“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.