When the important aren’t perfect: George Balanchine

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 2:49pm

NOSELL

NYC Ballet

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The first time I understood George Balanchine was watching “The Nutcracker.” More precisely, it was while watching a recording of Act 2’s “Waltz of the Flowers” on YouTube, with New York City Ballet’s Ashley Bouder as the leading Dewdrop. The six-minute dance is the culmination of the Christmastime ballet’s divertissements and the music builds with undulating waves of grandeur. Tchaikovsky sure knew how to write a good crescendo, but Balanchine knew how to dance it. 

In the video, Bouder does not jump, bounce or even float. She flies. Her movements, explosive and luxurious, stretch past the edges of her limbs. Her dancing leaves sparkles in the air — the kind that feel so pleasing to the eye that one might start to believe they are literally seeing the music in front of them. 

I grew up away from Balanchine, raised in dance studios that emphasized classical European ballet technique. Everything was square, everything was measured, everything was perfect. This system has its benefits and its beauty, but this moment on YouTube taught me (much like Balanchine taught the world) that sometimes those rules are overrated. 

When ballet first came to life long ago in the French courts of Louis XIV, it was a tool for control; court members showed dominance over their body’s motion to assert power. Balanchine’s immigration to New York City in 1933 reversed course on that centuries-long rule. Suddenly, hips didn’t need to be square and shoulders weren’t always straight. Fingers were splayed, knees could bend, and the need for restrained power came second to the need to match the music’s speed. The change was radical, but American concert dance loved it. Balanchine co-founded the New York City Ballet and its attached School of American Ballet with philanthropist Lincoln Kerstein. He choreographed 465 ballets in his lifetime and agitated the very existence of ballet in America. San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Utah’s Ballet West, Miami City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Boston Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem were all created by artists touched by George Balanchine. By the time of his death in 1983, the world seemed to have already decided: He was a genius, and not in the hyperbolic sense of the word. 

This is all true. He is, by all accounts of the word, an icon. But there is inherent danger in words like these — in simple lables slapped onto complex people. Such categorizations encourage us to forget that Balanchine was a man, as flawed as the rest of us, living and working in the imperfect, non-genius structures and systems of the 20th century. 

“Ballet is woman,” he said — but what kind? His muses were young, often still teenagers. They were skinny with small breasts and no butts, and their success created the silhouette of a dancer’s body that still wreaks havoc on women today. Floating beneath the surface of Balanchine’s legacy are eating disorders, body dysmorphia and an industry that makes casting decisions based on costume fittings rather than actual talent. 

Also beneath the surface rests ballets like “Le Chant du Rossignol,” an early Balanchine work that told the story of a sick Chinese emperor and relied heavily on destructive Orientalist tropes from its 1925 origins. When Ballet West revived the work in 2019, Final Bow for Yellowface co-founder Phil Chan spent the better part of his year facing off against historians who seemed to be too invested in respecting Balanchine’s genius to recognize the need to respect their Asian American peers. 

But perhaps the most notable, yet overlooked, factor complicating Balanchine’s legacy is Balanchine’s use of Black dance in his formation of American ballet, a point for which scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild deserves immense credit. The opened chest, bent knees, increased speed and syncopated rhythms did not come from the singular mind of a European immigrant — they came from the street and social dances of Black Americans across the country. And yet, the master narrative of Balanchine’s memory often frames him as the inventor of such techniques. To this day, Black dance remains marginalized and belittled by the same white concert audiences that praise Balanchine’s innovation. In a 1996 book, Dixon Gottschild explains this under the title “Stripping the Emperor,” a phrase indicative of such erasure. 

Words like “icon” and “genius” do not encompass these shortfalls. They show only the rose-colored surface of a man that embodied all colors of the rainbow. Such selective memories are not fair to the groups he harmed, but simply rejecting his work fails to acknowledge our complicity in the matter. Balanchine has been dead for close to 40 years now, and his legacy does not belong to his gravestone — it belongs to us. We control what to celebrate and what to condemn. Celebrate and criticize; accept and reject. Binaries do not exist in a world of color. Icons and geniuses may not either. 

Senior Arts Editor Zoe Phillips can be reached at zoegp@umich.edu.

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