PRINT Summer 1988


To the Editor:

For the record, would you please print in large, emphatic and capital letters the following:


Thank you very much.

Jerome Robbins
New York, NY

WHAT WAS ROBBINS SO worked up about? Well, Dances at a Gathering marked the choreographer’s return to the New York City Ballet in 1969, after a dozen years of brilliant work on Broadway. Now he was not going to make entertainment, he was going to make art, and art was, as we all knew, about formal values. That is why Robbins left Broadway, with its idiotic stories of boys meeting girls, for Balanchine, whose ballets were about dancers meeting music. Robbins told an interviewer that the ballet “started to pour out as if some valve inside me had opened up and the purity of working with dancers took over.”2 The Prodigal had returned to the House of Balanchine in glory; he was not about to allow us to pollute the purity of that moment with our impure desire for stories.

And here is Balanchine himself, puzzling over what to put in place of a story when describing one of his own works for his 101 Stories of the Great Ballets: “‘Composers combine notes,’ Stravinsky said. Choreographers combine movements and the ones I arranged for this music [Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements] follow no story line or narrative. They try to catch the music and do not, I hope, lean on it, using it instead for support and time frame. If I were to try to relate that a boy and sixteen girls begin the ballet, that would not be very interesting, or that a girl in purple dances with eight others to music for clarinet, piano, and strings soon follows.”3

George Balanchine, in short, was evidently content to inhabit his pigeonhole as the choreographer who developed the art of the plotless ballet. I’ve used such words to describe Balanchine myself, even though I felt that in some fundamental way that description was false. Writers combine words, and I never felt that the terms of classical ballet were the only words available to describe Balanchine’s movements: I felt that if it were possible to slow down time we would see on Balanchine’s stage not only steps set to music but also the mimetic representation of solitude in a crowd; the anticipation of a partner; the discovery of the social world; the retreat from that world in the partner’s embrace; the anxiety of breakdown in communication with a partner; the discovery of humor in the fact of that dislocation; the rediscovery, with a partner, of the social world. This is the narrative sequence of, perhaps, sixty seconds in the life of an evening at the New York City Ballet. And it is the true story of the mental life of every adult seated in the New York State Theater. We would not want to slow down this sequence, because it is the compression that makes it true. This is why Balanchine’s company deserved to be called the New York City Ballet. Its repertory tells the story of New York City lives, just as the Royal Ballet specializes in the pageantry of royal lives.

There are no princes here, and no swan queens, except in flashing moments, or perhaps just a little longer, just as long as you might pause before a department-store window wondering how you would look in that coat on display. Nor are there any small-town melodramas, as you would see in the “psychological” ballets of Antony Tudor. This is a New York City plot, and it doesn’t take three acts, or even half an hour, to work itself out. You just lived through that plot yourself in the two or three minutes before the performance that you spent in the crowded lobby waiting for your friend to show up, minutes that stretched into eternity because your friend was late—time enough to try on crowns of jewels, crowns of thorns, body language in ten different dialects, real or false smiles in greeting passing faces in the crowd, a sequence of equilibrium, disequilibrium, new equilibrium as pure as any narratologist could construct. And then your friend showed up and the story line required you to forget about the story, and together you went up the State Theater’s grand travertine staircase, took your seats, and moments later the lights went down, the curtain went up on Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and you saw that story crystallized in movement on a stage, played back to you from across the footlights as though while you were standing in the lobby a camera had been monitoring your thoughts.

IN THE FIVE YEARS since Balanchine’s death, a half-submerged Balanchinian plot has also come to lend a kind of narrative structure to our thoughts about the company he created, about the ideas that company stood for while he was alive, and about the company’s ability to sustain those ideas, or to locate new ones, in his absence. This plot begins with grief (an emotion some have visualized as the afterimage of the ballet Balanchine created in 1981 to the final movement, the “Adagio Lamentoso,” of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique), which then seeks to resolve itself in a series of compensations for the loss.

Some of these compensations became evident during the first days of the company’s life without Balanchine. There were the rewards of virtuousness, for example, in rallying around a family of gifted dancers in a time of crisis; in honoring Balanchine’s hope that the company would be secure enough to survive him; even in challenging the master’s prophecy that his own ballets could not survive, at least in the form he gave them. There were the rewards of curiosity, of both the hopeful and the morbid kind: in sharing hopes about Peter Martins’ ability to live up to the trust Balanchine had placed in him to lead the company; in the viscerally morbid fascination of monitoring the progress of a body that had lost its accustomed source of nourishment. Was this body a corpse? Were we to watch it gradually decompose or, perhaps worse, witness a drawn-out embalming ceremony on the stage of the State Theater? As time passed, there were also the customary compensations of performance—the emergence of new dancers, Martins’ continuing development as a choreographer, not to mention the rewards of the repertory itself. But overarching these compensations, at least for me, was the prospect that we might be able to see clearer than when Balanchine was alive what his art had meant to us, why even many of us who had no particular interest in the art of ballet developed an immeasurable appreciation for the art of Balanchine.

I'VE WRITTEN IN THESE pages (“Books,” January 1986) that what fixed my attention on Balanchine throughout the 1970s was the harmonious coexistence within one artist’s vision of work that was canonically Modern (The Four Temperaments, 1946, Episodes, 1959, Ivesiana, 1954) and work that was unapologetically traditional (Raymonda Variations, 1961, The Nutcracker, 1954, Coppélia, 1974). This interplay between invention and tradition (at its most dynamic when compressed within a single work such as Agon, 1957) had its parallel in the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and Picasso; but of these Big Modern Three only Balanchine gave us the opportunity to witness its unfolding into the post-Modern era whose eclecticism it appeared to presage. At a time when many architects I was writing about found it necessary to engage in oedipal combat with Modernism before giving themselves permission to use historically derived forms, there was nothing more tonic than the insouciance with which Balanchine showed us the Modern and the traditional dancing together like born partners.

What is clearer to me now is that while this subject engaged me intellectually, it did not explain Balanchine’s visceral hold. I do not feel that the subject is irrelevant to Balanchine, nor that it is the only aspect of culture his work could be used to explore. Had I begun looking at Balanchine ten years earlier, I might have used him to work out thoughts on the issue of high and low art, or the coexistence of spiritual and show-business values. Had I begun looking a few years later, the subject might have been appropriation, the quotation of scores, steps, and conventions, Balanchine’s distinction between creation and assembly. These are all great Balanchine “study topics.” But I find more light on Balanchine in that great phrase from the old song “Dancing in the Dark” about how we’re “dancing in the wonder of why we’re here.”

Arlene Croce wrote, “If George Balanchine were a novelist or a playwright or a movie director instead of a choreographer, his studies of women would be among the most discussed and most influential artistic achievements of our time.”4 But he was not a novelist or a playwright. He eschewed words, did not customarily work with a libretto, and even actively incorporated his distaste for interpretation into his works. In a late ballet, Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze”, 1980, he represented Schumann’s Philistines as a group of black-garbed men holding enormous pens. In the first of his landmark ballets (ironically, a ballet that did employ a libretto), Balanchine placed this antipathy at the center of the ballet. When the three muses Calliope (poetry), Polyhymnia (mime), and Terpsichore (dance) of Apollo, 1928, compete for the young god’s favor, Calliope is eliminated at the end of her variation when she shows Apollo the words she has been writing while she danced. Polyhymnia gets the hook when she forgets herself for a moment and opens her mouth to speak. Terpsichore wins the contest (no contest) by embodying in movement ideas that neither written nor spoken words can convey. She alone gets the god for a partner.

Though Balanchine knew that viewers, particularly writers, would use words and select topics to interpret his ballets, such interpretations held no interest for him. “What’s important,” he declared, “is that it’s pretty and makes you happy to see it. What it is—a flower or a girl or a dance or music—you can do what you want with it, you can talk about it, take it home with you, think about it, and say it represents this or that. . . that’s fine.”5 What was not fine was to reduce his forms to particular meanings; he objected particularly to those who “see in these pas de deux only pure man-woman relationships: ‘The woman didn’t have any guts, the man wasn’t sexy enough.’ This isn’t my business.”6

Yet Balanchine’s resistance to interpretation was somewhat inconsistent with the way he did conduct his “business.” His choreography interpreted musical scores. Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” for example, was not music “about” a woman held aloft by four men above the writhing figure of a fifth man. Any composer could object that a choice of this or that set of steps, this or that formation of dancers, limited the scope of the music. But Balanchine insisted, “To me it’s the music that wants you to do certain things. Dance has to look like the music.”7 Dances by Balanchine similarly make you want to think certain things; if those things take the form of words, you want them to conform to the shape of the dance.

AT ITS PREMIER IN Paris in 1928, Apollo (then titled Apollon Musagète) was neither a critical nor a popular success. Even later, when Balanchine revived it in New York in the ’30s and again in the early ’50s, the ballet’s interest owed more to elements outside the choreography: its historical importance, as a link with Diaghilev and a whole mythology of Parisian art and life in the 1920s; its biographical significance, as the work Balanchine himself described as “the turning point of my life.”8 Apollo is also appealing for its explicit embodiment of the story of the artist and the muse, the one narrative theme Balanchine was willing to acknowledge in words and whose explicit treatment here has authorized our recognizing many of Balanchine’s “abstract” works as variations on it.

The image of the “unattainable woman,” Croce noted in her essay on Balanchine’s “woman studies,” was a convention inherited from 19th-century Romantic ballet.9 Balanchine eliminated the drawn-out plots, along with the swans, the sylphs, and the bayaderes that populated them. With the trappings gone, we allowed ourselves to identify the hero as Balanchine himself, to see his choreography as the reflection of his belief that “everything man does he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life and you believe in something and I believe in a little thing like that.”10

A man who marries four of his leading ballerinas, lives with a fifth, and hopes to marry a sixth does not need to devise plots to set his life on stage. He is living his life on stage. That life was the life of a 20th-century artist and a 20th-century man. And within that life the “ideal woman” did not hold a 19th-century position—or not for long. If she hovered in the air, we now suspected that this was because her lover forbade her to descend; we knew how deeply feminine “appeal” was a dictate of male will. In Swan Lake, the dramatic problem is whether Prince Siegfried will manage to break Von Rotbart’s spell so that a Swan Queen can become a woman. In a Balanchine pas de deux, we confront the fact that we’re the ones who cast the spells. We are the ones who create these idealized creatures, swans and saviors, and who must then experience the discrepancy between these ideal roles and the real persons we have chosen to fill them, between ourselves and the roles they have fashioned for us, and between the roles we have fashioned for ourselves independently in order to cope with changing times.

In the traditional ballet, the drama arises from the conflicts between dancers who represent specific characters: the prince, the sylph, the witch. In Balanchine, conflict emerges out of the uncertainty as to whether one dancer, the muse, lies inside or outside the skin of her partner, the artist. When we puzzle over the interpretation of Balanchine we are drawn into a close identification with this conflict. Our uncertainty over whether meaning lies outside or inside ourselves (or Balanchine) mirrors the ballet in which the dancer is at once the partner and the projection of another.

Balanchine staged this conflict lyrically (Serenade, 1934, Meditation, 1963, Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, 1970), playfully (The Steadfast Tin Soldier, 1975), melodramatically (La Sonnambula, 1946), clinically (Kammermusik No. 2, 1978), and even, once, as three-act epic (Don Quixote, 1965). He could take an inherited classic comedy like Coppélia and turn its second act into a personal, tragic statement on the disastrous emotional consequences of holding the partner to ideal standards. In Robert Schumann's “Davidsbündlertänze” he splits the figures of Robert and Clara Schumann into doubles (one Clara more “ideal,” the other, shall we say, less)—and then doubles into doubles—to imprison the emotional life of a couple within the fantasy projections of one artist’s mind. In Orpheus, 1948, the muse’s efforts to persuade the artist to unmask himself, to reveal himself as a man, seal the doom of two characters in both their relationships (artist/muse, man/woman). In many works set to 20th-century scores, such as Episodes, the conflict unfolds in “episodes” of support given and rescinded, equilibrium lost and, often, even willingly foresworn. In the 1972 Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée,” traces of traditional narrative conflicts drift to the surface like pentimenti: the characters of the village bride and the ice queen are played out in the movements—at first unworldly, then unearthly—of a single dancer; a corps of women, a social world, that surrounds the bride in joyous celebration later reconfigures as Fate, moving across the stage in a diagonal line to divide the couple as they reach out to embrace.

The psychological symbiosis of partnerships is a theme familiar to us from literature, and writers have used a whole range of images associated with the body to explore it. Balanchine’s achievement was to return us to the actual body, to reveal its full implication in these symbiotic transactions. In his The History of Manners: The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias describes how the physical construction of the bodies we inhabit has led us to construct a false conception of the individual personality.

There is good reason for saying that the human brain is situated within the skull and the heart within the rib cage. In these cases we can say clearly what is the container and what is contained, what is located within walls and what outside, and of what the dividing walls consist. But if the same figures of speech are applied to personality structures they become inappropriate. The relation of instinct controls to instinctive impulses, to mention only one example, is not a spatial relationship. The former do not have the form of a vessel containing the latter within it.11

The target of Elias’ critique is “homo clausus”—the individual conceived as an autonomous, self-contained world—and, more generally, how this concept has contributed to the equally problematic distinction between the individual and society. Elias proposes that the individual/society dualism be replaced by the synergism of what he terms “the figuration, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people”; that “the image of man as a ‘closed personality’ [be] replaced by the image of man as an ‘open personality’ who possesses a greater or lesser degree of relative (but never absolute and total) autonomy vis-à-vis other people and who is, in fact, fundamentally oriented toward and dependent on other people throughout his life.”12

Balanchine’s repertory encompassed both paradigms. In Diamonds, 1967, set to music by Tchaikovsky, he gave us Suzanne Farrell as “ballerina clausa,” a woman “free and more than equal,”13 in Croce’s phrase, dancing “a long, supported adagio the point of which is to let us see how little support she actually needs.”14 Then, with Stravinsky Violin Concerto, 1972, in the two central pas de deux set to the two arias, Balanchine would show us partners mutually manipulating every move, hands plunging through the personal space of arms held akimbo, ankles cantilevering over shoulders, bodies interlocking and momentarily freezing in a stalemate of unity, then, with the corp’s return, rupturing and exploding across the stage into the re-membered fragments of a dismembered world. Or, in The Four Temperaments, to a score by Paul Hindemith, Balanchine would assemble the four bodily humors into a constellation of wholeness that could not stand still, a unity so tense inside itself that, like an unstable atom, its particles, its component bodies, seemed to be ejecting out into space as the curtain fell.

In these ballets, Balanchine staged social connection as a condition of struggle. This area of his work he was also willing to state in words. He told an interviewer, “Struggle means to be together. It’s not so easy to unite and to be together. When you’re immediately together, it’s [claps hands] and you evaporate.”15 (Balanchine was referring here not only to the relationship of dancer to dancer but also to the relationship of movement to music: why he did not view his ballets as “music visualization.” Occasionally, the score would dictate a particular movement; Balanchine liked to cite the section in Episodes, for example, where he turned the dancers upside down “in order to parallel [Webern’s] use of musical inversion.”16 But this deference to the composer’s authority—which few in the audience could have recognized had Balanchine not pointed it out—was a choreographic joke, a formal courtesy which only emphasized the dancer’s authority over the musical “platform.” The dancer needs the floor to dance but does not become one with the floor.) When Balanchine said, “‘Contra,’ which means ‘against,’ actually—in reality—means ‘together,’”17 he was telling us that a struggle is not with the other, but with the invisible, plastic “wall” that divides, or fails to divide, the inside from the outside.

I once asked Peter Martins how he felt when dancing one of those quintessential Balanchine pas de deux, Duo Concertant, 1972, or Stravinsky Violin Concerto. It felt, Martin said, like “you don’t know where you are.” This cannot be a common feeling among those who perform leading roles in the classical repertory. When Nureyev danced Swan Lake, surely he knew where he was and who he was; he was Nureyev, a prince acting princely in his principality. With Balanchine, we watch bodies create among themselves, in space, structures that, as Elias writes, are not spatial relationships.

A moment at the end of the second pas de deux in Violin Concerto certainly transports dancers and viewers to that place of not knowing where you are. The steps of this duet, set on Martins and Kay Mazzo in 1972, grow more and more complex as the two dancers explore the distance between them in coiling counterpoint to one another and the music. Then the two stop, and stand at the side of the stage, facing the audience, the girl in front of the boy. He extends his arm over her shoulder to describe an arc through the air, then another, as they gaze out into space, as though he is showing her the most beautiful vista in the world. Are they at last, after all that calisthenic counterpoint, all that looking at things from their separate points of view, at a place where they can look out and behold the same vision? Only for an instant, for that vista’s beauty can only be a reflection of their difference, not their unity; that landscape can only be what they have built in the steps leading up to that moment; that prospect is not an abode that they can now move out of their separate selves and into together. The boy sinks to his knees behind the girl, the girl bends over nearly backward to meet him as he folds his arm across her forehead, blocking the sight: that territory folds back into bodies.

THE FINAL CHAPTER OF Balanchine’s work is often said to be “about” the body and virtuosity of Suzanne Farrell, the literally unattainable woman in Balanchine’s life, the muse he did not marry offstage. But this view might include another page (it happened to be when I came in), this one composed, during Farrell’s absence, on the body of Peter Martins. It is true that Farrell led Balanchine to the farthest reaches of the unknown place, the extreme development of decentered, off-balance movement. But it was through a quality of gesture of Martins’ that he offered his most concise, clearly articulated lesson on what might be possible in that place without fixed bearings.

My body absorbed Balanchine’s message long before my mind did. The flex of a wrist, the extension of the index finger, all while reaching up to get something down from the kitchen shelf: I realized this was an unconscious imitation of a gesture Martins made in offering his hand to a partner. It wasn’t that I was so glamorized by Martins’ bearing, appearance, or style of movement, although I was; what I responded to in the gesture was a quality I naturally wanted to absorb into my world because it clearly possessed the power to transform it. Some might have called this quality courtesy, or gallantry, for everyone was always impressed by the Pygmalian touch that enabled Martins to turn a relatively unalluring ballerina into the world’s most inspiring muse. But words like courtesy and gallantry connote something unspeakably civilized, artificial, or calculated—the politesse of the sexual hierarchy that kept the ideal woman in what we would now call her less than ideal place. But the quality I saw in that gesture had nothing to do with what some have regarded as a program of Balanchinian manners: something unspeakable, cold, even totalitarian, a crushing of individual personality beneath a code of ruthless civility. The “soulless” Balanchine dancer, the “Balanchine pinhead,” were epithets in common use only a few years after Balanchine’s arrival in America. And by the end of his career, there would emerge a proliferation of feminist exposés of Balanchinian horrors. Couldn’t we see that his slender dancers were actually tormented anorexics? That point shoes were no different from foot-binding? That turn-out could turn a champion athlete into a helpless cripple? For that matter, wasn’t the whole idea of classicism profoundly oppressive and undemocratic? Hadn’t the steps and positions of classical ballet been codified in the court of Louis XIV? Didn’t that tell us everything we needed to know?

Lincoln Kirstein, cofounder with Balanchine of the New York City Ballet, seemed then, as he does now, to derive much of his intellectual stimulation from baiting these detractors with Spiro Agnew-like diatribes against the avant-garde phonies, with rapturous anthems to the butch joys of military service and the spartan erotics of classicism. The Kirstein position has always been that the rigors of ballet are religious disciplines, comprehensible as such only to the initiated. He writes, “Over the last half-century, perhaps for the first time since Euripides, theaters, even more than museums of precious artifacts, have taken the place of temples. Ballet, opera, the classic dramatic repertory offer secular rites in which a communion exists between lay hierophants and a congregated public.”18 To Kirstein, “Balanchine’s catalogue is a book of orderly rites, psalms, hymns.”19 Etc.

Granted that it is tempting to inflate things one likes; that religion is a common form of inflation; that Balanchine was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Still, when Balanchine himself spoke of religion it was of something entirely practical. Religious faith was something that made it possible for him to call up Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky on the phone, so he would say, when he was having trouble setting steps to their music. Angels he had no need to visualize in any form but a dancer’s. He denied the idea of an “Invisible God,” something to connect with only by spirit or mind. For him, “God is this wonderful dress you see.”20 That is why, in La Valse, 1951, he could place Fate on the stage in the form of three ’50s prom queens wearing elbow-length white gloves. Surely Fate in a New York life may register more profoundly as a date for a dance than as a headline about an earthquake. This was the man who created his first ballet in America, Serenade, for the dancers who showed up to rehearse it. When 17 young women showed up the first day, Balanchine made an opening section for 17 dancers; when one day a dancer showed up late, her late entrance was inserted into the opening of the ballet; when another dancer tripped and fell while making an exit, her accident became the point of departure for the ballet’s submerged tragic drama. This was the artist who, decades later, would show us in the gesture of Peter Martins what “manners” might mean. To Norbert Elias, social manners (from the use of a fork to the control of bodily functions) were a medium for effecting a profound sociological movement, beginning in the middle ages and continuing to the present, from external constraint to self-constraint; this is how he defines “the civilizing process.” In Balanchine, manners are a means not of internalizing constraint, primarily, but of overriding them. Peter Martins’ hand extended toward his partner maintained distance and also bridged it; that hand articulated a hypothetical point of exchange between an inside and an outside, an inside that draws on supplies from without (as in the form of classical training), an outside that extends an inside as far as the last row in the fourth ring of the State Theater and beyond, to me at home reaching up to get something down from the kitchen shelf. It’s the simplest possible motion, this opening of the palm with the slow flexing of the wrist, as though the palm held a secret, or a key, which in a sense it does. Through the wrist, through the palm, through the finger, Balanchine transmitted the message that we cannot control the outside, we cannot even control the inside, but we can control the connection between them and thus transform both. Courtesy in Balanchine does not keep the partners in their places; it joins together two unknown and unknowable beings (even to themselves) in an exploration of a world from which their places have dissolved; a world where memory of conventional roles would be no guide.

Elias used the metaphor of social dancing to convey his concept of figuration:

One should think of a mazurka, a minuet, a polonaise, a tango, or rock ’n’ roll. The image of the mobile figurations of interdependent people on a dance floor perhaps makes it easier to imagine states, cities, families, and also capitalist, communist, and feudal systems as configurations. By using this concept we can eliminate the antithesis, resting finally on different values and ideals, immanent today in the use of the words “individual” and “society.” One can certainly speak of a dance in general, but no one will imagine a dance as a structure outside the individual or as a mere abstraction. The same dance figurations can certainly be danced by different people; but without a plurality of reciprocally oriented and dependent individuals, there is no dance.21

Balanchine’s choreography was not social dancing, yet what distinguished his company style from that of other contemporary choreographers of classical ballet is that he choreographed as though it were social dancing. He refused to set up the configuration of stars playing to fans; corps-based works, like Square Dance, 1957, and Le Tombeau de Couperin, 1974, gave this intention its clearest viewing. And although there’s no question that Balanchine occupied a “star” position within his own company and within the world of ballet, he continually rejected the notion of his independence from his dancers. Members of the company were listed alphabetically in the programs; the only reason he was the first ballet master listed, someone once remarked, was because his name started with B. He shook off words like “genius” and “inspiration.” Even the word “choreographer” made him uncomfortable; he once said he preferred “dance supplier.”22 If his company was a microcosm of “the figuration,” it was not a kind of “mondo clausus.” As Croce points out, he incorporated into his work “everything there was to incorporate—jazz, Bauhaus, twelve-tone music, American pop; yes, even the modern dance. . . . ”23 But the dance he supplied was not spectacle, for, as he once claimed in an exchange with the Bolshoi’s ballet master, Yuri Grigorovich, the dance “exists without spectators.” “Pray, in what form?” Grigorovich inquired. “In the form in which it comes to me,” Balanchine replied; “in the form in which I set it out.”24

WHICH RAISES THE QUESTION in what form the New York City Ballet can exist now that Balanchine is not there to set it out in the form to which we were accustomed. Attending performances at the State Theater now is a bit like visiting a vast, beautiful mansion inhabited by a large group of orphaned children. At times we look upon them dancing as if we were a team of social workers. Are the orphans getting enough to eat? Are they keeping the house neat and remembering to change their socks? Are they too well-behaved, too grown-up, too solemn, and too conscious of the wealth they have inherited to make up new games of their own? Will they be kind enough to take some dinner up to Kirstein, ensconced on the widow’s walk?

But perhaps City Ballet’s dancers are aching to rush the gates of the mansion and explore the unknown world outside it. Five years ago, as we watched Balanchine’s authority absorbed into their bodies, what we were seeing was the setup of a suspense story. For Martins, as ballet master, was conducting that absorption. At what point would that process visibly cross purposes with the responsibility Balanchine had bestowed upon Martins to lead those dancers in a direction of his own? At what point would the self-constraints of fidelity to Balanchine constitute a betrayal of Balanchine’s belief that ballet does not belong in a museum?

In 1987, Ecstatic Orange broke the suspense, at least temporarily. If nothing else, this percussive, almost punkish Martins ballet was an assault on muscle memory, a machine designed to shake established routine out of a dancer’s sinews. Yet it was not an assault on Balanchine; no teacher was stricter than he on the moral imperative to get off your knees and up on your toes. If Ecstatic Orange did not represent the condition of not knowing where you are as a condition of life, it did propose disorientation as something to aim for in art; perhaps this was Martins’ ecstatic Dionysian prerequisite to a new Apollonian dispensation. During the pas de deux, the couple’s reveling in their ignorance was not blissful to watch, but it was not static and it was not dishonest: this was what it looked like to shove off from the shore.

The climax of last winter’s season was the return of Suzanne Farrell to her role in Vienna Waltzes, 1972, Balanchine’s last full company work to enter the repertory. Audiences went berserk at the sight of Farrell dancing again after the hip surgery that it was feared would end her career, and her performance owed much of its impact to our knowledge of that career, of her role as muse, her break with Balanchine in 1969, her return to the company six years later. It was a triumphant event, but also one saturated with our imaginings of the ballets Balanchine had not created for her in her absence, and with our fears that her return had come too late.

The stage itself was a glittering ice palace—a vast space doubly reflected in the set’s backdrop of mirrors, and in the eyes of the audience fixed upon Farrell as she entered, alone. She was dressed in white, dressed for the grandest and most likely the last ball ever held. The music was the waltz suite from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, a score that articulates the breakdown of a traditional dance form into spasms of Romantic discord. Farrell began to dance by herself. A partner entered, dressed in black. Farrell bowed to him, and the two waltzed together. Then her partner left the stage, and she danced again alone.

Watching this last miracle performance of Farrell’s, I thought of Meditation, the first work Balanchine conceived expressly for her (an earlier part, in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, was initially set on Diana Adams). In that ballet, we see the artist visited by the apparition of the muse and then abandoned by her. But in Vienna Waltzes, it is something like the reverse: the muse is left to dance without her partner in her haunted ballroom, though he was never more absent than when the two were revolving together in one another’s arms. Farrell’s bow before her partner showed us a style for acknowledging absence; her dance with her partner, and her dance without, showed us a style for allowing absence to enhance and not diminish us.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. He writes regularly for Artforum.



1. Quoted in George Balanchine and Francis Mason, 101 Stories of the Great Ballets, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Dolphin Books, 1975, pp. 110–11.

2. Ibid., p. 95.

3. Ibid., p. 487.

4. Arlene Croce, “Free and More Than Equal,”
Afterimages, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977, p. 125.

5. Quoted in Jonathan Cott, “Two Talks with George Balanchine,” in Portrait of Mr. B: Photographs of George Balanchine, with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein, New York: A Ballet Society Book/The Viking Press, 1984, p. 140.

6. Ibid., p. 138.

7. Ibid., p. 135.

8. Bernard Taper, Balanchine, New York: Times Books, 1984, p. 98.

9. Croce, “Free and More than Equal,” p. 127.

10. Croce, “Visions,” Going to the Dance, New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p. 66.

11. Norbert Elias, The History of Manners: The Civilizing Process, New York: Urizen Books, 1978, p. 258–59.

12. Ibid., p. 261.

13. Croce, “Free and More Than Equal,” p. 129.

14. Ibid., p. 127.

15. Cott, p. 143.

16. Ibid., p. 136.

17. Ibid.

18. Lincoln Kirstein, “A Ballet Master’s Belief,” Portrait of Mr. B., p. 13.

19. Ibid., p. 27.

20. Quoted in ibid., p. 26.

21. Elias, p. 262.

22. Quoted in By George Balanchine, New York: San Marco Press, 1984, p. 3.

23. Croce, Sight Lines, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, p. 319.

24. Quoted in Kirstein, p. 32.