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Cultural revelation: in 1962 George Balanchine returned to the Soviet Union after an absence of thirty-eight years, bringing his New York City Ballet and a handful of his works to audiences that had been cut off from Western culture for decades.

There seems little doubt that New York City Ballet's tour of the Soviet Union in 1962-Balanchine's first visit to his homeland since leaving in 1924--was an event of particular significance to both sides. New York City Ballet was the first American company to appear on the Bolshoi stage. Although there is some debate as to whether or not Balanchine--a staunch anti-communist--initially approved to the trip, once he arrived, his excitement was evident. In Leningrad, according to friends and colleagues, he could hardly wait to show off the ballet academy on Theater Street. In Georgia, his spritual home (although he was a native of St. Petersburg), he enjoyed the nonstop speeches, toasts, and banquets that welcomed him. At the same time, it was a profoundly traumatic experience for Balanchine; he was depressed by the shabbiness all around him and by the constant suspicion of being shadowed. The general populace--and he would have been one of them, had he stayed--lived in fear. That, and the back-breaking hours of daily work, had aged people incredibly; most looked twenty years older than they were. At one point the emotional strain became so great that Balanchine left the tour and went back to New York for a week.

During the early 1960s, the Soviet Union, under premier Nikita Khrushchev, was experiencing a modest thaw that permitted limited exposure to the rest of the world. Moreover, in dance circles, a breakthrough toward more "dancey" ballents had been achieved, visible in the work of Yuri Grigorovitch, Igor Belsky, and Oleg Vinogradov. For the previous thirty years, however, the country had been completely cut off. Even those few--such as diplomats or artists touring abroad--who had seen more were not supposed to talk about anything foreign, much less to praise it. The lumbering drambayet--the evening-length story ballet with an uplifting message conveyed largely in pantomine--monopolized the Soviet stage. Thus, it was not surprising to hear Vinogradov tell me in a 1989 interview in his Kirov office that before the tour Balanchine was very little known. Just two of his ballets had been performed in the Soviet Union: Symphomy in C by Paris Opera Ballet in 1958 and Theme and Variations by American Ballet Theatre in 1960. Nonetheless, New York City Ballet performances everywhere were sold out in advance.

By all reports, including John Martin's eyewitness accounts published in the New York Times, the general public was thrilled by many of the works, and audiences were not inhibited about showing their feelings. They often applauded at length, shouted, and threw flowers; some of the most devoted followed the company from city to city (even when such traveling was officially forbidden). In Moscow, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when the State Department feared a hostile demonstration, the company received instead a prolonged ovation (Balanchine had to come out on stage and ask the audience to go home). In Tbilisi, a group that had been unable to get tickets forced its way into the theater and was allowed to stay.

Today, those who saw the company then talk freely about their experiences. For Moscow dance historian Elizabeth Souritz, "Balanchine was a relevation of something new, which promised to bring new blood, new life to our ballet." The distinguished St. Peterburg scholor Vera Krasovskaya confides in a letter: "My reaction on seeing him and his ballets could be expressed in a very few words--the shock one receives when one meets a genius. As soon as the curtain went up and revealed on the old Maryinsky stage the girls shielding their eyes from the moonlight of Tchaikovsky's music, I was sent into a state of happy bewilderment. The sheer delight of looking at the dance that comes out of nothing but music, out of the very dept of it!" In a recent speech, the critic and essayist Vadim Gayevsky proclaimed that, with Symphony in C, "we were witnessing a completely new choreographic genre that immediately ranked as classic." And Elena Kunikova, who now teaches at Barnard and stages Russian ballets in this country but was a ten-year-old preballet student in 1962, still remembers the general excitement surrounding the visit. At home in St. Petersburg, her mother has kept all the programs.

But expressing oneself in print at the time was much more tricky. As Souritz puts it now, "We couldn't really say all that we felt." Aside from a possible lack of background with which tro approach his work (due to decades of isolation), they dared not show excessive enthusiasm for Balanchine--or anything else that was foreign--for this might imply that the analogous Soviet product was inferior; and, considering how often Soviet artists had been officially denounced for "formalism," it stands to reason that the critics were not about to praise abstraction. For those adhering closely to party ideology--that dance must contain "subject matter, a dance plot, kinship with the people, and realism," in the words of hard-liner Rostislav Zakharov (choreographer of Fountain of Bakhisarai)--Balanchine provided an easy target for disapproval. He had brought an uncompromising repertorie, including such plotless works as Agon, Episodes, Concerto Barocco, Serenade, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, Symphony in C, and Allegro Brillante. He also gave an interview in which he put his philosophy into words--for him the rarest of occurrences. For the record, Balanchine said: "Ballet ... should not be an illustrator of even ... the most substantive of literary sources. It will speak for itself. The ballet is flowers, beauty, poetry.... I am, if you please, an advocate of pure art." Insight critics were quick to point out that, in common with many great creative artists, he broke his own rules when he saw fit, but, while many were impressed with his powers of invention, most still had difficulty with the fact that his ballets offered no characters for the dancers to develop; that many of his movements were "ugly" and came from outside and classical lexicon; and that his ballets lacked a clear moral point. The noted historian Natalia Roslavleva, author of Era of the Russian Ballet, complained that Balanchine's "nonprogrammatic" ballets were "deprived not only of content but of idea. Expert and master of classical dance, he drew from original combinations his form of complex, choreographic pictures, in which the eye of the audience was struck by his skill in subtly elaborate rhythmic lines and his excellent sense of proportion. He visualized the musical composition with faultless taste and absolute musicality. But how does this go with thoughts, changes of mind, or feelings used by the composer in the moment of composition, reflecting his understanding of the world and his relation to it?" The composer Aram Khachaturian state flatly that "without an idea, without a subject, there cannot be true emotional art."

Because the ballets were devoid of characters, critics found them lacking in dimension. M. Sabinina wrote, "Let us state outright that Balanchine has reached great heights. But, oh, how cold and dry the air is up there. It's hard to breathe in such rarefield atmosphere." She considered the corps de ballet "a unified faceless mass." From Roslavleva's standpoint, "Art is an examination of the understanding of the world, [whereas[ a dancing man for Balanchine is a mechanism, described in terms of physics."

As the Soviets saw it, only two ballets had true "content": La Sonnambula and Prodigal Son. The latter was offensive because, as Anna Ilupina explained, "our people consider any psychological overstrain or nervous tensity incompatible with the radiant and elevated art of ballet." With its goons, drunken living, and lascivious sex, it was also seen as a protrait of "bourgeois decadence." (The same view-point had been responsible for the banning of Billy the Kid and Fall River Legend on the American Ballet Theatre Soviet tour of 1960.) La Sonnambula, a huge audience favorite, fared better; it was "expressive," noted I. Kuznetsova, a musicologist, precisely because the dancers were "PORTRAYING SPECIFIC PERSONS," as she wrote, using capital let ters.

Serenade, with its soul-drenched music and romantic atmosphere, emerged as the quintessential Balanchine ballet for the Soviets, the one in which his theories and the Soviet requirements most fully converged. Although the ballet was plotless, it was full of emotional coloring, and although it had inventive choreography, the steps and patterns did not violate the academic canon. It was acclaimed as "lyric poetry." In common with generations of viewers in many countries, the Soviets attached numerous interpretations to Serenade: For one, "the triangle [was] a relfraction of the Odette and Siegfried theme"; for another, "a striving for the dream that relieves the dogged prose of life." It was also called an illustration of "the standard love triangle" and "the eternal folly of youth." One critic even saw a happy ending!

Balanchine's choice of concert music was also criticized. Except for Les Sylphides, Coppelia, and the Tchaikovsky ballets, the Soviets had a legacy of insipid commissioned scores. Critics--and audiences--did not respond well to Concerto Barocco or Allergro Brillante, finding them cold and not a match for the loftiness of the music. Symphony in C, by contrast, was an enormous success, perhaps because Bizet's music was considered a bit lower in the hierarchy of musical masterpieces. The public loved it.

Critics, understandably, had the greatest difficulty approaching Agon and Episodes. First, there was the dissonant music: The most recent Stravinsky most had heard was his Petrouchka of 1911, and Webern had been officially banned in 1948. And how were critics to deal both with the formalism of the two ballets and the fact that the Balanchine vocabulary wandered far from the academic lexicon? While Souritz did her best to rationalize Balanchine's choices, she confessed that Agon contained "repulsive combinations of movement ... sounds that seem unnatural to the unaccustomed ear engender poses that seemed equally unnatural to the unaccustomed eye ... the human body is virtually turned inside out.... However, there is a logic to this: if, say, rising up smoothly on the toes corresponds to a stable, pure combination of sounds, then the dissonance of Stravinsky's and Webern's music should be expressed by means of corresponding choreographic dissonance." She concluded that the works were as yet "sketches." Zakharov called Agon "closer to mathematics that to art"; with Russian flair for the dramatic, Ilupina considered this ballet, which we find witty and cerebral, to be a "morbid tragedy." Kuznetsova, although a specialist in twentieth-century composition, dismissed the music, asserting that in Episodes, "something in the orchestra squeaked and clanked, as though it weren't instruments that were being played but rather some bolts being screwed in to complete the assembly work of some strange project." She was, if anything, even less receptive to the choregraphy. Soviet audiences, however, cheered both ballets; after the Agon pas de deux, the house frequently erupted.

Official opinion notwithstanding,m it seems not too much to say that Balanchine's work opened a new world of movement to the Soviets. Allegra Kent feels, in the vernacular of today, the audiences really "got it." But by 1965, a year after Khrushchev fell from power, the thaw was over. Despite an additional visit by Balanchine in 1972--also successful but offering less sense of discovery than the first--his influence seems to have evaporated. When I visited St. Petersburg in 1989 for the first official staging of Balanchine ballets in Russia, the rest of the Kirov repertorie was more conservative than it had been in 1962. I asked Altynai Asylmuratova, who was rehearsing the fiendishly difficult ballerina role in Theme and Variations, what she knew of Balanchine; she told me that she had previously heard of him and that "he was here once, but that was about a hundred years ago." Four years later, with ballet companies in the former Soviet Union in a clear state of turmoil, only a few of his works have been staged, despite glasnost, and the breadth of Balanchine's achievement remains little known in the country of his birth.
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Article Details
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Author:Reynolds, Nancy
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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