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Flash Report, 12-17: 'I am making steps, dear'
Balanchine, Influences

By Corinne Imberski
Copyright 2003 Corinne Imberski

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ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- An unusual theory of one of the early American influences on George Balanchine was just one of the historical nuggets that surfaced at From the Mariinsky to Manhattan: George Balanchine and the Transformation of American Dance, a symposium convened at the University of Michigan October 31 to November 1.

Her name was Josephine Baker.

Building on previous research by Sally Banes and Brenda Dixon Gottschild on the influence of African-American dance on Balanchine, Beth Genne, an associate professor of dance and art history at Michigan, cited accounts by Balanchine of encounters with the celebrated expatriate dancer, singer, and all-around performer and shared photographs and film clips in an attempt to demonstrate an artistic linkage between the pair.

One spectacle in particular, the 1925 "Revue Negre," which helped cement Baker's reputation in Europe, seemed to suggest a possible Baker influence on Balanchine. In the unforgettable opening sequence, Baker performs splits while balanced upside-down on the shoulders of Joe Alex. Wearing nothing but a pink feather between her legs, she cart-wheels off of his back and stands facing the audience.

In 1926, several months after, according to Genne, he saw "Revue Negre," Balanchine choreographed the ballet "Jack in the Box." This ballet seemed to echo various elements from Baker's "Revue Negre," Genne contended. For example, Balanchine created a lift for Alexandra Danilova and Stanislaus Idzikowski that resembled Baker's opening lift. There was also, Genne pointed out, a role for a "black ballerina." As I was watching the short clip from "Revue Negre," I was struck by several movements that seemed to have found their way into the Balanchine vocabulary. For instance, one of Baker's trademark moves was a low squat in a turned-out second position. In "Agon," created in 1957, a soloist repeats a sudden deep plie on pointe in second position. True, the ballet was choreographed thirty years after Balanchine would have seen the Baker performance, but it posits at least the possibility of a lingering influence.

In 1932, according to Genne, Balanchine and Baker met for private ballet classes.

Genne even suggested -- based, she says, on comparisons with contemporary photographs of the choreographer -- that the male partner seen unclearly in a film of Baker performing a dance that combined elements of jazz, ballet, and Georgian folk dance is Balanchine. Balanchine's father was a Georgian composer and collector of Georgian folk music and dance, Genne pointed out. She also displayed a caricature Balanchine drew of himself wearing a Georgian folk costume.

Balanchine would go on to choreograph for Baker in the United States, most notably in the 1936 "Ziegfeld Follies."

Balanchine was not a didactic choreographer, Genne said, so it was not his intention to ever comment on race relations. Rather, he was truly enraptured by Baker's physicality and artistry. "She provided a 'model' for his vision of a truly 'American' dancer," she said. Balanchine greatly admired Baker's long legs, spontaneity, angularity, ability to be off-center, musicality, and artistic risk-taking.

Another essential feature of the symposium was the interviews conducted by Genne and Francis Mason, the editor of Ballet Review and a literary collaborator with Balanchine. The interviewees, former New York City Ballet principals Suzanne Farrell, Maria Tallchief, Violette Verdy, and Edward Villella, spoke with passionate eloquence about Balanchine. Through their summoning of images and stories, Balanchine came alive. The more they reminisced, the more excitedly they spoke, as if they had just came back from rehearsing with him; and indeed, the amount of awe they still projected when talking about Balanchine made it evident that his influence is far from reaching an end point. The words "kindness," "genius," "respect," "intelligent," "caring," and "blessed" were repeated many times by all of the dancers.

A fascinating through-line of the recollections was Balanchine's great love and admiration for people of all ages, races, and nationalities. Verdy talked of his high regard for the French, stating that he liked their "tenderness and spirit of heart" and of course, admired them for their contributions to ballet. Villella remarked on Balanchine's oft-cited love for all things American. He went on to say that Balanchine admired Americans' "brashness and love for independence." Farrell mentioned that Balanchine very much liked children and liked to include them in productions. Balanchine told Farrell that he liked to have children around because it helps to "remind you of when you had stars in your eyes, as opposed to adults who want to be stars." Tallchief shared a story about Balanchine's respect for her Native American heritage. When Tallchief and Balanchine were married, they took a trip to visit her family in Oklahoma. A sister of Tallchief's gave Balanchine a turquoise bracelet. Tallchief said that Balanchine was very proud of Tallchief's heritage and wore the bracelet every day of his life. He was wearing the bracelet when he was admitted to the hospital where he eventually died, but sadly, the bracelet was stolen at some point during his stay. In contrast, Tallchief said that Balanchine rarely spoke with her about his Russian upbringing but still had great respect for all things Russian. She suspected he talked more about his Russian heritage with Stravinsky, and whom he regarded as his artistic mentor.

The remainder of the symposium was comprised of a variety of presentations on possible and definite influences on Balanchine in Russia (Georgian folk dance, the Imperial Ballet), influences he had on other dancers and dance forms (Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Broadway dance), and his relationships with the numerous scores he chose for his dances.

"He always showed dancers at their best," Villella recalled. Throughout this symposium, one was able to catch some glimpses into how Balanchine did this and into how his influence is still inspiring dancers and audiences in the 21st century. Above all else, I walked away from the symposium with the sense that Balanchine's devotion to the art of dance was complete, and he was the most content when creating. Tallchief illuminated this as she recollected one of her last visits with Balanchine in the hospital. When she came in to his room one day, she recalled, he was moving his fingers around in a variety of patterns. When she asked Balanchine what he was doing, he replied, "I am making steps, dear."

From the Mariinsky to Manhattan: Balanchine and the Transformation of American Dance was presented by the University of Michigan's Center for Russian and East European Studies and department of dance, as part of the festival, Celebrating St. Petersburg: 300 Years of Cultural Brilliance.

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