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Balanchine in Two Small Doses

Two mini-bios of the great choreographer

George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (Eminent Lives) by Robert Gottlieb

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

by Leland Windreich

January 28, 2005

In my home library I have three major biographies of George Balanchine (by Bernard Taper, Richard Buckle, and Moira Shearer) and a dozen books dealing in varying degrees of depth and scope with aspects of his life, works, interests and professional associations. I also have autobiographies and biographies of all of the dancers who worked with the ballet master, from Tamara Geva to Suzanne Farrell.

None of these books can be purchased at a retail outlet today, all being long out of print. But as 2004 drew to a close, two respected New York critics published almost simultaneously two chatty new biographies of Balanchine. I wonder if each was aware of the other’s project and if they anticipated a competition in terms of sales. Both started out with the intention of being brief. Gottlieb, an esteemed book and magazine editor as well as a critic, produced his text as a contribution to a series called “Eminent Lives” and presumably adhered to a required length and format. Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and music critic for Commentary, makes it clear in his preface that his study is intended for the busy layman who has seen his first Balanchine ballet and wants to know something about the choreographer and his place in 20th century art. I expect that both publishers scheduled their releases for the Christmas season, anticipating a healthy sale at what might be considered today as a reasonable price for a nice gift. Now we can sit back and wait to see who comes out the victor.

I find it hard to recommend one study over the other. Both men are ardent consumers of ballet, articulate in their examination of the dance arts, and thorough in their investigations. Both deal with the basics of Balanchine’s life, from his origins in Tsarist St. Petersburg to his demise in a New York hospital in his 79th year. Both cover his career as a dancer and choreographer, from his debut as a tot at the Maryinsky Theatre to the completion of his final ballet, Mozartiana, in 1981 at the New York State Theatre. Both deal with his romantic attachments, from his marriage at age 18 to Tamara Geva to his obsessive infatuation with Suzanne Farrell towards the end of his career. Both appraise his great works of choreography and enshrine him among the giants of his era.

Gottlieb, who knew Balanchine personally and worked on the staff at New York City Ballet, is perhaps the most reliable reporter of anecdotal material. Yet he bases a great deal of his statements on quotations from the work of other authors and frequently finds it necessary to give one or more alternate accounts of events in Balanchine’s life that have previously been taken as fact (e.g., the exact circumstances—time and place--in which he made his first contact with Serge Diaghilev). Teachout, who saw his first Balanchine ballet in 1987, is removed from his subject and deals with him more objectively.

Balanchine’s romantic attachments, which include four marriages and one common-law relationship, are amply covered in both books, and accounts of his intense infatuations with dozens, perhaps scores of young women he encountered in the workplace are noted with some detail. Neither author provides us with the names of his sexual conquests (nor do, for that matter, any of the other authors of the studies on my reference shelf). Balanchine continues to be honored with a respect for his privacy that has not been extended in recent biographies to three of his contemporaries: Rudolf Nureyev, Frederick Ashton and Margot Fonteyn. The two books do make it clear, however, that Balanchine was chronically fickle.

Both writers tell of Balanchine’s lapses in decorum. Gottlieb notes that on occasion he singled out Ruthanna Boris, an early muse and later a colleague in choreography, for her Jewishness. Teachout reveals that during the master’s professional relationship with Jerome Robbins at City Ballet, one which involved ignoring Robbins’s often erratic and cruel treatment of the dancers, he referred to him behind his back as “Jerry the fairy.” Teachout also indicates that a rivalry existed between the two men when Robbins’ ballets became popular, one which became more pointed by their competition for the love of the young dancer, Tanaquil Leclercq.

Gottlieb offers a candid account of Balanchine’s ambivalence toward the majority of his male dancers, quoting testimonials of some who both worshipped and despised him. His denigration of the celebrated Erik Bruhn precipitated a health crisis that hastened the Danish dancer’s early departure from the company. His determination to ignore Baryshnikov’s superstar status was deemed unfair by some, but the young Russian had voluntarily given up an astronomical salary to work with Mr.B. in a democratic setting, and although no new roles were made on him, he was able to explore nearly the entire New York City Ballet repertoire for the male dancer.

Both writers concur in their discussions of Balanchine’s masterpieces and observe in these works issues that suggest immortality. Neither gives a line to the many dismal (and sometimes expensive) failures, such as the disastrous "PAMTGG," part of an ill-fated cycle of ballets on Latin American themes, nor the pitiful "Persephone," a product of his dotage.

I prefer Teachout’s clarity in expressing what he sees on stage and its implications in a larger context. Gottlieb has an edge for his personal sophistication and his first-hand involvement with what has become history. He makes a few slips in reporting facts: according to Jack Anderson’s chronicle of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, it was that company, not the Original Ballet Russe, for which Balanchine revived Serenade and Le Baiser de la fee (p. 100), and John Cranko’s death was due not to a heart attack (p.188) but to asphyxia experienced on a trans-Atlantic flight, as indicated by his biographer John Percival.

(In an editorial digression about Cranko’s work, Gottlieb reveals that he had “suffered” after seeing "Eugene Onegin," that choreographer’s ballet to a “patchwork” of Tchaikovsky melodies. He quotes Balanchine as one who fully shared his feelings about Cranko and his choreographic vision, reverting to a tone characteristic of many of his caustic reviews in the New York Observer. It is the vehemence of his critiques that particularly delights me in an era characterized by political correctness in ballet criticism. For the most part he controls his passions in his Balanchine study and simply gives the facts).

But shame on both men and their publishers for failing to include an index to their books! Neither study will become a definitive biography of George Balanchine, and the absence of a key to its contents further diminishes its potential substance.

Both offer Balanchine bibliographies. Teachout also appends a list of significant video resources of the ballets. Gottlieb includes a reprint of an article written for Life magazine in 1965 by Balanchine, and it is fun to read. Eight pages of glossy black and white photos adorn the Teachout book, while Gottlieb’s publishers prefer illustrations sprinkled throughout the text.

So take your pick! Neither book will find a permanent place on my reference bookshelf, but for readers who have no better resources about one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, one or the other should suffice.

George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (Eminent Lives). By Robert Gottlieb.  Harper Collins, 2004.  ISBN 0060750707.

All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine.  By Terry Teachout.  Harcourt, 2004.  ISBN: 0151010889.

Edited by Jeff.

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