“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.

Taruskinfest Lives On!

Coming soon to a library or JSTOR platform near you! Two special issues of the Journal of Musicology in honor of Richard Taruskin. These six contributions were first presented at “After the End of Music History” (aka “Taruskinfest”), the conference for which I was co-organizer in February 2012 at Princeton. Special bonus: the first issue includes a response from RT himself, with a Wizard of Oz allusion in its title, no less!

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Society for American Music 2014

What a fantastic meeting of the Society for American Music this past weekend! And what fun to get to present about one of Ballet Caravan’s last gigs, their performances for the 1940 World’s Fair Pavilion of the Ford Motor Company, starring Dobbin the horse! (Yes that’s two men in the costume…) Although it might seem silly at first glance, A Thousand Times Neigh, a short ballet that told the story of the transition from the horse to the automobile, was universally praised by critics. Variety called it an “ace attraction,” and the New York Sun predicted that “Dobbin is destined to be one of the great names in American ballet.” John Martin in the New York Times was also quite taken by the ballet, arranged by William Dollar, praising it as “choreography that clings to the academic ballet tradition without being in the least highbrow.” Whether this had any bearing on the decision by Ford Foundation to make major grants to ballet in the late 1950s remains to be seen!

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