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Balanchine in black.

The George Balanchine centennial "chatter" is animated and enthusiastic. ("Chatter," as used in current newspeak on international security, means "intense activity.") Everybody's talking about Balanchine's influence on dance. How about looking at dance's influence on Balanchine? I'm thinking about an ingredient that is routinely overlooked or treated as ah afterthought, if mentioned at all. It's the Africanist presence in the maestro's works--in movements, ways of moving, and attitudes affecting how the movement is done.

Chapter 5 of my book, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance (Greenwood, 1998), gives an in-depth discussion of this topic. I started out by asking questions of American ballet, which, like all ballet, was regarded as a classically European--that means "white"--art form. But I detected a different scent. Balanchine, a Russian immigrant who came to the United States in the 1930s, joined up with entrepreneur Lincoln Kirstein to form the Ballet Society in 1946 (which later became the New York City Ballet), and is credited with Americanizing ballet. I asked, "If that's the case, what makes his work so especially American?" I sniffed an Africanist trail.

There was "evidence" from the ballets themselves, which I'd seen time and again as a native New Yorker, and later as the Philadelphia correspondent for DANCE MAGAZINE often reviewing the Pennsylvania Ballet. On rare occasions, dance literature offered clues. For example, in 1934--the year Balanchine arrived stateside--Arnold Haskell observed in Chapter 14 of Balletomania that, "During the past twenty years of more, Harlem influence upon all branches of art and life has been as great as the Diaghilev influence and has been felt even in the ballet, stronghold of tradition itself."

Balanchine cut his teeth in this climate of Afro-Euro cultural exchange (as did Pablo Picasso, Darius Milhaud, Helen Tamiris, and so many others). He choreographed for the popular theater, first in London, then on Broadway, staging a decade of American musicals and working with performers such as Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers. He and Katherine Dunham choreographed the 1940 musical, Cabin in the Sky. (In January, the centennial month of Balanchine's birth, The New York Library for the Performing Arts sponsored a lecture by author Constance Valis Hall that delved into Dunham's influence on Balanchine.) He steeped himself in the venues that are defined by what we term jazz dance--a euphemism for dance shaped by the African-American experience.

The energy, attack, speed, timing, and off-centeredness in his choreography particularly derived from his exposure to africanisms in Euro-American culture, coupled with his ingenious creativity in using these qualities to serve his ballet vision. Angular arras, turned-in legs, pelvic and chest articulation and displacement, leg kicks, heightened speed, and densely layered phrases are commonplace in African and African-American dance but considered ignoble, alien, and inappropriate in ballet. Balanchine used them all and routinely transformed the ballet battement into an acrobatic kick, allowing the hip to be lifted--another ballet "no-no." His dances and dancers were "cool," in the African-American sense. These characteristics appear in ballets that stretch across his career, from Apollo, made in 1928, to ballets he created in the 1970s.

In a 1987 New Yorker "Talk or the Town" item, Arthur Mitchell is quoted as saying, "Balanchine ... described his ideal ballerina as having a short torso, long arms, long legs, and a small head. If that's the ideal, then we [people of African lineage] are perfect." Balanchine appreciated black dance and black dancing bodies. He became an all-American. It's high time we all acknowledge what that means.

On a roll: Balanchine rehearsing with Katherine Dunham while Dooley Wilson (on piano) and Todd Duncan look on.

W. EUGENE SMITH Posthumous reproduction from original negative, W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University, of Arizona [c] The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, Courtesy, Black Star. Inc., New York

Brenda Dixon Gottschild's latest book is The Black Dancing Body--A Geography from Coon to Cool (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). She is a Senior Advising Editor to DANCE MAGAZINE.
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Title Annotation:Rants and Raves; George Balanchine
Author:Gottschild, Brenda Dixon
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:In Transit 2004.
Next Article:Choreographer-director Mercedes Ellington talks about June Taylor (1918-2004).

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