PREFACE BY LINCOLN KIRSTEIN (1983)
A printed listing of the works of George Balanchine may be
set alongside the Köchel catalogue of Mozart: the works of
choreographer and composer share many qualities.
Balanchine has been extremely
prolific. For over fifty years his invention has been
uninterrupted. There has been hardly a season since he was a boy of
eighteen when he has not brought out something new in the nature of
A catalogue is not
a visualization, yet even a list demonstrates the extraordinary
variety and inclusiveness of Balanchine’s musical support and
his unprecedented use of musical literature since the seventeenth
century. A trained musician, he has been able to have always at his
fingertips the quality of structure and sonority that fills his
needs at a certain moment of development or necessity.
If he is to be compared with
anyone in his time in the frame of his own talents, visual or
plastic or musical, these must be Picasso and Stravinsky. Painting
and musical composition, however, have had their universal
acceptance for more than five hundred years, while classic academic
dance, which issued from court-shows in the seventeenth
century and court theaters in the nineteenth, has only in our own
century begun to compete on an equal level of popularity with the
repertories of opera and orchestra.
He has specialized in pièces d’occasion, creating
musical celebrations. Certain events summon or suggest appropriate
answers. He has operated on the order of public official as well as
very private experimenter. He has been profligate in stage production
when patronage was available, and parsimonious when decoration
would have been superfluous or patronage was absent.
Balanchine issued from a school which inherited an imperial tradition.
He left Russia at a time when the Soviet Union froze taste and
attempted to stabilize artistic expression as a lowest common
denominator. Entering the Diaghilev company in London at the age
of twenty, he was plunged into an ambience of extreme artistic
license for which he had prepared himself by student
experiments before leaving Leningrad. When Diaghilev died, five
years later, Balanchine attempted to continue the formula of
elegant improvisation with whatever means were at hand. Russia was
closed, the Soviet schools were no longer a source for recruitment,
and the efforts of European impresarios proved haphazard and
without institutional stability.
Balanchine decided to come to
the United States as if the decision was almost a foregone
conclusion, although there were other possibilities which might
have been attractive had he not already had the experience of the
Diaghilev years. When he came to America late in 1933 he founded a
school which would commence teaching American dancers, toward
forming an eventual American company. The School of American Ballet
was conceived to be a national service school like the Imperial
School in St. Petersburg, which held parity with the military and
The first company
Balanchine organized was called the American Ballet. Balanchine’s
present company, founded in 1948, bears the name of the town
that is its home, New York City, the cultural capital of the
nation. The name of the school has remained the same. It is now a
national service institution with students from forty states and
more than a dozen nations. The city built Balanchine the theater he
required. National foundations, recognizing their importance, gave
his school and the New York City Ballet the support they needed.
His imperial ambitions as a servant of social democracy seem to
have been fulfilled according to a logical schedule and a simple
history. Reading the catalogue of his work, however, one may
deduce some of the difficulties in the path, and along the way.
The conditions of theatrical production, the size of companies,
the presence or absence of patronage or money, the requirements
of seasonal circumstance, all determine the state of repertory
at a given moment. Just as certain ballets were abandoned and
the effort ploughed under, so certain expenditures in nerve
and work have served to braid sinew toward further strength.
Many ballets are no longer performed, yet parallels and
portions can be recognized as resurrected in subsequent dances.
adoption of classic dance throughout the country continues to
appear a mystery to those who have come to its performances
relatively lately. In one form or another, however, formal stage
dance has been available to be seen in America for more than six
decades. But now, in large measure due to Balanchine’s
insistence on a rigorous profile and authoritarian practice,
classic ballet is less confused with other forms of dance, and its
training has advanced toward highly professional criteria and
performance. It is granted the status of peak virtuosity —
as hard to attain and as quick to be recognized as the violin,
the piano or the Olympic categories.
One aspect of ‘modernism’
has been its effort to annihilate history, to create an art without
precedent, to renovate sensibility, to canonize the New. We have
had more than a half-century of newness, and suddenly it has
aged. The classic ballet, born in the seventeenth century, combines
historical legitimacy with contemporary manner. Its gestures are
courtly, yet respond in accent, celerity and syncopation to the
colloquial cadence of the day. Balanchine has defined the ‘modern’
direction of classic ballet.
Our century has licensed
extremes of chaos and violence on the grandest scale known to man.
The reflections in literature, music and the plastic arts of two
world wars scarred the whole structure of the imaginative process.
The fragmentary, the night-marish, the mad, exploited to their
capacity of excess, have become mechanical, repetitive, dead-end.
The essence of ballet, on the
other hand, is order. What one sees in Balanchine’s ballets
are structures of naked order, executed by celebrants who have no
other aim than to show an aspect of order in their own persons,
testifying to an impersonal purity and a personal interest.
undoubtedly occurred what must be called an unfocussed but active
revival of religious interest in the West, seeking unfamiliar
access to an absolute. It is not too much to consider a
well-performed ballet a rite, executed and followed with
intense devotion, that shares in some sort of moral figuration. The
response of the audience to good dancing is a release of body and
breath, a thanksgiving that is selfless, generous,
complete, and leaves the spectator corroborated in the hope that,
despite the world and its horrors, here somehow is a paradigm of
The consideration of last
things, millennial factors, the approach of another century, wars
and the rumor of war, surround us. We have a sense that the times
we live in are extremely frail, that frailty is the single cohering
net that connects. Nothing is more frail or transient than a
ballet. Every action is evanescent, and after its enactment it is
gone for good, or until a next time, when the same conditions
obtain. Human bodies are frail. The design the dancers thread is
also frail, and to a degree entirely imaginary. It can be learned,
but never completely documented.
The whole operation of a ballet
company is a microcosm of a civil condition. The frailty of its
operation is that of any artistic or cultural institution in a
civilization that prefers to spend its bounty on armament and
consumer goods. However, a ballet company, existing in the
interstices of the community, almost vaunts its hardy frailty. In
an infinitesimal way, each good performance clears a small area of
menace, and for the moment reminds us of the possible which, if it
is not perfection, approaches it.
In this process of asserting
the importance of the classic dance, Balanchine acts as a public
servant of order. He is a maker and teacher. The twentieth century
has specialized in the metrics of time and space. Nobody before has
ever danced as fast as a Balanchine dancer; no one has ever had
such markedly separate structures of steps to dance. No dancers
before have been obliged to analyze with their feet the kinds of
musical composition that Balanchine has set for them. Only a dancer
dancing can say for him, what he says to them.