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Paul W

Balanchine's Tchaikovsky

22 posts in this topic

First I want to thank atm711 for recommending this book!!! smile.gif It's full title is "Interviews with George Balanchine, Balanchine's Tchaikovsky", by Solomon Volkov, translated from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis. It is so easy to read and so interesting! It's not a deep work, being Balanchine's recollections and conversations (primarily about Tchaikovsky) with Solomon Volkov in the months before Balanchine died, but it sheds enormous light on his personal character and his choreographic impetus. I'm sure all of the long-time balletgoers have already read this, but if you haven't you should.

I came to this board with mixed understanding of Balanchine and his ballets, with feelings something like dislike,.. not the exact word I'm looking for, though why I don't exactly know? I still have some question about his relationships and use of women in his life. But he certainly offers a beautiful humanity I never saw written about elsewhere. Though it is subjective (coming from the man himself), I found a lot of easily understood discussion about composers and their relationship to various ballets and it appears I admire many of the ones he admires. I'm even convinced somewhat about Stravinsky's danceability. And it sheds light on how his style of neo-classicism was born. And to find that Tchaikovsky was still alive for Balanchine, as Mozart must have been for Tchaikovsky definitely sealed my growing attraction to Balanchine's art. "Mozartiana" is now a must on my list. Isn't learning fun!! smile.gif

I'd like to hear what others think of it.

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An indispensable work for all ballet dancers and anyone interested in ballet. Sorry I don't have the time to say more, but definitely go see Mozartiana. It's gorgeous--try to see Darci Kistler if you can smile.gif.

In great haste,

Saut de Chat

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Happy to see that you enjoyed this, Paul. It is on my very short list of favourite ballet books that I give to people who share my enthusiams.

You may also enjoy "Balanchine's Mozartiana"/Robert Maiorano and Valerie Brooks. It is more technical, but well written and the photographs are wonderfully evocative. Although it is still in print, any library should be able to obtain it for you if you don't want to purchase it.

NYCB is doing Mozartiana during the winter season, first performance January 5th...

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I now love that book, but I have to admit that when I first read it, I didn't understand its significance. I remember thinking that it was trying to capitalize on Balanchine's name (I think it was published shortly after his death, but I may be wrong on that). I would hasten to make it clear, if it's not already, that this was a stupid thought!

I'd second everything that Paul said, then add, it's a small book, but a big one. Often, you can find out more about an artist from such conversations than you can about a treatise, like "Noverre's Letters." Anybody can say what he wants to do, but in this book, Balanchine is talking about what he believes.

It should be required reading for anybody who thinks that Balanchine is only Stravinsky.

Alexandra

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I've read it (translated into French) a few months ago, and agree with all the compliments that have been written. It's a lovely book, and it really helps understanding Balanchine and Tchaikovsky (and loving their works).

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Concerning Paul W's post: While contemplating Balchine's "relationships and use of women" in his life is perhaps interesting biographically and psychologically (Moira Shearer in her odd Balanchine bio is especially trenchant in her observations about the "wives"), it is not really germane to liking or not liking the ballets. There is in them no display or suggestion of abuse of women in any way, unless deification is abusive. I think there are choreographers whose attitudes towards women are utterly and dismayingly clear in some if not all of their work ("The Cage" by Robbins being a case in point), but this is *in the work,* not something one learns in researching the life. In other words, you don't have to think Mr. B. was stellar date night material to think he was a stellar choreographer.

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I agree completely Nanatchka!! An impression of mine (whether true or false) that he may have easily lost interest in women, particularly as they aged, is not relevant to his choreographic genius. There are statements in the book which do give me reason to believe he held a different view of women than I do, from a number of perspectives.

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I too have Balanchine's Tchaikovsky at home and enjoyed reading it, especially for the throwaway obiter dicta on dancing and music. You should be cautious about the factual material Balanchine provides about the circumstances of Tchaikovsky's life; new research has produced a lot of new data. Solomon Volkov actually gained a certain notoriety for a similar memoir from Dmitri Shostakovich, wherein the composer (I may garble the facts here; it's been awhile)made statements about his relationship vis-a-vis the Soviet regime that were hotly disputed (it was Volkov's, not Shostakovich's, veracity that was being questioned.) I'm inclined to accept what he says Balanchine said -- the text sounds similar to interviews with him I've seen and read.

On Balanchine and women: my first instinct is to say that of course you can separate the life from the work, but when you're dealing with someone as consumed by his work as Balanchine I think a more complicated response may be needed. Sure, he didn't psychologically brutalize women as Picasso did (and please, Picasso fans, don't get mad, I admire the man) ; but he did not always behave responsibly. In Suzanne Farrell's case, for example, you do have to wonder a little about a sixty year old man who puts a vulnerable teenager into virtual social isolation. I don't mean we have to condemn him -- I mean it might be worth looking at the creative imperative that drove him to do what he did in her case and others.

I would also add that "deification" of women is not necessarily a positive trait -- it can lead to maltreatment of actual women who fail to live up to the worshipped ideal (I'm not implying Balanchine was guilty of this.) There are many people who think Suzanne Farrell should be running NYCB today. May I suggest that perhaps one of the reasons she's not doing so is that Balanchine never really encouraged the women in his company to choreograph or take on real power positions, apart from ballet mistresses and administrative assistants? (In Balanchine's Ballerinas, Ruthanna Boris indicates that he didn't exactly welcome her choreographic efforts with open arms.)

I apologize for the lengthiness of this missive. This is a fascinating topic.

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I guess others will disagree with me, and, certainly, Volkov's book does give wonderful glimpses into Balanchine's way of thinking. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying or being overly romantic, but I don't see much of any division between Balanchine the man and Balanchine the artist.

There is so much of himself in his work, I've always believed that if one wanted to psychoanalyze Balanchine, one would need to nothing other than observe his ballets. One of the things I love so much about his work is the sense it gives me that I'm seeing right into his mind, a mind filled with dreamlike visions sent to him, perhaps, by God. Or Tchaikovsky.

I don't think any other choreographer, even Graham, put so much of himself (or herself) in his work. I do think everything you really need to know about Balanchine is right there in his ballets. You just have to be observant.

Contrast that with Peter Martins' ballets, which, to me, seem to be an exercise in hiding his persona from the world. I learn very little about Martins' soul from his ballets, except that he keeps himself very hidden. It's like his ballets are smokescreens. But that, in itself, is very telling.

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Regarding Mozartiana, Darci is indeed wonderful, as has often been noted here. I'd just like to toss in a mention of how ethereal Kyra Nichols can be in the role. It's not what I'd have expected from her, but I was happy to be proven wrong. If you can't see Darci, you'll do just as well seeing Kyra.

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Thank you for raising this topic, Paul. I had read the book when it first came out and had forgotten it. I went back to it this week, reading it again with pleasure. It is such a civilized book. I had forgotten that. Just about conversation and art.

J

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Manhattnik, I agree with you. Kyra Nichols is indeed divine in "Mozartiana". When I was in New York in the spring season of 1996, I had the good fortune of seeing her "Mozartiana" three times. I also saw her in this ballet back in 1991.

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Kyra Nichols is indeed divine in "Mozartiana".

Somehow I knew you were going to say that, Kevin!

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A wonderful anecdote about Tchaikovsky in Balanchine's words....

I recently was told of an extraordinary example of Tchaikovsky's craftsmanship. Anna Sobeshchanskaya, a prima in the Bolshoi Ballet in Tchaikovsky's day, danced in the mediocre Moscow production of
Swan Lake
. In order to liven up her benefit performance Sobeshchanskaya asked Petipa to create a
pas de deux
for her, and she inserted it in the third act of
Swan Lake
. She wasn't worried that Petipa had done the
pas de deux
to music by Minkus!

Learning this, Tchaikovsky protested, "My ballet may be good or bad, but I alone bear the responsibility for its music." Tchaikovsky offered to write a new
pas de deux
for the ballerina, but she did not wish to change Petipa's choreography. So, taking Minkus' music, Tchaikovsky wrote his own
pas de deux
which fit--measure for measure--the dance Sobeshchanskay had already learned. She did not have to relearn anything, not even rehearse, thanks to Tchaikovsky.

From: Volkov, Solomon.
Balanchine's Tchaikovsky. Conversations with Balanchine on his Life, Ballet and Music
. Page 149.

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Now that's one powerful ballerina! Thanks, innopac, for reviving this thread and possibly making new people aware of the Volkov book. I read the book only last year and was enchanted. One of the best aspects is that it allows us to see Balanchine responding to, and engaging in a kind of dialogue with, Tchaikosvky himself.

I just flipped through my copy and found a few other quotes that throw light on Tchaikovsky -- and Balanchine -- as craftsmen.

Tchaikovsky: "Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann composed their immortal works exactly the way a cobbler makes his shoes -- day in and day out, and primarily on order. The results were something colossal."

Balanchine: "He's talking about one thing: that you have to work every day. Some people imagine that you can be sitting around doing nothing and suddnely a brilliant idea will strike you. It doesn't happen this way. Tchaikovsky is right in that. Behind every good idea lies horrible, exhausting work.

and

Tchaikovsky: "Not everything long is drawn out; verbosity is not necessarily claptrap, and brevity is not at all a condition for absolute beauty of form. Literal repetitions, hardly acceptable in literature, are absolutely necessary in music."

Balanchine: "It's the same in ballet. It's not necessary to keep inventing new movements all the time. You can repeat them, there's no sin in that. The audience ordinarily does not notice repetition, but that's not the point. Repetition is good for the construction of a piece. Tchaikovsky understood that.

As a plodder, with a tendency to long-windedness and repeating myself, this gives me HOPE. :yahoo: I think. :thanks:

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Yes, Bart. I didn't expect this but it is really one of those books that pulls you in and gets you thinking... Here are two more quotes that struck a chord with me.

"You could say that in general there are certain rules in art, but no laws, You must know the rules and you many break the laws." page 151

"Because, if an adult is a good person, in his heart he is still a child. In every person the best, the most important part is that which remains from his childhood". page 136

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Reading over the old posts, I was really struck by something Jacob wrote:

It is such a civilized book. I had forgotten that. Just about conversation and art.
That's a rare thing, especially nowadays.

Also, we are all accustomed to reading Balanchine expressing himself in English, necessarily using short, sometimes cryptic sentences. It's good to hear Balanchine talking, thinking and developing his ideas thoroughly in his native Russian (translated to Englisih of course). This book gives Balanchine a new voice.

I've just been looking at the extraordinary photos in Portrait of Mr. B, one of the many books I first learned about here on Ballet Talk. In so many of these photos, Balanchine is teaching, coaching, illustrating movement, working in partnership with the dancerr. The last such image is dated 1982 (a year before his death) during a rehearsal of Orpheus. Mr. B supports a prostrate Karen von Aroldingen with one arm while he raises his other arm and gazes into the distance. Such photos -- and there are many of them in Portrait of Mr. B. -- show Balanchine speaking directly to his dancers in another kind of "voice."

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A wonderful anecdote about Tchaikovsky in Balanchine's words....

I recently was told of an extraordinary example of Tchaikovsky's craftsmanship. Anna Sobeshchanskaya, a prima in the Bolshoi Ballet in Tchaikovsky's day, danced in the mediocre Moscow production of
Swan Lake
. In order to liven up her benefit performance Sobeshchanskaya asked Petipa to create a
pas de deux
for her, and she inserted it in the third act of
Swan Lake
. She wasn't worried that Petipa had done the
pas de deux
to music by Minkus!

Learning this, Tchaikovsky protested, "My ballet may be good or bad, but I alone bear the responsibility for its music." Tchaikovsky offered to write a new
pas de deux
for the ballerina, but she did not wish to change Petipa's choreography. So, taking Minkus' music, Tchaikovsky wrote his own
pas de deux
which fit--measure for measure--the dance Sobeshchanskay had already learned. She did not have to relearn anything, not even rehearse, thanks to Tchaikovsky.

From: Volkov, Solomon.
Balanchine's Tchaikovsky. Conversations with Balanchine on his Life, Ballet and Music
. Page 149.

Oh, dear...the old Tchaikowsky/Sobeshchanskaya/Minkus ordeal...I'm always curious about what happened to that first Minkus version of the PDD music (that's if Tchaikowsky REALLY wrote a whole different set)

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I reread the Nutcracker section of the book this afternoon, which records Balanchine’s thoughts about the ballet, the story behind it, and his memories of childhood (which he must have had in mind when he choreographed his version of the ballet). Since it’s Nutcracker season, here are a few excerpts!

There’s a lot of Russian music in The Nutcracker but also a lot of stylized numbers. For instance, the guests dance the old German dance, Grossvatertanz, and the overture to the ballet resembles Tchaikovsky’s beloved Mozart. The march is also written in Mozart’s spare, light style. Everything in The Nutcracker is exquisitely crafted. I would call it the Viennese style. In Petersburg, we loved Viennese pastries and tortes. The Nutcracker is like them.

Balanchine then talks about how “fantastic” Christmas was in St. Petersburg, when the city was “all dark and strange somehow."

It wasn’t the way it is now, with everyone shouting, running around panting as if it’s a fire instead of Christmas. Back in Petersburg there was a stillness, a waiting: Who’s being born? Christ is born! I’ve never seen a Christmas like we had on Petersburg anywhere else – not here in America, nor in France. It’s hard for us old Petersburgers!

Petipa, since he did not read German, got all the names wrong in his Nutcracker. The Christmas party in Hoffmann is at the home of Dr. Stahlbaum, while in Petipa he is President Silberhaus. Petipa calls the girl Clara, while in Hoffmann Clara is the name of Marie’s doll. In Hoffmann the place is called Konfetenburg while Petipa called it Konfituerenburg; I rather like that change. Konfituerenburg is a marvelous word! You can’t even pronounce it the first time. I also like the German word Schlaraffenland – the land of the lazy, with rivers of milk and shores of pudding.

The Nutcracker in our theater is for children young and old. That is, for children and for adults who are children at heart. Because, if an adult is a good person, in his heart he is still a child. In every person the best, the most important part, is that which remains from his childhood.

In the Nutcracker Fritz and Marie play with the children who come to their party. I didn’t go visiting much when I was a child, First of all, I didn’t have time. Secondly, it was a complicated ritual, visiting in Petersburg. Children did not simply drop by. Adult males could visit one another, drink and play cards. But children did it this way: somebody’s mother would come by and invite us for tea, or dinner. Then we went.

Naturally, I had pals, but not special friends. So we did not give big parties for name days or birthdays. In winter we were taken to a Christmas party at a special place called the Bolshoi Hall. Many Petersburg children came. We played around the tree – we played rucheyok [stream, or something like London Bridge] and leapfrog – that was called slon [elephant]. We ran and skipped, but we tried not to fall down because we were all dressed up: velvet, white bows, lace collars. In the summer, at our dacha in Finland we played lapta [a stick and ball game].

At one time in our Nutcracker we had white mice fighting as well as gray ones. I decided to have the white mice running around under the tree, it could be interesting. But, as usual, there wasn’t enough time and it didn’t work. It confused the audience; people thought that the white mice were the good guys, while in both Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky the mice are evil. So I got rid of the white mice to avoid confusion.

The second act of Nutcracker is more French than German. Petipa liked the idea of Konfituerenburg because at the time in Paris there was a fad for special spectacles in which various sweets were depicted by dancers. Actually, Nutcracker’s second act is an enormous balletic sweetshop. In Petersburg there was a store like that, it was called Eliseyevsky’s; huge glass windows, rooms big enough for a palace, high ceilings, opulent chandeliers, almost like the ones at the Maryinsky. The floors at Eliseyevsky’s were covered with sawdust, and you could not hear footsteps – it was like walking on carpets. The store had sweets and fruits from all over the world, like in A Thousand and One Nights. I used to walk past and look in the windows often. I couldn’t buy anything there, it was too expensive. But I remember the store as clearly as if I had been staring in the window just yesterday.

The Petersburg Nutcracker also had Prince Coqueluche. Coqueluche means whooping couch. I think Prince Coqueluche was supposed to represent a lozenge or cough drop. But that wasn’t very clear, and so in our production, instead of Prince Coqueluche the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with a cavalier.

Anna Kisselgoff’s reviewed the book when it was published back in 1985: http://www.nytimes.c...?pagewanted=all. It's no longer in print, but copies can be found through the Amazon link at the bottom of each Ballet Alert! page (purchasing there helps support BA).

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"rivers of milk and shores of pudding."

I've been listening to difference version of the old hobo song "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" lately, so this fits right in!

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... the overture to the ballet resembles Tchaikovsky’s beloved Mozart. The march is also written in Mozart’s spare, light style. Everything in The Nutcracker is exquisitely crafted. I would call it the Viennese style. ...

I've long felt The Nutcracker displayed the finest craft of Tchaikovsky's ballets.

... Konfituerenburg is a marvelous word! You can’t even pronounce it the first time...

That's Mr. B. all right, the taste for challenge, the man who told people who complained about the title, when Robert Schumann's Davidbundlertanze premiered, "If you can't pronounce it, don't come."

Thanks so much, kfw. It's good to know him though his works and through his words, too, and it's an especially good time to have a little visit with him.

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That's Mr. B. all right, the taste for challenge, the man who told people who complained about the title, when Robert Schumann's Davidbundlertanze premiered, "If you can't pronounce it, don't come."

That story always makes me laugh. As does Prince "whooping cough," which we have a thread about.

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