June 2013

Juhea Kim

nonfiction

Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer by Elizabeth Kendall

Perhaps no other figure in dance history inspires as much fanaticism as Georges Balanchine, the charismatic -- yet enigmatic -- founder of the New York City Ballet. What we know most about Balanchine is his post-war, New York years, when he created his most celebrated works on a series of incandescent ballerinas: Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, and Suzanne Farrell. He married a number of his "muses" over the course of his long life -- officially four times, but five including long-time lover Alexandra Danilova -- which also adds to his virile, dance-god mythology. But to truly understand Balanchine as an artist requires a look at his formative years in Russia, which Elizabeth Kendall undertakes with astonishing research and narrative instinct in Balanchine and the Lost Muse.

This is an especially ambitious project since dance history, like oral tradition, exists on a tenuous dimension of human memory and ephemeral performance. In her magisterial Apollo's Angels, Jennifer Homans posited that the ballet, unlike other arts, has no written codification; what remains through history -- the choreography, production, and teaching methods -- is passed down from ballet master to students, and reconstructed from memories of long-ago performances and rehearsals. There are two natural consequences to this characteristic of dance. First, it makes being a dance historian exceptionally challenging, especially when researching works before video recordings became common. And because all surviving knowledge lives in the person of the dancer, this dancer and choreographer exists as a vital link in the history of dance, more than in any other art.

In this context, Georges Balanchine is not only the twentieth-century giant whose pure, "classical" aesthetic gave rise to what we know as modern ballet; he is also the direct descendant of Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, as the product of the Imperial Theater School, which funneled directly into the neighboring Mariinsky. In examining Balanchine's imperial inheritance, Elizabeth Kendall discovered a lost "link" to the choreographer's artistic formation: Lidia Ivanova, a fellow graduate of the Imperial Theater School and already a beloved ballerina at her untimely death, at age twenty. Of the fourteen students in the graduating class of 1921, Lidochka (as she was affectionately known) was the only one who skipped the corps and rose directly to the rank of soloist at the Mariinsky. As his friend Lidochka's star was rising, Georges's performance career was languishing in the corps; technically virtuosic but too slim and zany to be a danseur noble, he was pigeonholed, perhaps not unfairly, as a caractère dancer. (The highlight of his career as a dancer would be a buffoon in The Nutcracker).   

As his dancing career was stagnating, Georges turned increasingly to choreography as his preferred outlet. Even before graduation, he had created two pas de deux on his fellow students. (Night was created on Olga Mungalova, and Poème on Alexandra "Choura" Danilova.) By 1921, Georges and his friends had formed the Young Ballet as an answer to the falling standards of the Mariinsky and the external pressures of the New Economic Policy-era, with its directionless hedonism and artistic confusion. At the center of the Young Ballet were Georges, with his visionary choreography that made the body become the music; and raven-haired Lidochka, an uncommonly soulful and magnetic dancer. The group's first performance featured Funeral March, which was a sober, metaphorical work that captured the audience weary of both the Revolution and NEP. It was Balanchine's first triumph and the work that put him on the path as a choreographer, not a dancer.  

Over the next three years, Balanchine created a number of more ambitious ballet works as well as countless little divertissements for the NEP public, thirsty for entertainment at the thawing of revolutionary rigidity. Almost all Mariisky dancers supplemented their meager salaries with gigs at cabarets, casinos, and restaurants, and Balanchine was apt at turning out solos, pas de deux, and pas de trios for these new venues. Another, more time-tested way of gaining extra income was patronage: ballerinas had historically depended on protectors who lavish them with gifts, money, and even promotions. Vivacious Lidochka was especially popular -- in today's terms, she would be a girl-about-town. It was with some of these admirers that she left on a boating excursion on June 16, 1924, just days before she was expected to depart on a European tour with Balanchine and other dancers. That evening, Lidochka was scheduled to dance Paquita's pas de trio with Choura Danilova; but she never appeared, and her friends later found out that her motor boat had crashed into a ferry, throwing her and another passenger off-board.

At this news, all of St. Petersburg seemed to go into mourning -- but Lidochka's disappearance meant more than just the loss of the city's most beloved young ballerina. Questions lingered: Lidochka was an excellent swimmer; her body was never found; and rumors spread that one (or more) of the passengers on her boat was seen, just hours after the accident (or the next day), boasting or toasting one another at a restaurant. With remarkable acuity and analytic zeal, Kendall explores the possible scenarios surrounding her death. But though her contemporaries left tantalizing hints of foul play, Lidochka's disappearance remains a mystery nearly a century later. What we can know with certainty is that just a day after the accident, the rest of the European tour group (including Georges, his teenaged wife Tamara Geva, and Choura Danilova) received permission to leave Russia; and that, as though frightened by the tragedy, most of the dancers decided not to return. On this tour, Georges would meet Diaghilev, who would give him the opportunity of a lifetime -- choreographing new works for the Ballets Russes, then based in idyllic Monte Carlo.

Kendall condenses the rest of Georges's trajectory in a cursory final chapter, but this is also the most well-known part of Balanchine mythology. Kendall is most interested in the little-known history prior to his defection, and that is indeed the raison d'etre of this excellent book. In Georges Balanchine and Lidia Ivanova, Kendall found two descendants of Imperial ballet -- the former who defected and went on to create a modern incarnation of the art, and the latter who failed to escape, and was tragically sacrificed to the brutality of her epoch. But in forcing the link between Balanchine and Ivanova, Kendall somewhat undermines her heroine's intrinsic significance. After all, Balanchine had not created dances on Ivanova as he had on Danilova, Mungalova, or his first wife Tamara Geva. Those who seek to discover a "lost muse" to Balanchine will likely be disappointed that Ivanova was neither lover nor muse to the young choreographer, only a close friend and artistic ally. Kendall herself concedes that "Lidochka wasn't Georges's personal muse... Lidochka wasn't anybody's personal muse." Indeed, Ivanova's significance lies not without her, but within her, and her story would be tremendously fascinating even if she had never crossed paths with Balanchine.

However weak that conceptual position might be, Kendall's research is nothing short of astonishing, especially so considering that early dance history is limited to the shaky realm of personal memories. She uncovers vivid details that make the era -- and the people -- come alive: Alexander Ivanov, Lidochka's father, writes a letter to request his daughter's enrollment at the Imperial Theater School, adding "from no other motive, it seems, than excessive affection, her exact age: '10 years, 10 months, 21 days.'" And in 1917, amidst growing chaos in the city, a bullet shatters a window of the Imperial Theater School, and a young Choura Danilova collapses, crying, "I am wounded, I am wounded!" Choura wasn't shot; it was only her fear that made her fall. But the bullet hole on the window was a symbol: "The walls of that sacred sanctuary of the Romanov monarchy had been breached. The revolution had begun." In using these pithy and observant details from her sources, Kendall achieves a remarkably engrossing and taut narrative seen only in best literary nonfiction. Exhaustively researched and elegantly told, Balanchine and the Lost Muse offers at once a panoramic view of the city in revolutionary turmoil, and an intimate portrait of young artists on the verge.

Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer by Elizabeth Kendall
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199959341
304 pages