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.

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

  1. Thank you for writing this. I danced under Balanchine and had a metoo morment as well. Unfortunately, it is severly frowned upon to even mention this and the majority of the dancers will ostracize anyone who dares to bring it up. Truthfully, thank you.

  2. Brilliant article by distinguished scholar of music and dance….Should be required reading for all worldwide, young and old, male and female, in so many arts and performing arts. Thank you, James Steichen, from this old dancer, MRAD London 1951.

  3. Pingback: George Balanchine, Suzanne Farrell, and Ballet’s #metoo Moment | James Steichen

  4. Pingback: The Times Are Evidently NOT A-Changin’ in Balanchine Land | James Steichen

    • In the ballet world, jobs with world-class companies are extremely hard to come by. Maybe some dancers felt it was worth it. Maybe others put up with it because they felt they had no option. Additionally, traditional ballet training schools dancers to be silent.

  5. Hi James! This is well written and researched. I too have had similar thoughts/ concerns after reading several autobiographies by dancers who worked at NYCB during Balanchines’ reign. I should be possible to acknowledge his problematic behaviour while still enjoying his fabulous choreography.

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