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.

 

 

Balanchine Said: Five Fascinating Things George Balanchine Told Reporters in the 1930s

George Balanchine is famous for having said a lot of memorable things. “When he stopped his class to talk or when he gave an interview,” as critic Arlene Croce has explained, “he always had something to say that people remembered, and he left the impression that these rough-hewn nuggets of his were as spontaneous as they were abundant.”

In the course of writing Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, the real story of what happened during George Balanchine’s first decade in the United States, I’ve come across many things that Balanchine said to reporters. These comments by Balanchine on the record have not circulated as widely as his other sayings, whose origins are often somewhat obscure.

Balanchine’s commentary makes for fascinating reading. Some of his remarks resonate with his most memorable sayings, such as his legendary pronouncement “Ballet is woman.” Others seem to contradict his later viewpoints. Some are humorous, and show the recently emigrated Balanchine playing the role of befuddled foreigner. Even others are just bizarre, such that one questions whether they are in fact his own viewpoints, or whether they were written by someone else.

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The reporters who transcribed and published these quotes no doubt worked very hard to get their facts right. So what kinds of things did Balanchine say to the press in the 1930s? Here are five of Balanchine’s most notable moments of “on the record” commentary.

1. On the Essence of Ballet

 

“It is pictorial, but it is more than that. It expresses movement beautifully. It appeals to the eye and to the ear. It is a synthesis of color, movement, and music. No other art form accomplishes this as purely and simply as the ballet.”

(Quoted in Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1935)

2. On American Women

 

“The American girl is ‘mieux construit,’ or, as you would say, better built, than girls of other countries. I think this is due to the freedom allowed American women and to the eager way these girls as well as their brothers enjoy athletics from childhood on. The American girl finds greater zest in her sports and athletics because they are not so much a matter of regimentation but enjoyment and freedom. She enters into them with high spirits and gets a kick out of them. For this reason she develops naturally a more graceful coordination of motions. In fact, she retains her femininity –most important to a ballet dancer.”

(Quoted in Baltimore Sun, December 2, 1934)

3. On Ballet on Film

 

“Such elements as wind, light, and sound cannot be as important additions to the classic ballet on the stage, as they can be in the film. Here, they may be introduced more easily and naturally. The innumerable technical tricks at hand, combined with the facility of increasing or diminishing the size of the screen, make motion pictures an ideal field for fantastic and imaginative creations. These creations are the proper domain of the ballet. Therefore it is obvious that the conjunction of the ballet with the film has both enormous and unexplored possibilities.”

(Quoted in Dance Herald, April 1938)

4. On Ballet in the United States

 

“Americans are interested in the dance and because of definite similarities in aesthetic pursuits which prevail in Russia and this country, the dance will flourish here. There is that love of bigness that is so important in the ballet. The skyscrapers, vast fields, gigantic machines—all make for thrilling spectacles.”

(Quoted in Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1935)

5. On What the Public Wants

 

“I frequently hear people say: ‘We give the public what it wants.’ This is generally only an excuse for productions built on the same old unimaginative pattern. The public wants new things, even if it does not know what they are.”

(Quoted in Dance News, 1937)

Want to read more things that Balanchine said in the 1930s? And would you like to find out more about the context in which Balanchine made these comments?

Get your copy of Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, to be released on November 1, 2018 and currently available for pre-order.

 

Learn About George Balanchine One Tweet at a Time

When you’ve been working on a book like Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, the real story of what happened during George Balanchine‘s first decade in the United States, you accumulate a lot of information. To give you an idea of what I mean, below is a screenshot of my Finder window. This is the “periodicals” folder of my dissertation files, showing all of the newspapers and magazines I consulted. And in this frame you can can see all of the clips I downloaded from just one newspaper, the New York Herald-Tribune (published from 1924 to 1966). You actually can’t see all of the clips in this shot – you would need to scroll up and down to see them all! While gathering all of this information is important for the overall research process, when it comes time to write you can’t include every single detail or you’d get in trouble with your editor for blowing past your word count!

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Similarly, when you go to look at sources in an archive you can sometimes get really lucky. Almost too lucky! One of my most important sources was one held at the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division at Lincoln Center, one of the world’s largest archives for dance research. These were scrapbooks collected by Yvonne Patterson and William Dollar, two dancers who worked closely with Balanchine in the 1930s. They kept hundreds of clippings, programs, photographs, advertisements, and fliers about the many projects and performances they were involved with. Many of these items are in quite fragile condition so I felt fortunate to be able to consult them first hand. But as you can see from this screenshot showing all of the reference photos I took, I could have written a whole book just from this one collection if I had used every last bit of info I found! (Most archives thankfully allow researchers to take photos of items like these, so you can gather information efficiently and consult and process them later. However, these photos are for each researcher’s personal reference only.)

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My book is going to be over 300 pages long, and has over 1,300 footnotes, so it’s not as all of this research was for naught! But since my editor gave me a word limit of 120,000 words, I had to make choices and leave some details out. But to make myself feel better about having collected all this information, I’ve decided to embark on a special Twitter project for the next few months. You can follow me @jpsteichen to join the journey.

What I’ll be doing is tweeting “On this day…” updates on a semi-daily basis. I got a head start yesterday on the Fourth of July, when I tweeted this:

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So starting Sunday, July 8 I’ll be doing more of this, telling you what George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were up to on any given day between 1933 and 1940, the years covered by my book.  It might seem like a lot of random information–I’ll be telling you when Balanchine and Kirstein traveled and had planning sessions, what high school gymnasiums and vaudeville theaters the American Ballet and Ballet Caravan performed in, and when now-lost ballets were danced for the first or last time. But this is what the research process is all about–finding and making sense out of a lot of small bits of information and sorting through to figure out which ones are most important. And most important, as a writer you then have to weave them into a narrative that makes it possible for a reader to understand why they are important. So I hope you enjoy seeing all of the small bits of data that went into this new story. And there is even more where these came from.

To make sure you don’t miss any “On this day…” tweets about George Balanchine’s career in the 1930s, follow me today @jpsteichen.