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Book Review

Terry Teachout: All in the Dances : A Brief Life of George Balanchine

Robert Gottlieb: George Balanchine : The Ballet Maker   

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 18 April 2005— George Balanchine, the Russian / American choreographer and the chief architect of classical ballet in the United States became a legend in his own lifetime. He was worshipped, revered and adored by the majority of dancers at New York City Ballet,  the company he founded in 1948 and made one of the finest in the world . The ballets he made, some 425 are officially listed, are amongst the most outstanding of the 20th century. He took classical ballet out of its Russian setting and presented it in a completely different context, eliminating what he considered superfluous and stripping it for the most part of all dramatic intensity and psychological depth. 

Countless books have been devoted to George Balanchine. Here, for the hundredth anniversary of his birth, are two more.

Both Terry Teachout's and Robert Gottlieb's biographies of the Russian autocrat are enjoyable, well-written, easily readable books. In both cases they have dealt chronologically with events, but unsurprisingly,  neither author comes up with anything new. Indeed, Balanchine, who married four of his leading ballerinas, lived with a fifth and had affairs  with many of the others,  was fond of saying that he had no secrets. The story of his life, as he was wont to say, was all in the programme.

Terry Teachout, a drama and music critic for various newspapers in the U.S., "discovered" Balanchine in 1987 and was overwhelmed by what he saw. Consequently,  All in The Dances"  makes sincere if somewhat eulogistic reading; he gives the impression he enjoyed writing it.

Teachout  gives a compelling analysis of each Balanchine work he has seen, amply illustrated by invaluable quotes from many dancers. And although he does not give source notes, he does include a short list of some of the books he used in the bibliography. His accounts are scholarly and meticulous.

But he never met the choreographer and so the summary of Balanchine's life has nevertheless been gleaned here and there from reading and from interviews with people who knew him. And all the comparisons he makes of Balanchine to Matisse, Picasso, and Stravinsky, together with the endless descriptions of his subject as a 'titan', a star', and a 'genius'  do become a little tiresome. While George Balanchine was undoubtedly one of the greatest choreographers in the history of ballet, he wasn't the only one. Many people in Europe, for example, do not think The Four Temperaments, splendid though it is, to be the "greatest" dance of the 20th century.

And therein lies possibly the biggest defect of the book, for regular balletgoers get the impression that  Teachout  has never seen dance outside America, if indeed, he has seen much besides Balanchine,  while the uninitiated are given the impression that no other choreographers are worthy of mention. Even Jerome Robbins gets short shrift. What were John Clifford, John Taras, Jacques d'Amboise and Richard Tanner doing? 
 
Teachout's limited dance knowledge is probably the weakest point of this otherwise pleasant and informative book. It leaves him unable to comment on Balanchine's sweeping assertions about European choreographers. Only balletomanes who know the importance of John Cranko and his generous fostering of such talents as Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, William Forsythe, Uwe Scholz, Jiri Kylian, and from there on, Nacho Duato, can smile at Balanchine's disparaging comments.  Generosity is a word few associate with Balanchine as one of his most sublimely gifted ballerinas, Gelsey Kirkland would have informed the author had he consulted her autobiography.

Kirkland's absence is surprising. Would her remarks about Balanchine have been too disobliging to include?   Teachout's first Balanchine ballet may well have been a revelation  to him and made other people'weep for joy', but I can only  remember exactly how Kirkland made me feel when I saw her dance on my first visit to New York City Ballet. Of the ballet itself or what it was I have no memory, only unforgettable images of a slender girl, full of grace and mystery.  

Robert Gottlieb's book, which inevitably uses the same source material and quotes for the most part as Teachout's, is more personal. As a member of the board of directors of New York City Ballet, he spent a considerable amount of time with the Russian master, and consequently his book gives more attention to the man  than to his work. He goes in much greater detail into Balanchine's relationship with his fourth and last wife, Tanaquil LeClercq, for example.  But he, too, regarded Balanchine as some sort of god and comparisons to Mozart and even Shakespeare abound. Gottlieb would have us believe that classical dance began and ended with Balanchine.

He nevertheless gives an interesting picture of the choreographer and his achievements, his ballets, his muses, and the effect he had on the history of American ballet. Starting with Balanchine's childhood in Saint Petersburg, his failure to enter the naval academy and subsequent fight for survival following the revolution when  he was abandoned by his family, Gottlieb makes his reader aware of the young boy's intense loneliness, a loneliness which was to remain with him to the end of his life.

 The great merit of this book lies in the inclusion of a 1965 article by Balanchine in Life magazine, "Mr B. Talks About Ballet", which many people have probably never read. In it Balanchine expresses his views about classical dance, which he moved forward more than any other choreographer since Petipa.
 
But it is also appears that Gottlieb has little knowledge of dance outside the U.S. which wouldn't matter at all if he had avoided so many sweeping statements and superlatives. It was however rather surprising to read that one of France's most important Prime Ministers, Léon Blum*, was running the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in partnership with the "sinister Colonel Wassily de Basil." It was Léon's younger brother, René, a man of wide culture, who died in Auschwitz in 1944, who was responsible for re-starting the Ballets Russes. Elsewhere in the book, Robert Gottlieb does refer to Léon Blum as a "famous" French politician, so maybe this is just a printing error.
  
Balanchine was a genius who created many works of stunning beauty, but if I personally had to choose between an evening of, say, Frederick Ashton and an evening of Balanchine works, I wouldn't hesitate. Frederick Ashton every time! Not everyone is busy deifying him, thank goodness! 

 

* Léon Blum, who was elected Prime minister in 1936,  was the first prime Minister to appoint women in his cabinet and was a fervent champion of a United States of Europe.

 



George Balanchine : The Ballet Maker
By Robert Gottlieb

224 pages 
Harper Collins (November 2004)
ISBN 0060750707
$19.95



All in the Dances : A Brief Life of George Balanchine
By Terry Teachout

208 pages 
Harcourt  (November 2004)
ISBN 0151010889
$22.00

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com



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