PRINT January 1986


Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews With George Balanchine

Solomon Volkov, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews With George Balanchine, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 252 pages, 76 black and white illustrations.

George Balanchine’s audiences always included many viewers who had no interest in ballet except as Balanchine practiced it. In the ’70s, a portion of this audience consisted of younger viewers for whom the choreographer seemed to hold a special message; the appeal was partly that of the endangered species. As recently as 1982, the last great survivor of the heroic age of Modernism could be seen taking his bows after the premieres of incomparable new ballets. More than that, at least for these viewers, this Modern hero emerged as the perfect post-Modern paradigm. Balanchine’s mastery of a chaste classical tradition, his eclectic visual sense (decors by Broadway designers as well as by Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall), his repertory mix of “difficult” ballets set to modern composers and applause machines set to war-horses and show tunes, presented a “double-coding” beyond any achieved by the most advanced post-Modern polemicist. This was especially evident in the Tchaikovsky ballets such as Swan Lake, Serenade, Ballet Imperial, Suite No. 3, and Diamonds: this music from an era when ballet told stories provided an echo of narrative that played against Balanchine’s abstract movement.

Just as Balanchine used Tchaikovsky’s scores as the platform for his own choreographic inventions, so, in this book of transcribed interviews with musicologist Solomon Volkov, Balanchine uses Tchaikovsky to elaborate his own ideas on art as craft, on the artist as a short-order cook. Because Balanchine’s portrait contrasts so sharply with the conventional view of Tchaikovsky as the impulsive creature of Romantic passions, Volkov’s preface holds to the conceit that this book is of musicological interest. But surely the book is more valuable as the autobiography manqué of an artist who left behind no written memoirs and who believed that even his ballets would not long survive his own passing.

Balanchine’s intelligence was overwhelmingly physical, and the book is animated by physical thoughts, kinetic memories of childhood snow fights in the white nights of Saint Petersburg, cold baths at the Imperial ballet school, and the sublimated sexuality of young dancers. He begins, “I don’t like describing things in words. I prefer to show them if possible. I demonstrate for my dancers, and they understand me.” The book’s sepia, pressed-rose design may be heartbreaking for those who recall how recently this second short-order cook was still serving up his four-star choreographic feasts.

Herbert Muschamp