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.

Dollar Patterson Box 18 Scrapbook 108 Adelphi press

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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Catholic University of America – Musicology Colloquium

Many thanks to Andrew Weaver and the Catholic University of America Musicology Colloquium for inviting me to present today! I spoke about my ongoing research on two of George Balanchine’s early American ballets, Serenade and the Ivy League satire Alma Mater. This picture of part of the Alma Mater cast shows the football Hero with his bride and groomsmen and is from a photo spread done by the American Ballet for Vanity Fair in 1935.

Alma Mater color pic from VF Dollar Patterson Box 18 Scrapbook 116

Cannibals at the Met – from the Oxford University Press Blog

I’m a guest blogger today for the Oxford University Press blog or “OUPblog” as they call it. They invited me to offer some additional thoughts on my article about the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast initiative. I am grateful for the opportunity to muse on some of the more recent developments of this ever-evolving phenomenon! Read my post here.