Balanchine and Maria Tallchief, in her costume for Le Baiser de la Fée. Photo: Irving Penn via
This winter’s Art Series installation at the David H. Koch Theater, an annual event commissioned by the New York City Ballet, filled the promenade with an eerie corps de ballet. Spaced in five rows of three, fifteen “dancers” appeared to be flash-frozen in rectangular blocks of ice. These monoliths, futuristic in feeling and weighing 3,000 pounds each, were the work of the Brooklyn artist Dustin Yellin, who calls them “Psychogeographies.” While some of Yellin’s figures are virtually complete, others, missing heads or extremities, seem to be caught in the process of Star Trek-like teleportation—coalescing or evaporating. Viewed from an angle, Yellin’s beings glow holographically. Viewed directly from the side they disappear like phantoms or fairies. Or like dance itself.
What are these figures made of? Paper and splotches of paint. Countless thousands of tiny images have been cut—as with cuticle scissors—from illustrations in books and magazines on culture, history, myth, nature, science, everything under the sun, and then, in a kind of surgical decoupage, with tint and color added, they are suspended in glass. Upon closer inspection we see that the monoliths consist of many layers of glass, large rectangles shaped like giant microscope slides. Each slide has its own smear of cell-sized pictures, synaptic spaces, and glimmering MRI intensities; when the slides are fused together they create a volumetric being, retinal memories whirling into human shape. But whose retinal memories? Yellin has said that the name of a dancer is inscribed beneath each monolith. And yet these bodies—blue grottoes, green shade gardens, moon- and star-washed galaxies—seem not so much the inner world of a dancer but the metaworld of a dance: portraits, perhaps, of the choreographer’s unconscious.
Yellin’s unmelting ice blocks are particularly appropriate to the theater of George Balanchine, with its wintry soul, its white winds rolling off the frozen River Neva. A touch of polar vortex whirls through the repertory, from the crystal palace of Symphony in C to the icy corridors of “Diamonds,” and all year, throughout the theater and its offices, the paper snowflakes used to create the blue blizzard in The Nutcracker turn up in strange places. When NYCB presented its Tchaikovsky Festival in 1981, the proscenium was framed with abstract icicles of transparent tubing, designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. As Arlene Croce wrote in The New Yorker, “Johnson and Burgee’s Crystal Cathedral, in Garden Grove, California, was the inspiration for their ‘ice palace’ Tchaikovsky set, designed at Balanchine’s request.” Croce admired the set conceptually, even as she questioned whether it worked tonally for everything in the Festival. But maybe Balanchine didn’t mean it to work that way. Maybe this crystal cathedral—his “request,” after all—was built for the matriarch who breathed eternity into so many of his ballets: the Ice Maiden, as immortalized in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the same name.
“The glacier lies like a rushing stream frozen and pressed into blocks of green crystal, one mass of ice balanced on another,” writes Andersen, and “within it yawn deep hollows, immense crevasses. It is a wondrous palace of crystal, and in it dwells the Ice Maiden, queen of the glaciers.” Andersen tells the story of a baby named Rudy. Held close by his mother as she travels through a snowstorm, the two fall into a crevasse where the mother dies and the boy is kissed by the Ice Maiden. The baby is found, Andersen writes, “But a change seemed to have come over him since his terrible experience in the glacier crevasse—that cold, strange ice world . . .” Raised by his grandfather, Rudy grows up and falls in love with Babette, the miller’s daughter. The wedding day approaches and the couple takes a rowboat to an island in a glacial lake, where they sit together and enjoy a moment of perfect peace. When the boat drifts into the lake, Rudy plunges in to retrieve it. The jealous Ice Maiden, waiting in the frigid deep, kisses his feet: “ ‘Mine! Mine!’ sounded around him and within him. ‘Now you belong to me.’ ” And he is gone.
Balanchine knew this story well. It was the subject of a ballet conceived and composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1928, on the heels of his Apollon Musagète. The work was commissioned by the wealthy performer and art patron Ida Rubinstein, the idea being that Stravinsky should write something inspired by Tchaikovsky, because 1928 marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of his death. Feeling that an affinity existed between Tchaikovsky and Andersen, Stravinsky alighted on “The Ice Maiden.” He transformed the harsh and punitive tale into an allegory about artistry and retitled it Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy’s Kiss). In Stravinsky’s reading, it is the artist who is marked—“a fairy imprints her magic kiss on a child at birth and parts it from its mother”—and who must forever answer to a being from the beyond. In his dedication to the score, Stravinsky fused the Fairy/Ice Maiden with the Muse who “similarly branded Tchaikovsky with her fatal kiss, whose mysterious imprint made itself felt in all this great artist’s work.” Stravinsky’s allegory, though still cold, brings a poetic coherence and consolation to the tale. But that doesn’t mean his scenario was theatrically resolved.
Rubinstein’s Baiser production of 1928, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, was not a success (Rubinstein miscast herself as the Fairy). Frederick Ashton choreographed a version for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1935, his first important work for the young Margot Fonteyn. In 1937, Balanchine attempted Baiser, premiering it in the American Ballet’s mini Stravinsky Celebration at the Metropolitan Opera—a program that included the first American performance of the Stravinsky–Balanchine Apollo and the world premiere of their Jeu de Cartes. Apollo, of course, is immortal; the jokey Jeu de Cartes, not so much, even though some critics grew to admire it. But Baiser, a story ballet, cast a spell that held many in thrall. In 1940 Balanchine set a revised version of Baiser on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (he would change the final scene several times). It was this production that the critic Edwin Denby called “Poetic theater at its truest.” In 1947 Balanchine set the ballet on the Paris Opera, again revising the ending. And in 1950, when the New York City Ballet was just two years old, Balanchine once more revived Baiser, adding a new epilogue.
All these revisions pointed to both his frustration with the score’s episodic nature (ringing down the curtain for scene changes didn’t help) and his difficulty in staging certain key moments, especially the last scene in which the Fairy takes the Bridegroom (Rudy) into her underwater cathedral—“icicles made the organ pipes,” writes Andersen, “and the mountain torrents furnished the music.” Balanchine’s view of the ending was that “it should have a magical effect: the fairy should appear to be suspended and the bridegroom, just below her, must seem to be swimming through space, as it were, to reach her. The Ice Maiden drags the boy down into the lake with her.” Balanchine tried to suggest the two figures moving in water, but due to stage perspectives could not achieve the desired illusion. After 1951 he dropped Baiser from the NYCB repertory and in 1954, according to Lincoln Kirstein, “Balanchine’s group formations for [Baiser’s] snowstorm were reborn in a variant when he came to choreograph The Nutcracker.” Baiser was reabsorbed into a blizzard.
As was often the case with Balanchine, gone did not mean forgotten. Stravinsky died in 1971, and in 1972, for the company’s Stravinsky Festival, Balanchine came to terms with Baiser’s unwieldy scenario by re-choreographing it “without a setting and without a story line, as a dance ballet.” He did this by doing without Stravinsky’s original score. Instead of the full ballet, Balanchine turned to Stravinsky’s shorter concert suite of the ballet, Divertimento (1934).He daringly—and brilliantly—rearranged the suite, made cuts, and re-inserted sections from the full ballet where needed. Balanchine tinkered again in 1974, adding back much of the music from Stravinsky’s last scene, “The Lullaby of the Land Beyond Time and Place.” To this music, which was based on Tchaikovsky’s impassioned melody “None But the Lonely Heart,” Balanchine choreographed an astonishingly beautiful vision of renunciation, one that, according to Robert Garis (who wrote eloquently on Baiser in Following Balanchine), “retained what was most precious in Stravinsky’s original libretto—the disconcerting gap between the sunlit world of ordinary human experience and the dark world of romantic destiny.” This final score, says the timpanist Arnold Goldberg, a longtime member of the NYCB orchestra, “was all chopped up. It was really something to play. We were flipping pages back and forth.” You could say this restructured score was Stravinsky pulled through the prism of Balanchine. The ballet was now called Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée.”
Clearly, Baiser had Balanchine in its grip, not just musically but as a creational myth. Otherwise why, despite the fact that Baiser never achieved the lofty status of so many of his ballets, did he give it eight pages in his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets (many Balanchine masterpieces get merely two pages, including Serenade, Symphony in C, and Jewels). Moreover, five of these pages are plot synopsis, this from a choreographer who has a reputation for not wanting to tell stories. On some level Balanchine seemed to understand that Le Baiser de la Fée was his story, his life. We look upon the ballet Apollo as prophetic, the beginning of Balanchine’s own coming-of-age as a choreographer, his grabbing the Apollonian reins and driving into the light. Yet in that same year of 1928 came Baiser, another prophecy, this one more in the nature of a curse. The “kissed” boy will not find peace with a bride. The Ice Maiden—his art—will always come first, the great price for the great gift.
By 1937, when Balanchine first choreographed Baiser, he’d already had two wives (Tamara Geva and Alexandra Danilova), and had experienced many infatuations. He would marry the impossible Vera Zorina in 1938; wives Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil LeClercq were to follow. Balanchine never would find long-term happiness in marriage—as Stravinsky did with his second wife, Vera de Bosset—and the ballerinas who became his brides, all having first been muses, eventually understood that he would move on to the next muse-bride. This was his process as an artist. Despite his romantic ardor, his desire to possess, and his grief in unrequited love, he in time blew cold—the next love warmed him up again. Then too, the muses brought their own complexity to the equation. As the ballerina Violette Verdy said in a 2012 interview, “All those wonderful women he adored and they would close the door on his nose, you know. They wanted the choreography but not the man. He accepted with great humility that he was not a beautiful man and that he was not an ordinary man, and that he had this great treasure in his arms.” Whichever way you look at it, the ice kiss was upon him. Balanchine himself once said to the dancer Ruthanna Boris, “I envy you because you are a Jew. You have something warm here [touching his heart] like the sun. And I have here a little dagger.” Or an icicle.
That last quote comes from Richard Buckle’s biography George Balanchine: Ballet Master, published by Random House in 1988 and savagely cut before it went to press. What, one wonders, was in those pages, tossed because of a publisher’s bottom line? And why, when so many in New York literary culture and publishing were in love with Balanchine and his NYCB, wasn’t there deeper digging into his life and art? It’s been too slowly dispelled, the Kirstein–Balanchine taboo placed on intense interpretation of the ballets. But the tide is turning. In Ballet Review, the critic Don Daniels has been studying Balanchine’s work with terrific rigor and imagination. The critic Joel Lobenthal is singlehandedly creating an archive of interviews with dancers from all eras of NYCB history. Arlene Croce’s study, while long past its 2004 publication date, is still much awaited. The academic Jennifer Homans is at work on a Balanchine biography. And Lynn Garafola, professor of dance at Barnard College, hosts annual conferences on Russian and Soviet ballet, which always include at least one probing new paper on Balanchine. The great event of recent Balanchine scholarship, Elizabeth Kendall’s Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer (2013), showed that there existed a wealth of material that no one had thought to look for.
Kendall’s book focuses on the first twenty years of Balanchine’s life and brings into high relief a relationship that began when he was accepted into the Imperial Theater School—his continuous pairing with an extraordinary classmate, Lidia Ivanova—and the traumatizing end to that relationship. Where Ivanova has been a mere sentence in most Balanchine biographies, if mentioned at all, she now emerges as a powerful and formative presence. She was not a love interest but a force, an emerging star of special intensity who was also a sibling by proxy. Ivanova was scheduled to leave Russia in a troupe of five that included Balanchine, Geva, Danilova, and Nikolai Efimov. Only four left, because Ivanova was drowned in a mysterious boating accident, possibly a political murder, on an afternoon excursion along the Fontana Canal. Her body was never found and her death stayed with her friends forever, not only in their memories. In Balanchine’s choreography a feeling of fatedness adheres in his recurring use of three girls (Geva–Danilova–Ivanova), whether they are three leads, as in Serenade, or a unit of wayward energy, as in La Valse. Certainly, our new understanding of Ivanova’s life and death opens new windows into the ballets. Watching performances of Serenade this winter, it was hard not to see Ivanova in the fallen Waltz girl, hard not to see a stunning tenderness toward her, when from the floor she lifts her gaze to the male lead (so often a Balanchine surrogate), who has come to stand over her. She reaches her hand straight up to him and he holds it for what seems an eternity, almost as if the waters are closing over her and he will comfort her through it. The ballerina Heather Watts, when she danced the Waltz girl, remembers Balanchine coaching her on this moment, and very definite about it, too. “Don’t move,” he said. “Don’t move your eyes. Just stare. Freeze.”
Kendall’s book brings into high relief another important relationship, that of Balanchine and his mother, Maria. After years of research in old archives, with help from a St. Petersburg genealogist, Kendall still could not pin down her lineage or her class. Balanchine’s younger brother Andrei claimed that Maria’s father was German—Nikolai Almedingen—but the connections to that name are murky. Meliton Balanchivadze, Balanchine’s father, met Maria in the late 1890s. Some say She was his landlady’s daughter (Maria was not highly educated but did play the piano). Kendall thinks she was probably illegitimate and writes that “persistent rumors hold that Maria’s mother was Jewish on her mother’s side.” To the Balanchivadze grandchildren, however, Maria “seemed neither warm nor humorous, therefore not Jewish: a responsible caretaker, but emotionally detached.”
The portrait that Kendall fleshes out is of a blonde beauty, aloof and cool. Balanchine was the middle child and even before he was placed, at age nine, in the Imperial Theater School, he was aware that of the three children he came third in his mother’s eyes. He said something to that effect in his talks with Solomon Volkov in the last year of his life: “Everyone wants to be the favorite child in a family, but not everyone has the luck.” We know he longed to be close to his mother, and that he spoke of her cooking, her music, and her beauty throughout his life. We know he called for her on his deathbed. But it was Maria, in 1913, with no forewarning and complete pragmatism, who left Balanchine crying and screaming at the Theater School, an experience he likened to “a dog that had just been taken out and abandoned.” It was she who gave him to ballet—Maria, “queen of the glaciers.”
So even before the horrors of the Russian Revolution—a “cold, strange ice world” that commenced in 1917—there was a chill in Balanchine’s soul. Add to this the trauma and deprivation of the Revolution, a sudden crevasse in which everyone, including the formerly coddled Imperial students, found themselves. Balanchine’s dancers heard him speak frequently of 1917 and its aftermath, of hunger so keen that the boy students of the Mariinsky hunted rats in the theater’s basement (“Sometimes we catch rat and we kill and we eat”), and cold so unrelenting “we almost froze. We could see our breath onstage. At night in school we burned wood parquet floors.” Tallchief, married to Balanchine from 1946 to 1952, remembers nightmares that persisted for years, Balanchine calling out in his sleep “in an unfamiliar tongue.”
In her memoir of 2006, In Balanchine’s Company, Barbara Millberg Fisher writes of how one begins “to see the history woven into the ballets.” Looking at 1954—a year that saw Balanchine choreograph the ghoulish, cadaverous Opus 34 and then one month later The Nutcracker, opulent and radiant—she wonders if Opus 34 is linked to his experience of that “awful, brutal period,” the revolution. The four sections of its Schoenberg score are titled Threat, Danger, Fear, and Catastrophe. “Maybe the bandages and corpses and terrifying operations of the Schoenberg,” writes Fisher, “constituted the first stage of a journey to the past, the dead past. Maybe they enabled the Orphic choreographer to retrieve his lush, magical production of The Nutcracker from the lost region of the Russian Imperium.” One cannot underestimate these totems and Fate figures, which give structure to the void, or the enchantments of myth and lore, their narratives like ancient passes that drew Balanchine through.
So Baiser had meaning for Balanchine, which crystallized in his final version of 1972–74, a masterpiece of compressed imagery and musical fusion. Such fusion is in play from the first note of the overture, a sustained and silvery tremolo in the violins which Balanchine lifted from the middle of Stravinsky’s score (Scene 3, By the Mill) and moved to the ballet’s beginning. This tremolo is Stravinsky’s reference to the momentous entr’acte tremolo in Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, the second section of Act Two, when the prince approaches the spellbound castle, the magic kiss at hand. Baiser would now begin with a kiss, bestowed by the music. It is not the simple kiss of Beauty, but something more complex, the kiss, let us say, of art. The three female roles of Balanchine’s 1937 Baiser—the Mother, the Fairy, the Bride—were now bound in one role, the ballerina who is at turns Bride, Ice Maiden, Mother, Muse. This is the way the personae of those loved and lost, desired and feared, double and disappear, sink down and swim up, whirl and freeze and thaw and flow around us and within us—and around and within Balanchine’s ballets. On its clean, typed title page, NYCB’s chopped-up, marked-up Baiser score is subtitled, almost as if it were a memoir, “Balanchine Suite.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 10, on page 40
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