrets – they are just things that Balanchine did, normalized by the enormous apparatus of mythology and hagiography that surround his public persona. It’s troubling but also not surprising that people are reluctant to call these behaviors out for what they are.

The following examples are not meant to be a comprehensive list but serve to illustrate what should be a pretty self-evident point. Throughout his career Balanchine interacted with female dancers in ways that were fundamentally different from the ways he treated male dancers. He interacted with women in ways that sought to exert control over them. This control was not just artistic in nature, but touched on sexual, psychological, and professional aspects of these women’s lives. Balanchine’s behavior was far from innocent and on one level was always about literal physical control.

Let’s take Suzanne Farrell for starters. One of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century, and widely lauded as Balanchine’s most potent muse, Farrell saw her illustrious career with NYCB destroyed in an instant. Her transgression? She decided to get married to a man who was not George Balanchine. Literally overnight she was banished from the company whose reputation she had helped to bring to new heights and was forced to rebuild her career in Europe before eventually being allowed back into the fold years later. This is not some secret story that has only recently come to light. At the time it occurred it was front page news, and Farrell subsequently retold the story in her own memoirs and even related it first hand in the documentary Elusive Muse.

Listen to Farrell tell her story and ask yourself: why did Balanchine decide to destroy Farrell’s career? It was clearly not just artistic differences. TV producer Linda Bloodworth Thomason recently exposed the ways in which CBS chief Les Moonves sought to undermine her professional advancement, through a series of subtle yet clearly calculated moves. By comparison, Balanchine’s treatment of Farrell seems all the more egregious and obviously motivated by personal and misogynistic animus. I have to believe that if we were just now reading the details of Farrell’s story in a Ronan Farrow New Yorker investigation we’d probably think about it, and Balanchine’s role, very differently.

Allegra Kent’s memoirs are rife with similar troubling incidents of unwanted gender-based attention. Kent remarks quite candidly that she knew that she’d never be in line to be Balanchine’s wife because she had already aged out of his acceptable range by the time she joined the company. She relates how she kept each of her pregnancies secret for as long as possible because she knew they’d be frowned upon by Balanchine, and how each time she returned after childbirth he would take her aside and tell her to cut it out (and he even added a racist comment about Puerto Ricans to emphasize the point). Any woman can be a mother, as he put it, but only the select few can be dancers. You can construe this as Old World artistic charm if you like, but let’s call it like it is. Much like the destruction of Farrell’s career, Balanchine was voicing his expectation that he should control the physical and sexual destinies of the women in “his” company.

Reaching back further in history, the early years of Balanchine’s collective enterprise with Lincoln Kirstein (prior to the official founding of NYCB in 1948), are riddled with equally troubling #metoo incidents. As documented in Martin Duberman’s The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein and Kirstein’s unpublished diaries (available for anyone to consult at the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division), Balanchine regarded the dancers of the School of American Ballet and its affiliated companies as fair game for sexual and psychological exploitation, with the lines between the two often quite blurry. Before a February 1935 performance of his now-beloved Serenade Balanchine informed Heidi Vosseler, moments before she was about to take the stage, that she was too fat to appear in the ballet. She was so upset that she could hardly make it through the choreography. During the short-lived cross-country tour of the American Ballet in the fall of 1935, Balanchine played a different kind of game with the women of the company. During an engagement in Princeton, Holly Howard decided to accept an invitation from some of the college men to go out following their performance. After learning of her night out, Balanchine informed her that Elise Reiman, whom he had suddenly decided to share a seat with on the tour bus, was a better dancer than Howard. This must have been especially cruel for Howard, who had been a special favorite of Balanchine’s, and according to Kirstein’s diaries had as many as four abortions as the result of sexual activity with him. There are more stories where these come from–again, many of them readily available in published accounts.

A full account of Balanchine’s troubling behavior would require book-length analysis, and this is is by no means the last word. And indeed, I’ve selected only three examples, and to reiterate, all of these incidents are from published or otherwise readily available sources. Who knows what kinds of other stories from the past have yet to be told or never will be told, whether because they were kept from publication or otherwise suppressed, or because the women who endured them found them pointless to articulate in the face of Balanchine’s reputation and renown.

This troubling legacy is as much a part of NYCB as the exquisite neoclassical ballets that Balanchine created on its dancers. No one would dispute that Balanchine did not put his artistic stamp on NYCB in indelible ways. To believe that his personal behavior did not have similar effects may have been a plausible stance as recently as two months ago. But in the face of recent news, and whatever new revelations tomorrow’s headlines will bring, one thing is clear: ignoring the shameful legacy that Balanchine left to NYCB will not make it go away.

Apollo’s Mother: Re-thinking the Past and Future at NYCB

In recent weeks the New York dance world – and the New York City Ballet in particular – has been reeling from shocking and painful news. Three male dancers left NYCB (one resigned and two were dismissed) over conduct in violation of the company’s policies. Entirely unrelated but soon after, former NYCB dancer and beloved instructor Peter Frame died tragically and unexpectedly. On the heels of this, the international dance community suddenly found itself mourning the death of Paul Taylor, a towering presence–literally and figuratively–in the history of American dance.

Confronting news such as this is difficult, and everyone must grieve and reflect in their own way. (Anyone considering self-harm should call 1-800-273-8255 for help.) It’s perhaps no surprise that my processing of these events has taken a historical turn, with an eye towards how knowledge of the past can help us think about the present and future. I keep returning to Apollo as I grapple with this news in part because one of the few dancers I’ve seen portray the lead role is Chase Finlay, who resigned from NYCB. (Updated: The disturbing behavior that Finlay is accused of has now been made public.) This personal connection aside, the complex past of Apollo offers a way to acknowledge the uncertainties of the present. And a new approach to the ballet–one that restores the role of Apollo’s mother, Leto–would contribute productively to reimagining NYCB’s future.

First to the past and present. George Balanchine’s Apollo is regarded as one of the choreographer’s most significant ballets. Since it was premiered in Paris in 1928 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes it has been continuously performed – the earliest ballet by Balanchine to hold this distinction. Balanchine himself regarded Apollo as an especially significant turning point in his development as a choreographer. Today the ballet is regularly performed by companies around the world, including by the New York City Ballet, and is regarded as a quintessential example of Balanchine’s neoclassical style.

Being cast as Apollo or one of the three (female) muses by whom the young god is taught in the course of the work is a mark of achievement in the career of any dancer. The men who created and recreated the role represent a distinguished lineage, including the likes of Lew Christensen, Jacques d’Amboise, and Peter Martins. (It’s tantalizing to think of what Paul Taylor might have made of the role.) Apollo holds the special status of being a serious work of art that is also an audience favorite and box office draw.

But let’s delve a little more deeply into the past. What most people don’t realize is that in America, Apollo was initially not so beloved as it is today. Known by its original French title, Apollon Musagète was met with indifference at best and hostility at worst upon its American premiere in April 1937 as part of a two-day Stravinsky Festival at the Metropolitan Opera. Instead of proving the genius of Balanchine’s pure neoclassicism, the ballet confirmed his reputation as a radical modernist with a penchant for the idiosyncratic and bizarre. Apollo was more or less a flop, critiqued and dismissed on almost every level.

Dance Observer, a monthly magazine closely associated with modern dance circles, found little to praise in Apollon Musagète and called Balanchine to task for creating movement that was unnatural for American dancers to perform and selecting themes that were too European in character: “[Balanchine’s] chief error lies in the choice of movement and concept so foreign to the American idiom. In a world wherein we find ourselves the youngest and most vital nation, the European cachet has long lost its potency.” They paid the ballet one backhanded compliment, saying that it “has a certain preciosity which gives it novelty, or did so when it was new” in 1920s Paris.

Musical America, a more mainstream publication, gave the ballet a different kind of double-edged praise. The ballet’s movement was “attractive in line if of an arty simplicity that is first cousin to the affectation in Stravinsky’s adroit score.” Another critic noted how Apollon was “one of the most tiresome of all Stravinsky’s scores,” and Balanchine’s choreography “was not of the sort to redeem it.” Yet another was unimpressed by the manner in which the young god Apollo “wrestled with three girls through some extremely ridiculous patterns, to music which hardly enhances Stravinsky’s reputation.”

The publication The American Dancer summed up the mixed reception of Apollon Musagète as follows, in words that are difficult to square with the ballet’s esteemed status today:

The choreography is bizarre, and it is in this rather affected form that Balanchine excels, giving rein to his imagination. Its flights frequently border on the line of insanity, achieving fascinating and exotic distortions; but–alas–they occasionally go completely over the border, resulting in sheer madnesses. However, these are at least usually diverting if nothing else. […] I find his originality stimulating, though the audience obviously did not.

It’s hard to make sense of these critiques and observations. They come across as unbelievable if not sacrilegious given the present-day stature of this work. I have no doubt that a few readers might dismiss them as made up or at least unimportant or insignificant given the eventual success of the ballet (not to mention its choreographer) in America. It’s as if these unsavory quotes are being dredged up to sully the ballet’s sterling reputation. Why would I want to “ruin” Apollo by circulating these kinds of comments? Why voice these unflattering truths now, so many years after the fact?

I trust many readers see where this is going. If we can’t face simple facts such as these–which concern only the critical reception of a ballet–how are we to reckon with the much more serious unpleasant truths about the past and present that the present #metoo moment is forcing us to reckon with? And in fact, these simple facts are anything but simple or inconsequential. It seems almost every day are learning that beneath the beautiful surfaces of art works we love, such as Apollo, are troubling secrets and damaged lives. Among other things we know that one Apollo mentioned above, Peter Martins, abused his position of power, leading to his resignation at the end of last year. Reaching back further into history, the research of dance scholar Mark Franko has revealed dark truths about Balanchine’s original Apollo, Serge Lifar. Franko has unearthed substantial evidence to show that the dancer and choreographer was a willing collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Paris during the Second World War. The transgressions of men who portrayed the role do not necessarily implicate the ballet itself. But these and other disturbing aspects of Apollo‘s past represent an invitation–if not an obligation–to reconsider its future.

Indeed, it’s timely to acknowledge that for most of its life, Apollo was longer than its present form (you can view it here in a performance from the 1960s). Most notably, it included the dramatic birthing of Apollo by his mother Leto, a visceral if stylized depiction of childbirth that Balanchine subsequently eliminated from the ballet. This is one aspect of the ballet that likely contributed to its negative reception by American audiences in the 1930s.

Now that there is clearly no danger of Balanchine’s “bizarre” choreography being misunderstood, I would argue that now is time to bring the birth of Apollo, and along with it Apollo’s mother, back to Apollo. What a powerful statement this would be, and what a meaningful way to embrace the ballet’s complex past, acknowledge the troubles of the moment, and rethink the ballet’s future. Restoring the birth of Apollo would place another female body onstage, a powerful mother, no less– indeed a Titan and mother of not just Apollo but the hunter Artemis (Diana). Equally important and not unrelated, this change would offer a chance to revisit the dubious permanence and stasis that characterizes Balanchine’s legacy today. During his life Balanchine was constantly changing and reinventing his ballets, a dynamism that ended at his death. Reimagining one of his most canonical ballets–in a version that he himself had previously overseen, it should be noted–would remind us that he was as an artist whose works were constantly changing, not preserved in amber. As the New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet seek for new leadership, this kind of broad-mindedness and reflection would be all the more welcome.

By adding Apollo’s mother back to Apollo it’s not as though Balanchine’s now “definitive” version would be lost. And while we’re at it, we could even, gasp, select a woman–Tiler Peck perhaps?–to oversee this new production. Put differently, one might say that “time’s up” for Apollo without Apollo’s mother. How long should the birth of Apollo stay in Apollo? Good question. Maybe until a woman is the artistic leader of New York City Ballet, or until a woman is President of the United States. It’s entirely uncertain which glass ceiling will break first.


“Know Ballet” – an alternative job description for NYCB/SAB

“But first, a school…”  (George Balanchine, allegedly)

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 32)

Many months after the abrupt resignation of Peter Martins, the New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet have finally made public the official job description for the person who is to succeed him. The posting is more than 1600 words in length – 300 words longer than the Declaration of Independence.

In many respects, the description is admirable for acknowledging the complexity of this unique leadership role. The incumbent ought to possess not just artistic talent and accomplishment – a rare enough quality in and of itself – but on top of that, the successful candidate will have a flair for administration, pedagogy, professional development, institutional relationship building, and, it seems, de facto “thought leader” status in international dance circles including but not limited to ballet.

Rephrased with respect to three men whose names are invoked in the text, the new leader needs to have: 1) the musicality and choreographic genius of George Balanchine; 2) the dogged dedication and administrative aptitude of Lincoln Kirstein; and 3) the creative genius and protean adaptability of Jerome Robbins. Peter Martins, the fourth man named in the description, embodied this complex constellation of duties and qualities with mixed success during his more than three decades in the role, before his sudden dismissal in December 2017.

But in reality, this is not a job description. If anything it is a devotional plea, a yearning for a mythic savior who likely does not exist, and even if he does (pronoun quite deliberately chosen), should probably not be given the job. This text is the cry for help of two institutions that clearly still conceptualize leadership in terms of apostolic succession  – modeled on Balanchine’s deathbed anointing of Martins – an employment paradigm which this very week was yet again revealed to be profoundly unsuitable to the realities of modern life.

With respect to the complexly interwoven histories of NYCB and SAB, the job description is also profoundly misleading, in part by claiming to be grounded in the actual history of the institutions. Most crucially, the idea that one person should lead both institutions is based on not historical fact but a foundational myth of the enterprise: “But first, a school…” As recounted by biographer Bernard Taper (and countless other individuals before and after), in 1933 when Lincoln Kirstein approached George Balanchine in London about founding a ballet company in America, the artist is said to have insisted that a school should be the foundation of the enterprise.

In fact, an abundance of historical evidence demonstrates that Kirstein and not Balanchine was the true initial champion of the School. Balanchine’s primary motivation for coming to America was the opportunity to create and present his own choreography – and thus keep up with fellow members of the Ballets Russes diaspora such as Léonide Massine and Serge Lifar. He showed little to no interest in the daily grind of ballet pedagogy, a reality that occasioned the almost immediate recruitment of additional faculty to the School, among them Pierre Vladimiroff, Muriel Stuart, and for a brief time, Erick Hawkins.

Balanchine’s sporadic commitment to the School was a major factor in its institutional instability during the 1930s. In July 1937 the Manchester Guardian reported that Balanchine and Kirstein’s ballet enterprise had enjoyed “a rather chequered career in its three years of existence.” One of its principal challenges was that it was “too much dependent upon one already famous man [i.e. Balanchine] whose permanency is questionable and whose interests are not enough tied up with the company’s training school.” Several years later, a 1940-41 brochure for the School of American Ballet touted Balanchine’s long-awaited return to instruction, implicitly acknowledging his absence in the preceding years – in part owing to his active career on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood. “Mr. Balanchine, while intimately connected with The School of American Ballet since its inception,” the text diplomatically explains, “has, on account of his professional engagements, taught comparatively little in recent years.” This and other evidence suggests that Jennifer Dunning was correct to surmise in the introduction to her history of the School of American Ballet that the exact origins of the “But first, a school” utterance “may be lost in time and embellished in myth.”

What then, should NYCB and SAB be looking for? In my opinion a more laconic watch-cry would better guide their leadership search. The great impresario Serge Diaghilev, to whose astute curation of ballet modernism Balanchine and many others owed their careers, was once (allegedly) approached by the young Jean Cocteau, who was eager to conceive of a new ballet. What kind of ballet should he create, Cocteau asked, to which Diaghilev offered the simple directive: “Astonish me!” More recently, General Motors CEO Mary Barra recently simplified the company’s byzantine web of workplace clothing regulations to only two words: “dress appropriately.”

NYCB and SAB thus might be better served by issuing a similarly brief imperative to identify their new leadership: “know ballet.” Know ballet’s past, present, and future. Know ballet’s rich traditions and know the ways in which it needs to adapt and change to keep pace with cultural change. Know the legacy of Balanchine and Robbins–in this day and age, who doesn’t?–and know and embrace the complexity of the art form’s history as it looks to the future. And in this particular institutional context, know how to promote ballet as a living tradition–through both education and performance–in the heart of the most vibrant dance city in the world.

Balanchine and Kirstein’s efforts to create a company and school in the 1930s were based not on clear certainties but rather profound audacity. The institutions that continue their legacies today should not be burdened by the weight of tradition, but rather embrace the spirit of innovation and discovery that launched the enterprise in the first place. In other words, NYCB and SAB do not owe their past accomplishments to Balanchine alone. Hoping and praying for an ideal successor in his image and likeness will do nothing to ensure their future success.