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George Balanchine - A Life's Journey in Ballet
The Harvard Theatre Collection's Exhibition and Symposium
Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Lamont Library's Forum Room and Lowell Hall
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Wednesday and Thursday, April 14 and 15, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright 2004 by George Jackson
published 19 April 2004

If some people still think ballet unworthy of scholarly interest while others fear that academic research will suffocate the art, Harvard's two days devoted to choreographer George Balanchine must have put such doubts to rest. What one saw and heard had concrete substance, broad significance and humanity. Especially welcome was the humanity, conveyed as personal warmth and a willingness to listen and learn by all concerned—curators, speakers and members of the audience.

The exhibit, which can be seen through May 28 on the ground floor of the Pusey Library, opened Wednesday afternoon with an informative reception. Circulating through the invited audience in order to chat about items were Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, head of the Harvard Theatre Collection and principal organizer of these Balanchine events, and Iris M. Fanger, dance critic and Wilson's co-curator for the exhibit. The photos, sketches, notations, communications and assorted artifacts on display were a selection from Harvard's Balanchine-relevant holdings and loans. Just a few examples may suffice to suggest the scope. From Balanchine's Russian life was a vivid brown-black-blue-yellow 1924 design by Alexander Golovin for a monster costume worn by Balanchine (then still known as Balanchivadze) in Fyodor Lopukov's Firebird at the Maryinsky. Shot in western Europe was a 1926 Man Ray photo that shows two bookend ballerinas, each with what seems like just a single skinny leg; the illusion is created by the modernist black/white costuming and make-up worn by dancers Felia Dubrovska and Lubov Tchernicheva in the Diaghilev Ballet Russe's production of Balanchine's Jack in the Box. From the 1940 Hollywood movie I Was an Adventuress, a still of Vera Zorina presented her as a glamorous Balanchine Swan Queen costumed in black. The poster design by Edward McKnight Kauffer for the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus's 1942 Ballet of the Elephants by Balanchine was mostly black-tan-blue-yellow and of gentle impact. Lighting in George Platt Lynes' 1948 camera study of Balanchine's Orpheus turned two nude danseurs, Francisco Moncion and Nicholas Magallanes, into sculptural figures. A pencil and crayon portrait by Vincent H. Olmstead showed Balanchine, eyes bulging, as Don Quixote in 1965. Costas' 1975 photo of Balanchine's Tzigane caught Suzanne Farrell's gipsy girl in a mood swing.

Balanchine as author was represented by scenarios he wrote. Some of these he left unused, at least in their detailed versions. Yet from their plots he distilled themes that linger—such as the gemstone motifs in his Palais de Crystal (the first version of Symphony in C) and similar ones in the Jewels triptych. Prominent in the exhibit was Serge Lifar, Balanchine's principal danseur during the Diaghilev period and his first choreography student. According to Fanger, there is a fascinating Lifar letter to Balanchine in the Harvard collection which wasn't included in the exhibit. It was written late in both men's lives. Balanchine had wanted his New York City Ballet to present Lifar's Icare. However, when Lifar arrived from Paris, Balanchine was ill and unable to meet him. Lifar thought he was being snubbed and wrote the epistle in anger. He wanted to terminate all further relations—but only after recounting all the things he had done for Balanchine, including convincing Diaghilev to give Balanchine chances. Also in the archives but not on display there is said to be evidence that Lincoln Kirstein, who recruited Balanchine for America, initially wanted to enlist Lifar instead, but was turned down.

The symposium, in the intimate Forum Room, began Thursday morning after a long and conversational breakfast session. Wilson served as moderator. Tim Scholl, of Oberlin College and the University of Helsinki, spoke about some of the sources for Balanchine's choreography, particularly the Georgian folk dancing that he first saw in his father's restaurant. Scholl used videos to illustrate similar step sequences and formations that occur in certain Georgian dances and in Balanchine's Serenade. Of course, the material was transformed by Balanchine into imagery reminiscent of French romantic ballet. Charles M. Joseph, a Skidmore College dean and musicologist, examined the close personal relationship and collaboration between composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine, stressing that both men were practitioners not theorists at heart—playing the piano in order to compose or choreograph. Stravinsky danced as a young man and knew about dancing; Balanchine spent time and effort throughout his life doing music exercises, making piano reductions of orchestral scores and composing. At the keyboard, Joseph analyzed music written by Stravinsky and by Balanchine, showing that their inside knowledge told them when to forge forward and when to step back. Toni Bentley, dancer and dance writer, presented her idea about the pre-eminence of woman in Balanchine's life and ballets. Along the way, she mentioned that on one occasion he gave names to three of the critic figures in his Davidsbündlertänze: Arlene (Croce), Clive (Barnes) and Tobi (Tobias). Balanchine enjoyed not repressing his sense of humor.

The afternoon session began with Wilson's history of the Harvard Theatre Collection and its major dance holdings. Dance photographer and mathematics teacher Costas spoke about Balanchine's good manners, great generosity, inquisitiveness about the world and moral sense. Using slides and diagrams, he illustrated Balanchine's choreographic concern with three dimensional space and geometry. Lastly, Costas mentioned his respect for his dancers' individuality and his feeling for beauty. Julia Randel, a Harvard graduate student, examined the interaction of music, drama and choreography in the Balanchine opus, and theater historian Mary C. Henderson considered Balanchine's 18 Broadway shows and the collaborations they involved— including the tap finale for Slaughter on 10th Avenue which he left mostly to the male star of the show, Ray Bolger.

The evening session focused on Suzanne Farrell —Balanchine ballerina emerita, stager, teacher, and company director. Co-sponsored by Harvard's Office of Arts, this conclusion to the Balanchine days on campus was held in large Lowell Hall and attracted a big audience. Farrell, in conversation with dance critic Joan Acocella, stressed a new dimension to her now familiar view (alert musicality, very fast and very slow pacing, precision, etc. ) of dancing Balanchine's choreography: moving through space. With the assistance of student Katie Daines and pianist David Polan, Farrell showed how much more interesting a variation becomes when the dancer doesn't do it in one spot. That, and the drama of off-center balance, was also shown in historic footage of Farrell herself dancing in Balanchine's Don Quixote—which the Suzanne Farrell Ballet is reviving in collaboration with the National Ballet of Canada.

Time for public questions and answers at the end of the three Thursday sessions, like the time allowed for private conversations during the Wednesday reception and Thursday morning breakfast, expanded the range of topics broached by the speakers.

Photo:  George Balanchine portrait (ca. 1955). Photographer: Tanaquil Le Clercq. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 13
February 9, 2004

© 2004 George Jackson




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last updated on April 19, 2004