Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

How to follow Mr. B?

Heigi Tomasson and Christopher Wheeldon take the stage on Balanchine's centennial

Since George Balanchine’s death in 1983, all has not been well in ballet land. Dance insiders and audiences have wondered just what the future holds, not only for New York City Ballet—the company established by “Mr. B,” the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century—but also for ballet itself. The worry isn’t over the state of the dancers’ technical facility. No, the crisis in this centennial of Balanchine’s birth is focused instead on the creativity department, the choreographers themselves.

One of the first critics to muse aloud on the subject was Arlene Croce, then at The New Yorker. Back in the 1980s, she suggested that so pervasive was Balanchine’s impact on the generations of choreographers who succeeded him that an essay called “The Curse of Balanchine” should be written. No one, she implied, could add much more to Balanchine’s masterful innovations.

Croce had a point. When Balanchine’s dancers took to the stage, they moved unlike any dancers had before. They certainly danced faster, daringly performing more steps while still maintaining the clearest articulation. Apart from their physical achievements, though, they also conveyed an unprecedented range of emotion—often without benefit of storyline, sets or lavish costumes. Balan-chine showed that ballet needed only some music and a stage to become art. The best of his works constitute the best ever produced in the twentieth century.

Balanchine could quite simply do it all. While there were other important choreographers working in America during the last half of the twentieth century, he was the most prolific by far. By the time of his death, he had, in all, choreographed four hundred and twenty-five works, ranging from the seriousness of ballet and opera to the purer entertainment of Broadway and Holly-wood. No wonder the dance world continues to feel his absence so keenly.

The debate over the direction of ballet is especially vexed in New York City, which is still the dance capital of the world for talented dancers, but no longer rates as such for ballet choreography. During the dance boom of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, New York audiences had an overabundance of choices. At American Ballet Theatre (ABT) were not only stars like Mikhail Barysh-nikov, Natalia Makarova and Cynthia Gregory performing the Russian classics, but also the great American-themed ballets of Agnes de Mille and Eugene Loring and the psychological works of Antony Tudor. Over at the Joffrey Ballet, audiences could pick from an eclectic mix of early Ballets Russes, youthful pop ballets, and works by modern and postmodern choreographers. Lastly, of course, was New York City Ballet (NYCB), with the works of Balanchine as well as those of Jerome Robbins.

Today, ABT still produces the classics featuring technical virtuosos, but some say the vivid personalities no longer tread the boards. The Joffrey moved to Chicago after its founder, Robert Joffrey, died prematurely in 1988. And as for New York City Ballet under its current artistic director, Peter Martins, a former principal with the company and Balanchine’s handpicked successor, it depends on whom you ask. Either the company is doing just fine, thank you, or is in a state of serious decline.

Indeed, to read reviews of NYCB is to wonder whether critics are in fact discussing two completely different companies. Robert Gottlieb, presently at The New York Observer, Joan Acocella (and Arlene Croce before her) at The New Yorker and Jennifer Homans at The New Republic all believe Martins has turned the company that Balanchine built into a shadow of its former self. On the other side, critics like Anna Kisselgoff at The New York Times and Clive Barnes at the New York Post and Dance Magazine think that the company has flourished under Martins’ directorship.

Everyone agrees that NYCB’s dancers are technically accomplished, but Mar-tins’ critics feel that the dancers of today lack the boldness, personality and colour of the dancers personally trained by Balanchine. These critics also complain that the recent compositions entering the NYCB repertoire are not worthy of being seen next to Balan-chine’s masterworks. The Diamond Project, an annual festival of new choreography launched by Martins in 1992, has drawn heavy critical fire for this reason. Reading the most negative reviews, one has to wonder if perhaps what some critics really pine for is just another Balanchine. But can there ever be another?

Before Balanchine’s arrival in New York City in 1933, North America was a ballet backwater. There were only a handful of dance schools and virtually no dance companies, ballet or otherwise. The great pioneers of modern dance, like Martha Graham, were just beginning their careers. As for ballet, Americans had to make do with the occasional tours of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova or the Ballets Russes and its offshoots. In the American popular imagination, ballet was decidedly Russian, not only in its performers but in its subject matter: exotic, sometimes aristocratic and occasionally overdramatic. Ironically it took a Russian, Balanchine—who parodied this image in the 1936 Broadway musical On Your Toes—to change all that. During his fifty years in the US, he, more than anyone else, made ballet a permanent feature of performing arts centres around the country and forged an American style of ballet that would be celebrated and imitated the world over.

George Balanchine was born in 1904 in St. Petersburg and began his studies at the Imperial Theatre School at the age of nine. Soon he was performing children’s roles with the Maryinsky Ballet, the company for which Marius Petipa choreographed such classics as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Petipa died a few years before Balanchine entered the academy, but those who had worked with the choreographer who made Russia the home of classical ballet were still around, imparting his approach to technique and aesthetics. By the time Balanchine graduated in 1921, he was a member of the artistic vanguard of the new Soviet Union and had already begun to choreograph. But the time in which he could create dances without censorship was running out.

Along with several other young performers, Balanchine left his homeland in 1924—on July 4, a prophetic date of departure. He and his colleagues auditioned in Paris for Serge Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes, which eagerly accepted them. Diaghilev, who had never bothered to establish a school in the fifteen years of his company’s existence, no longer had a ready supply of Russian dancers (a revolution in the Motherland will do that to you). And he had another problem: Bronislava Nijinska, his in-house choreographer, was leaving the company. So, at the age of twenty-one, Balanchine became ballet master of the most famous company in Europe. In short order, he had to produce dances for the Monte Carlo Opera and, in Paris, satisfy the sophisticated audience’s need for exciting novelty as well as the exacting artistic demands of Diaghilev. “Astonish me,” the impresario once urged the French writer Jean Cocteau, who wrote librettos for him.

Balanchine, while already a competent choreographer, was still largely unformed in his aesthetic tastes, but being part of the Ballets Russes was an education in itself. Its collaborators included some of the leading artistic lights of the early twentieth century: composers Stra-vinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Satie and Prokofiev; painters Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Derain; choreographers Fokine, Nijiniky and Massine. Balanchine spent four and a half years absorbing this heritage and finding his choreographic feet.

It was Stravinsky’s musical example, however—particularly in his neoclassical phase—that taught Balanchine one of the most important artistic lessons of his life: that, as he put it, “I could dare not use all of my ideas.” Instead of cramming every choreographic trick he knew into one ballet, Stravinsky showed his colleague (and soon to be lifelong friend) that finding the dance equivalent of le mot juste was the royal road to artistic success. Apollo was the result. Even though the ballet met with little more than mild interest at the time, both Balanchine and Stravinsky felt that they had truly achieved something. The austerity and clarity of Apollo set the tone for the ballets on which they collaborated later, like Orpheus and their penultimate modernist collaboration, Agon, one of Balanchine’s “plotless” (often mistakenly called “abstract”) masterpieces. Balanchine further explored this stripped-down aesthetic in ballets set to the equally challenging music of other great composers of the twentieth century: Anton von Webern (Episodes), Paul Hindemith (The Four Tempera-ments), Arnold Schoenberg (Opus 34) and Charles Ives (Ivesiana).

For the future of American ballet, however, the more fateful encounter was one that took place a few years after the making of Apollo. In the wake of Diaghilev’s death in 1929 and the disbandment of his company, Balanchine kicked around Europe, working for a variety of companies before forming his Les Ballets 1933 (an apt name, as the company did not make it to 1934). While the company was performing in London, he was approached by a young, idealistic American, Lincoln Kirstein, who wanted to bring ballet to the US.

It is difficult to imagine ballet in the United States without the partnership of Kirstein and Balanchine. Kirstein, the son of wealthy parents, doggedly pursued the artistic life from a young age: at fourteen, he published a play; at fifteen, he hung out with the Blooms-bury Group. He went on to Harvard and there co-founded the literary quarterly Hound and Horn as well as the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which was instrumental in the foundation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Later he wrote a novel, poetry and several books on dance and the fine arts. He also became an important collector and patron of the arts. Kirstein first saw the Ballets Russes at seventeen. When he saw the company again a few years later, he was most moved by Balanchine’s works.

Kirstein was twenty-six when he made up his mind to use his inheritance to bring ballet—and Balanchine—to America. When the two met, Kirstein promised everything to his idol. Balanchine, in return, expressed his opinion that Europe was no longer a place that could support progressive ballet and said that he had been eager to see America ever since he saw a jazz band in Russia. Eventually, Kirstein assured Balanchine, the rootless choreographer would have his own company and theatre. Balanchine famously replied, “But first a school.” He had learned from Diaghilev’s mistake. A good thing, too: the School of American Ballet (SAB) was Kirstein and Balan-chine’s only stable venture for over a decade, until the establishment in 1946 of Ballet Society, the future New York City Ballet.

The 1950s were golden years for the young company. Balanchine and Kirstein cannily chose the perfect mix of older and newer pieces. For the general public, Balanchine did a revamped Firebird (a Ballets Russes title familiar to American audiences), The Nutcracker (which was televised across the nation) and crowd-pleasers like Western Symphony and Stars and Stripes. For the intelligentsia, there were “twelve-tone nights” featuring Balanchine’s stark plotless ballets set to atonal, discordant music. New York and the cities around the world where the company toured were abuzz. Everyone wanted to see what Balanchine would do next.

By the early 1960s, New York City Ballet was such a success that Kirstein was able to make good on his promise of a permanent theatre: the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, designed according to Balanchine’s wishes by Kirstein’s old Harvard pal Philip Johnson. At the same time, the Ford Foundation earmarked over seven million dollars in funding for dance, the first such grant given to the art in America, and almost two-thirds of that money went to Balanchine and Kirstein’s enterprises. The reward angered directors of other dance companies and schools, and yet, could anyone deny what the choreographer had given his adopted country? Could anyone deny that the dancers he had nurtured—Tanaquil LeClercq, Suzanne Farrell, Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella and a dozen others—were the stuff that dance dreams are made of? For thirty years already, with the rest of the SAB staff, Balanchine had raised the technical standards of ballet dancers across America, and many of his students had gone on to establish companies and schools in cities where none had existed before.

Surprisingly to many, Balanchine captured in ballet an unmistakably American tone. His dancers offered up a sleek glamour with their long, tall movements, epitomizing the urban sophistication of modern life in NYC with its fast pace and soaring skyscrapers. But even more important, Balanchine showed that ballet—and, by extension, dance itself—didn’t have to be a handmaiden to story, spectacle or over-the-top personalities. Dance could be about, and for, itself. It needed no other justification to exist as a work of art.

Balanchine was doing in ballet what others had already done in fields such as music, architecture and literature. With its enchanted princesses and tutus, ballet had always seemed a hopeless anachronism in the twentieth century (Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes notwithstanding); under Balanchine it became a perfect vehicle for the formalist impulse in modernism.

One irony of the current hand-wringing over Martins’ leadership of NYCB is that Balanchine’s modernist innovations, in both balletic movement and production values, helped open the door to the very forms of choreographic expression that some critics nowadays find so lamentable. As a resolute neoclassicist, discarding ballet as the foundation for his choreography was never a consideration, however much he experimented with the form. Balanchine’s career (which spanned six decades, from the 1920s to the 1980s) coincided with a creative explosion of modern and postmodern dance, but if he shared anything with those new choreographers working outside the classical ballet tradition, it was his general rejection of the stagecraft spectacle that ballet audiences had come to expect. Balanchine once said, “Poverty saved us.” As far as his aesthetic priorities were concerned, a lack of funds was no disadvantage. The choreography would be the only star. No wonder, then, that non-balletic choreography has become more and more palatable to cash-strapped ballet companies: these days, the classics like Swan Lake are prohibitively expensive to produce and require more dancers than most companies can afford to hire.

By the end of the twentieth century, the gap between the ballet and modern camps had decreased considerably, as had the mutual disdain. Since the 1960s, ballet companies have increasingly invited modern and postmodern choreographers to work with their classically trained dancers. Some early proponents like Bruce Marks, former artistic director of the Boston Ballet and Ballet West, have come to regret this development. Other directors feel differently. Take, for example, the current season of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, which showcases some of the most exciting contemporary choreography around. That its Nutcracker and Balanchine program are the only toe-shoed works is, depending on your point of view, reason for either despair or celebration.

Most new ballets today are of the twenty-minute variety; usually plotless and with little to no scenery, they fall under the loose rubric of “contemporary ballet.” The term encompasses everything from the neoclassical style developed by Balanchine (i.e., pointed feet and vertically centred, turned-out, elongated positions with light distortions) to choreography overflowing with the hallmarks of modern and postmodern dance (off-centred movement, abdominal contractions, “pedestrian” moves, etc.). It’s hardly a surprise that some people feel ballet today has lost its magic. What is at stake, according to alarmists, is the very definition of the art. When is ballet no longer ballet?

This year, the centennial of Balan-chine’s birth, ballet companies worldwide are paying homage to his achievement. Going beyond mere homage, Les Grand Ballets Canadiens is performing Helgi Tomasson’s Prism (2000) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia (2001) alongside Balanchine’s Episodes (1959), presenting a picture of the direction in which ballet in North America is heading.

If anyone understands Balanchine’s legacy in the context of contemporary choreography, it is San Francisco Ballet’s Helgi Tomasson. Tomasson, sixty-one, began his dance career in the early 1960s with the adventurous Joffrey and Harkness Ballets and joined NYCB as a principal dancer in 1970. Tomasson remembers Balanchine as a pure genius. “The solo in Baiser—which he created for me, which has been written about as being one of the most beautiful male solos ever created—he choreographed that in an hour and twenty minutes.” He was also a wonderful company director: “I don’t ever remember him screaming or yelling, but then we all had so much respect for him, maybe he didn’t have to!_…_He took you into his company and you became one of his family_…_We were there for the art of dance, for his creative process, and we wanted to be a part of that.”

In 1985, Tomasson retired from the NYCB and became artistic director of San Francisco Ballet (SFB), one of the premier companies in the United States. “When I was first starting here, I would think, ‘What would Mr. B have done?’” But Tomasson’s choreography does not dominate SFB the way Balanchine’s dominates NYCB. “I never set out to make an NYCB copy.” As a result, SFB has one of the most diverse repertoires in the world, its dancers moving with aplomb through classics like The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Swan Lake (all restaged by Tomasson himself) as well as through the works of Balan-chine and Robbins.

Tomasson also brings in some of today’s most important choreographers and fresh talents. One of the best young choreographers nowadays, according to Tomasson, is thirty-one-year-old Christopher Wheeldon, NYCB’s resident choreographer. Like Balanchine, Wheeldon started choreographing at a young age for his fellow students, and has already worked for Broadway (The Sweet Smell of Success) and Hollywood (Center Stage). Wheeldon trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and joined its company in 1991. He moved over to NYCB two years later, though, because he felt the corps de ballet dancers at NYCB actually got to dance—rather than “skipping around a maypole nightly,” as he had been doing at the Royal. Wheeldon continued to choreograph while dancing at NYCB, and his ballets soon won critical acclaim.

But with success have come unexpected problems, as Wheeldon deals with the media’s overwhelming desire to locate the next dance genius. Just last year, British pundits crowned him “Britain’s Balanchine.”

“I feel like the general tone is, ‘He’ll do for now.’ I think it’s human nature to pigeonhole people and wrap them in a neat little package, and at the moment there’s a little bit of a lull, particularly in ballet choreography, because there aren’t really that many people doing it anymore … So I suppose, being philosophical about it, it’s to my advantage that there isn’t much competition. But by the same token, as long as people are asking for ballets, I’m going to do them because that’s what I really love to do—I’m not trying to step into somebody’s shoes.”

Wheeldon believes that “a lot of the contemporary works that are going into ballet companies’ reps now are from modern dance choreographers who don’t necessarily enjoy choreographing for the pointe shoe.” He worries that such choreographers focus too much on a dancer’s physical presence and ignore the artistic presence: “Dancers…aren’t required to transport an audience anymore. It’s much more about how many turns they can do, how high they can jump, how high they can get their leg.” As a result, contemporary ballet can seem “a little soulless, a little cold. It’s been stripped down so much to this angry physicality that it almost feels as if the poetry is being drained out of dance.”

That said, Wheeldon is exasperated by the criticisms concerning the new ballets entering NCYB’s repertoire, in particular those from the Diamond Project. He notes that the company’s dancers really need the experience of choreographers creating roles especially for them. “Is City Ballet to do nothing at all? I hear people say it’s a waste of money. Should that money go into yet another revival of a Balanchine ballet? Fine, if what they really want is the NYCB to become a Balanchine museum, which in a sense it is very much in danger of becoming without that kind of project.” For Wheeldon, that a company like Les Grands has chosen to perform his Polyphonia and Tomasson’s Prism, both of which were premiered by NYCB, is proof positive that Martins’ initiative to seek out new choreography is not a failure.

Balanchine always acknowledged that his job as a choreographer was not only to create great works of art but also to entertain. He once said, “It’s not our business to say, ‘We are going to show you how awful your life is.’” While ballet can express such aspects of life, as he well knew, Balanchine clearly meant to transport his audiences somewhere better.

Wheeldon has come to a similar conclusion. His Polyphonia is set to a discordant, grotesque score by György Ligeti, but within the music there is, Wheeldon says, “something quite touching and beautiful. I suppose my aim with Polyphonia was to go into that and accentuate the strong physical presence in dance today, but then try to infuse it with a little bit of poetry, a little bit of tenderness, a little bit of human connection.”

Balanchine would have agreed. The myth of the all powerful, almost inhuman modernist creator has overshadowed the full scope of Balanchine’s achievement. Tomasson says, “I could go on through many of his ballets where you know that there is a great romanticism. Maybe he peeled away the excess, the frills, and has taken it down to the marrow, to the essence of the movement, the music and the dance. But he is never cold.” Wheeldon adds, “A lot of people say that Balan-chine wasn’t a skilled storyteller, in the sense that [British choreographers] Ashton and MacMillan were, but I still don’t think that there is a better story ballet than The Prodigal Son. There’s not a moment of mime in the ballet, and yet you are always very aware of the fact that the story is going on. The momentum of the movement, of the choreography, never stops.”