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George Balanchine: Ballet Master, A Centennial Exhibition

San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum

Review by Jeff Kuo

April 16, 2004 -- Veterans Building, San Francisco

When directors of ballet companies and ballet schools decide time and again to program Balanchine ballets they are paying tribute to that aspect of the choreographer’s genius that allows his choreography to seem contemporary even decades after their original creation. Who doesn’t feel at least a little thrill at the big finale of “Symphony in C” or the barest urge to salute after the patriotic kitsch of “Stars and Stripes”? Yet sometimes I wonder if Balanchine’s timelessness makes it too easy, especially for those of us who missed the Balanchine era, to forget that his ballets were in fact resolutely tied to period and circumstance. The current exhibition on Balanchine at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum can help us remember.

“George Balanchine: Ballet Master, a Centennial Exhibition” which will be on exhibition now through June 19, 2004 brings together an impressive collection of photographs and memorabilia documenting Balanchine’s life in the theater. Guest curator, Sheryl Flatow, whose writings grace San Francisco Ballet programs, brings erudition, knowledge, taste, and circumspection to bear on one of the 20th century’s most important artistic personalities. Through an impressive array of photographs and documents ranging from telegrams, programs, and souvenir books, Flatow traces Balanchine’s career from his student days in St. Peterburg and across the breadth and depth of his career.

Though I can’t say for the scholar, I suspect most casual ballet goers like myself will find something valuable, new, or unexpected. For example, Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, at age 9 was taken by his mother to enter the Imperial Naval Academy at age 9 but since their rolls were full and his sister, Tamara, was going to audition for the ballet section of the Imperial Ballet School, Georgi auditioned too. Georgi was accepted and what the czar’s navy lost in a budding mariner, the world gained in a ballet dancer and later, choreographer.

The exhibition is organized chronologically starting with “Early Years, 1904-1924” moving through the “Ballet Russes” to Balanchine’s arrival in America “USA, 1934” and ultimately ending with his funeral in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York. One of my favorite sections is “Popular Balanchine” which follows Balanchine’s work in film and theater including the musical “On Your Toes” (1936) including the companion ballets, “La Princesse Zenobia” a spoof on his own Continental heritage and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” which according to Tamara Geva, the original Strip Tease Girl, differed greatly from the version he produced for New York City Ballet in 1968. The periodized images from souvenir programs for musicals “I Married an Angel” and “Where’s Charley?” attest to Balanchine’s wide ranging talents.

Faces familiar and unfamiliar make their appearance in the exhibit which begins in the SFPALM antechamber and continues in the outside hallways. There are famous photos of impresario Serge Diaghilev and ballerina Alicia Markova. One of my favorite is a pensive and serenely beautiful Tamara Tamanouva, one of Balanchine’s “Baby Ballerinas,” costumed for the ballet “Cotillion” (1932) in a luscious prom gown by Christian Berard. There is, of course, Mourka the cat in a kind of free flight pose and Balanchine’s elephant ballet “Circus Polka” (1942) in Madison Square Gardens for Ringling Brothers, Barnum Baily Circus with its “fifty elephants and fifty girls.”

“Serenade” which we think of primarily a reverie in pale blue and flowing tulle originally is shown in an earlier version with women in colored tunics, andm I think I see bobbed hair. “Square Dance” just acquired by San Francisco Ballet originally had fiddlers in straw hats and neckerchiefs sharing the stage with the dancers. One of my favorite photo essays is on Balanchine’s obsession with the waltz: “La Valse” (1951), “Liebeslieder Walzer” (1960), and Vienna Waltzes (1977).

And, naturally there are photos, photos, and more photos of New York City Ballet first at the City Center then their current base at the New York State Theater. Balanchine as the Don to Suzanne Farrell’s Dulcinea in “Don Quixote,” a sassy Colleen Neary in “Rubies,” Heather Watts and Peter Martins in “Robert Schumann’s Davidbünderltänze,” and a sultry Suzanne Farrell in “Tzigane.” The exhibition is particularly good not only in placing a ballet at the time of its creation by showing its original cast but subsequent casts. There are pictures of Lew Christensen in “Apollo” (recently seen on San Francisco Ballet at the neighboring War Memorial Opera House) followed by later generations of Apollos – Peter Martins, Ib Anderson, and Jacques D’Amboise.

Since naturally any exhibition can only scratch the surface of Balanchine’s importance, some aspects of Balanchine’s significance remain unexamined, for example, the matter of gender politics and Balanchine, his relationship to modern dance, and the place of race in his world (it is worth pointing out that there are pictures of Arthur Mitchell in the show). Less problematic topics might include Balanchine and opera and his work in ballet video. Yet to complain would be petty. The wealth of material and Flatow’s informative texts are more than adequate recompense for visiting this exhibition. As an added bonus, the SFPALM is also hosting a series of activities related to the Balanchine Centennial.

The San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum is located on the 4th floor of the Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, across from the civic center and next door to the War Memorial Opera House.  The exhibition runs January 22 to June 19, 2004.  Admission is free.

Edited by Editor.

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