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Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance

By Costas

Review by Jeff Kuo

January 31, 2004

In the world of ballet photography, Balanchine’s oeuvre seems to be primarily of a past world. His choreography is so indissolubly tied to the moment of their creation and the charisma of their original dancers that it seems almost unthinkable, for example, to speak of "Theme and Variations" (1947) without Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch; or of "Bugaku" (1963) without Allegra Kent and Edward Villela. For instance, here is Robert Garis from Following Balanchine:

"Emeralds" was my favorite at first but without Verdy and Paul it is hardly worth seeing; without the depth and richness of Farrell’s bodily presence, "Diamonds" will always seem a little heartless. (1995)

To those of us inconsiderate enough to have been born too late, the world of "original" Balanchine is unavailable except through the rare video releases of Dance In America broadcasts and the photographs of Martha Swope, Costas, Paul Kolnik, and Max Waldman. But are we of the post-modern generation as hopeless as all that?

Consider that audiences still flock to see Shakespeare knowing nothing of Will Kempe and Richard Burbage; and I had not noticed that Yefim Bronfman or Martha Argerich fail to fill a theater even though, no doubt, their playing probably resembles Chopin, Beethoven, or Liszt very little.

For those of us who are not annoyed by "Diamonds" without Farrell and fail to depart the theater when "Ballo Della Regina" is not performed by Merrill Ashley, there is Costas’ new book, Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance, the latest entry to celebrate the Balanchine Centenary. Despite its subtitle, this is not a biography nor could it even be properly called a tribute. The repertory rather than the choreographer himself is the primary focus of Balanchine. Essentially, the book focuses on 50 Balanchine works with accompanying commentary by associated artists and dance professionals.

There are, of course, pictures of Balanchine choreographing or rehearsing (these pictures are mostly black and white), but much of Balanchine are photographs of Balanchine works either on Martins-era New York City Ballet dancers or companies other than New York City Ballet. In fact, the first picture you encounter inside the covers is a spectacular 2 page layout of the Kirov Ballet in the finale of "Symphony in C."  Among this book's pages are such familiar images of Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea in "Don Quixote" and Merril Ashley in "Ballo Della Regina" but also fairly spectacular shots of Irina Golub (Kirov Ballet) in "Rubies," Sofiane Sylve (National Ballet of the Netherlands, now New York City Ballet) in "Western Symphony," and Abi Stafford (New York City Ballet) in "La Source."  With her bright smile and round, youthful face, I rather doubt that Stafford was even born during the Balanchine era.

However, I do not wish to give the impression that Costas’ book abandons the heritage of the past. Far from it. Commentary by such artists associated with Balanchine as Suki Schorer, Sean Lavery, Sara Leland can only deepen one’s appreciation of the works.

For instance, here is Sara Leland on the central pas de deux of "Symphony in Three Movements" (1972):

He described it as 'Balinese' because of its undulating, snaky gestures …. I believe he used those Balinese movements to make good use of a lack of mine. I admit it: I had undisciplined, floppy hands and arms, so here he was getting the most out of what could be a drawback. Anybody else would choreograph to a dancer’s strength, but Mr. Balanchine got results from a fault. (pg 193)

In addition to discussing the creative acts of choreography, much of the writing discusses the works themselves. It is this as much as the photographs that appeals to the dance analysis urge in me. For instance, in "The Art of Balanchine," George Jackson discusses the grandstand finale to "Symphony in C":

Beyond itself, this danced defile refracts centuries of theatrical endings, becoming an apotheosis of the classical tradition and, perhaps, a model of social order. There is entertainment value, formal beauty, process made tangible, awe, and meaning in these few minutes that seem like a whirlwind suspension of time. (pgs 10-11)

And, Francia Russell on "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" (1962):

As ravishing as is the choreography for the principal characters, some of the most magical moments in the ballet belong to the children: the end of the overture where the bugs and fairies comfort Helena and then settle into a puddle of small, sleepy bodies as the butterflies bourree sweetly across the stage; the earnestness and fleeting patterns of the small dancers with Oberon in the Scherzo; and the children’s return at the end of the ballet as they reclaim the fairy kingdom and bid the audience farewell with twinkling fireflies. (pg 103)

Yet something so far reaching as the Balanchine Enterprise (to use Robert Garis’ term) can’t really be encompassed in any single volume. "Bugaku" for instance wasn’t represented at all, and I thought the "Serenade" section didn’t do justice to this canonical work. But, in addition to the commentaries on individual works, there are essays about Balanchine's choreographic style by George Jackson, a brief biography by Clive Barnes, and essays about the Balanchine Foundation by Nancy Reynolds and the Balanchine Trust by Lynn Garafola. Since he provided the many magnificent images from over the years, it seems almost petty to complain about what is perhaps the most glaring omission -- a prose contribution from Costas himself.

Finally, a comment about the book itself. Appropriate for a book length photo essay, it is coffee table book sized and impressively heavy (0.98 x 10.60 x 12.32 inches). The paper appears to be good stock, and except for some of the photographs of Dance in America productions, the images are clear and vibrant. Some of my favorites pictures are Patricia Barker and Jeffrey Stanton in "Agon," Maria Kowroski in "Western Symphony," Abi Stafford in "La Source," Janie Taylor and Sebastien Marcovici in "La Valse," to name only a few.

Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance. By Costas. 248 pages. Tidemark Pr Ltd, 2003. ISBN: 1559498455.

Edited by Lori Ibay.

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