Saturday, March 03, 2007 03/02/07-George Balanchine

In today's excerpt, George Balanchine (1904-1983), one of the 20th century's
foremost choreographers and one of the founders of American ballet, whose
work formed a bridge between classical and modern ballet. Born in Russia and
already established as a preeminent choreographer in Europe, he was
recruited to New York and, with a determination to build a new American
ballet vocabulary, immersed himself in all things American, including

"[I]n April 1936, came the show that put Balanchine squarely on the Broadway
map, as well as changing the nature of dance in musical comedy. It was On
Your Toes, score by [Richard] Rodgers and [Lorenz] Hart, directed by George
Abbott, and starring Tamara Geva and the great hoofer Ray Bolger (later to
become know to the world as the Scarecrow of Oz). This was the first show to
integrate the dance into its story line, paving the way for Agnes de Mille's
Oklahoma! And (at Balanchine's insistence) the first to credit the dance
maker as the "choreographer." And it was a smash hit. The first-act
highlight was the parodic La Princesse Zenobia ballet, a takeoff on the
outmoded orientalisms of Scheherazade. But the real showstopper was the
second-act Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, in which the hero (Bolger) has to go
on hoofing and hoofing and hoofing to avoid being assassinated by a thug
hired by a rival danseur.

"It must have been the participation of Balanchine that inspired Richard
Rodgers's irresistible music for Slaughter, and Rodgers paid generous
tribute to Balanchine's talent and professionalism. To begin with, Rodgers
was to say, he was nervous about working with a Russian ballet genius,
anticipating all the high drama that the show itself would parody. 'I
expected fiery temperament. ... I was scared stiff of him. I asked him ...
did he make the steps and have music written to fit them, or what? He
answered, in the thick Russian accent he had then, 'You write, I put on.'

"He was certain what he wanted but sometimes stood still as if listening to
inner music, visualizing dance movements. There was no sign of rapid
re-creation of preconceived ideas, but the unfolding of steps and patterns
born at the moment from inner impulse. ... He was calm, he guided people, he
never raised his voice or lost his temper. ... He always seemed to have a
solution to a problem and conspiratorially pointed it out, never offending
anybody but, rather, producing sighs of relief. The mastery of his craft
made him flexible, so that if something didn't work out either in
choreography or concepts, he simply changed it.

"Richard Rodgers commented on the same phenomenon: 'With most other
choreographers I've known, it was like asking them to give up some of their
living flesh if they were told that, for one reason or another, one of their
dance numbers wouldn't work. But Balanchine would just take it in his stride
and cheerfully produce on the spot any number of perfectly brilliant ideas
to take the place of what came out.' "

Robert Gottlieb, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, HarperCollins, 2004,
pp. 89-96.


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