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A nose for nuance.

The critic Kenneth Tynan had a party game. "Who are you?" you asked some guest. After the response you asked: "And after that, who are you?" Another reply, then: "After that, who are you?" It was the undressing of an onion, a shot at reality beyond polite artifice. First the prison would offer the banal curriculum vitae of his or her life so far. Next perhaps something more personal. Finally--at least if the questioner got lucky, or the questioned got flustered--some actual statement of belief. Some secrets are hidden even from yourself.

I wonder how Georgy Melitonovich Balanchivadze, born in St. Petersburg, January 22, 1904, died New York, April 30, 1983, would have described himself. What would he have told us, what would he have hidden? Was he--although I suppose we are all a bit of both--a man of self-knowledge or of self-deception? The facts are easy enough: training in Russia, choice between dance and music, influence of Lopukhov and Goleizovsky, exit to the West, choreographer for Diaghilev in his final years, a period of cheerful indecision, Denmark. London, Paris, a school in New Haven, a series of false starts and temporary exiles, then finally history. It obviously didn't seem like history at the time, but history never does.

ON OCTOBER 11, 1948, at City Center on West 55th Street in New York, the young dance company called Ballet Society, founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, made its first appearance under its new name and, in effect, new structure--New York City Ballet. The program, naturally enough all Balanchine, was Concerto Barocco, Symphony in C, and Orpheus. From then on, over more than three decades, history became codified by the practice of genius, and later, the establishment of iconic tradition.

Apart from the facts, how about the legends and myths? Was it true that he could always distinguish his ballerinas on an elevator by the scent of the various perfumes he gave them? I doubt it, but who knows? What was his relationship with his wives? Does it matter? Probably more important from the historical point of view was his relationship with his closest professional associates, the wild and canny Kirstein, the astute and worshipping Jerome Robbins, and his wondrous symbiotic duality with Igor Stravinsky. The stories about him, the carefully preserved, and perhaps touched-up, wit and wisdom of his aphorisms ("Ballet is Woman," etc., etc.), the recollections of his dancers, and the encomiums of his critic-fans, his yellowing interviews, and the various biographies--all tell us something, but perhaps less than we imagine. George Balanchine was a very private man. Few, I suspect, could peel that onion.

YET WHAT HE DID, in the deepest sense, will always be more important than what he was, or what he said, or, for that matter, his various workings with lovers, friends, and associates. That is always the way of artists, for only mere celebrities are famous for being famous and need to cultivate a profile. And what Balanchine did was to change the face of ballet in the twentieth century, particularly dance in his chosen homeland, the United States. As we celebrate the centennial of his birth, we are celebrating his two main bequests to dance culture: his own repertoire, that bejeweled storehouse of ballets, and, perhaps more important, the effect of that repertoire on the dance world.

The works speak for themselves in that way of silent poetry that only dance can speak. How many will be performed in 2104? Perhaps only a handful, but what is interesting is that, I imagine, they will be performed in a manner at least closely approximating their original text. In the twentieth century we learned that choreography was worth preserving to the letter, as well as in the spirit. Balanchine--especially as guarded by the Balanchine Foundation and Trust and as recorded on video and in various dance notations--should not suffer the switches and changes now regarded as fair game when dealing with nineteenth-century choreographers such as Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, Balanchine's own special inspiration.

MENTION OF PETIPA brings us to the truly essential aspect of Balanchine's legacy--his neoclassicism. This is not the place for a rundown of dance history, but remember that at the end of the nineteenth century classical ballet was only preserved in Russia (and in an odd frozen fashion in out-of-the-way Denmark) and it was from Russia, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that ballet as an art form was restored to the Western world by the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. But the circle around Diaghilev (not Diaghilev so much himself), particularly the choreographers Michel Fokine and, later Leonide Massine, considered the ballet of Petipa's time decadent and in need of renewal. Music, design, and drama were all to be made dance's equal constituents, and ballet was to be seen as a combined operation of the arts. It was Balanchine, and to a lesser extent an Englishman, Frederick Ashton (who was born in the same year as Balanchine), who demanded that classical dance be regarded as paramount, and in their various ways initiated the triumphant neoclassical counterrevolution to the Fokinean dance drama.

Balanchine was busy forming a ballet company in the United States, a country where there was no real ballet tradition. He was also developing that tradition in tough economic circumstances--and possibly part of the Balanchine aesthetic, particularly with regard to settings and costumes, began with expediency. In time Balanchine's neoclassical works proved important not only to the emergent New York City Ballet, but also to the spread of dance across America and, later, Europe. Balanchine knew that a company that could dance Serenade or Symphony in C would always have to maintain a level of classical expertise and style. During his lifetime he made his ballets available to all and sundry on extraordinarily generous terms. As a result, his ballets are found everywhere, and in this profligacy, the neoclassical style has proliferated and grown.

GEORGE BALANCHINE (1904-1983). Ballet master to the world. It's an epitaph he might have sniffed at--but then he did have that delicate nose, which could distinguish all kinds of perfume. And when the nature of Balanchine is reduced to the heart of the onion (who was he, after that who was he, and after that who was he?) ballet master seems the most apt, most universal description.

THE GEORGE BALLANCHINE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

During 2004, more than sixty dance companies around the world pay tribute to Balanchine's artistry. In addition, major cultural centers are planning exhibits and seminars. We include a partial listing below for the months of January and February. For a complete listing throughout the year, see The George Balanchine Foundation's web site at www.balanchine.org.

SELECT PERFORMANCES

* NEW YORK CITY BALLET

Until Feb 29. www.nycballet.org

* MIAMI CITY BALLET

Jan 13-25, Naples, Palm Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale. www.miamicityballet.org

* PARIS OPERA BALLET

Until Jan 3, www.opera-de-paris.fr

* THE ROYAL BALLET

Jan 28-Feb 25. www.royalopera.org/ballet

* DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM

Jan 23, Sacramento, CA. www.dancetheatreofharlem.com

* THE WASHINGTON BALLET

Jan 19. www.washingtonballet.org

* ROYAL DANISH BALLET

Jan 3-21, Feb 11, www.kgl-teater.dk

* SAN FRANCISCO BALLET

March 19-20, San Francisco Balanchine Festival

OTHER ACTIVITIES

* THE MUSEUM OF TELEVISION & RADIO

A Celebration of George Balanchine: Selected Television Work until March 7, New York & Los Angeles, with a Symposium on Jan 20, with Barbara Horgan and Suzanne Farrell.

www.mtr.org

* TELEVISION DOCUMENTARY

American Masters: Balanchine

www.thirteen.org

* GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM

Balanchine's Early Works

Jan 25 & 26. www.worksandprocess.com

* THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

The Enduring Legacy of George Balanchine

Until April 24. Lecture by Constance Vails Hill on the Broadway Musical Cabin in the Sky; January 24; www.nypl.org

* SAN FRANCISCO PERFORMING ARTS LIBRARY & MUSEUM

George Balanchine: Ballet Master

January 22 to June 19. www.sfpalm.org

* NEW YORK CITY BALLET

Balanchine 100 Centennial Exhibition

Jan 6-Feb 29, New York State Theater

An award-winning writer, Clive Barnes covers dance and theater for the daily New York Post, and has contributed to DANCE MAGAZINE since 1956.
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Title Annotation:Balanchine Lives; GEORGE BALLANCHINE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION; Biography; GEORGE BALLANCHINE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1344
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