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LIKE MOST dance writers these centennial days, I am writing about George Balanchine. And, of course, why not? The man literally transformed dance, especially in America. And the fact that he would have been one hundred years old in January 2004 makes retrospection perfectly appropriate and homage nothing less than proper. But fancy! What would have happened if Balanchine hadn't happened? Would we have had to invent him?

The story of how Lincoln Kirstein caught what he called the "red and gold" disease of the theater and, having fallen in love with classical ballet, determined to plant the art in his own United States, is an oft-told tale. As is his invitation to the 29-year-old George Balanchine to throw in his lot with the venture--and what happened after, from Balanchine's prophetic cry, "But first a school" onward. What is less publicized is that Kirstein apparently journeyed to Europe with the original idea not of hiring the comparatively little-known Balanchine, but seeking the far-better-established 37-year-old Leonide Massine. Fancy that.

SO, BEAR WITH ME. Say Kirstein had triumphantly come back home with Mr. M., not with Mr. B. Things might have panned out very differently. Would Massine have insisted on a school? Possibly; he was an important teacher, and his classes in London during the early 1930s were highly regarded. Would he have pursued the basic concept of an American company? Probably; after all, that was what he would have been hired for by the driven and almost evangelical Kirstein. But the school and, especially, the company would have been very different.

How different? We have clues here, because after the European outbreak of World War II in 1939, for more or less the next decade, Massine, the most critically admired and publicly accepted choreographer of the period, was based in the United States. Alexander Gorsky was a major influence on Massine, for he had trained in Moscow and in 1912 joined Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. Certainly impresario Serge Diaghilev, who had recruited him two years later, was an influence, as were his predecessors as Diaghilev's choreographer, Michel Fokine and, possibly, Vaslav Nijinsky.

Massine definitely subscribed to the Fokine/Diaghilev formula for ballet-making, which placed more or less equal emphasis on music, design, and drama, as well as dance. After Diaghilev's death, when Massine made history with his "symphonic ballets," he approached a neoclassical style closer to Balanchine (and later, Frederick Ashton). There was always an emphasis on scenic design and a heavy dramatic subtext. Although Les Presages (1933) and Balanchine's Serenade (1934) make more use of the classical vocabulary than had become the custom, Massine's work with its figures of Fate, Frivolity, and Hero has none of the pristine neoclassicism of the Balanchine. Serenade certainly revels in its dramatic metaphors of death and transfiguration (this was not a plotless work in the later manner of, say, Concerto Barocco or Ballet Imperial) but the differences between Balanchine and Massine were as much those of concept as of style. Balanchine wanted to preserve the old Marius Petipa/Vestris heritage of the Maryinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg that had nurtured him, whereas Massine was inculcated in the revolutionary expressive ballet theories of Jean Georges Noverre/Fokine.

The two approaches to ballet-making were not totally exclusive--and both can and probably should happily coexist. The English choreographer Antony Tudor, who arrived in the United States in 1939 at the invitation of Ballet Theatre, was in many ways, despite his devotion to expressive possibilities of pure classical technique, the Balanchine antithesis. His works, such as Jardin aux Lilas and Pillar of Fire, showed something like an aesthetic compromise between the Fokine/Massine camp on one side and the Balanchine/Ashton camp on the other. This is admittedly simplistic, but, without question, the final overwhelming influence of Balanchine established dance, and nothing but dance, as dance's main business.

There may have been losses here. For example, when last fall that happy master of eclecticism, ABT (see review page 132), offered revivals of those pillars of neoclassical dance, Balanchine's Theme and Variations and Ashton's Symphonic Variations, audiences seemed almost surprised (pleasantly, I thought) by the later revival of Tudor's hot, heavy, psychological, and perfectly wonderful Pillar of Fire. And perhaps even more startled by Robert Hill's Dorian, an hour-long story ballet, and perhaps the first new big classical narrative ballet seen since the days of John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan.

So fancy. If Balanchine had not existed, we might have invented him in the shape of Leonide Massine or Antony Tudor. Then the pure dance approach taken today by, say, Peter Martins and Christopher Wheeldon might have been a comparative rarity, and contemporary ballet might be more in the Diaghilev mold, with Hill's Dorian representing a rule rather than an exception. Every picture, they say, tells a story, and by the same light I suppose every ballet does the same. But there are stories and stories.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to DANCE MAGAZINE since 1956.
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Title Annotation:Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Previous Article:Bob Hope.
Next Article:No small change.

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