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