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Balanchine and the divinethe choreographer"s world-view


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#1 perichoresis

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 01:19 AM

Watching the almost unbearably beautiful ballet Chaconne with its wonderful score by Gluck and evocation of the fields of Elysium I was reminded of something Balanchine said. "You know, this world is not the real world..." He implied there was a world beyond "Made of another substance" this was either a Platonic perspective or more likely it came from Balanchine's Orthodox christianity. He famously said "God creates, man assembles".He informed his dancers that he read the bible regularly and slowly "Everything's in there... the prophecies" Being Orthodox (as was his great collaborator Stravinsky, his beloved Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff) he would have believed in the world to come and the resurrection of the dead.He was also a mystic and would sometimes say to his dancers that Mozart or Tchaikovsky had spoken to him and given inspiration if he was stuck temporarily on a work. At the NYCB performance immediately after his death, Lincoln Kirstein addressed the audience and said "I don't need to tell you that Mr B is with Mozart and Tchaikovsky."

In an age where in the West where it has become somewhat fashionable to slight Christianty, it is salutary to remember those towering artists whose faith was the wellspring of their work.J.S Bach, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and the before mentioned composers are but a few.Suzanne Farrell
professed the Catholic faith. despite its abuses, Christianity has bequeathed to the world a rich treasure of great art.

#2 rg

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 05:56 AM

to the best of my recollection, Lincoln Kirstein's essay in the book listed here, as "A ballet master's belief" was originally published (in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS?) as "Balanchine among the angels" and concerns the Western and Eastern beliefs that were part of Balanchine's and most Russian Orthodox practitioners' backgrounds.

Portrait of Mr. B. : photographs of George Balanchine / with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein ; introduction by Peter Martins.
New York : Viking Press, c1984.
154 p. : ill., ports. ; 25 cm.
A Ballet Society book."
CONTENTS. - Foreword, by Peter Martins. - A ballet master's belief, by Lincoln Kirstein. - Notes on the photographs. - Photographs, 1904-1983. - Two talks with George Balanchine, by Jonathan Cott. - Three sides of Agon, by Edwin Denby.

#3 drb

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 07:15 AM

Kirstein's Beliefs of a Master is still a free read on The New York Review of Books site:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5911

Here, by the way, Kirstein includes the Balanchine-Grigorovich debate.

#4 bart

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 07:25 AM

Thanks, drb, for that Llink. (Good old NY Review of Books!) It's interesting to read about Balanchine's very personal version of religious faith as filtered through the mind of a non-believer like Kirstein. And to see how it applies to his ballets. I've always liked Kirstein's phrase:

Balanchine's ballets can be read as icons for the laity ...

as well as the image of his dancers as "earthly angels."

P.S.: The complete Portrait of Mr. B, with all the wonderful photos, is available used through the Amazon link above. Prices are as low as $3.75 ranging to much higher for copies "like new" and "new."

#5 rg

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 07:58 AM

i now can find no ref. to the recall of a title involving 'balanchine' and 'angels' - maybe i hallucinated this earlier title.
re: kirstein as 'believer' or 'non-' didn't he convert to russian orthodoxy? in which case he was a 'believer' of sorts, i suppose.
and yes the photos in PORTRAIT OF MR. B include some that feature the angels, complete with russian-icon-like wings, designed by rouben ter-arutunian for "Adagio Lamentoso" the tchaikovsky work that closed the first nycb tchaikovsky festival.

#6 Paul Parish

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 04:25 PM

THanks Dr b -- it's great to have that essay ready to hand.

Makes me think again of how he admired Ray Bolger, who has an unearthly lightness and freedom in his movements --

#7 bart

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 05:35 PM

i now can find no ref. to the recall of a title involving 'balanchine' and 'angels' - maybe i hallucinated this earlier title.
re: kirstein as 'believer' or 'non-' didn't he convert to russian orthodoxy? in which case he was a 'believer' of sorts, i suppose.

You are right, rg. I should not have used the term "non-believer," which implies an either-or, yes-no, and black-white alternative. Such oppositions are characteristic of the literalist, fundamentalist, Scripture-centered religions which seem to be in the headlines in much of the world today. Quite different is the more mystical, liturgically based faith that Balanchine derived from Russian Orthodoxy, which Eliot and Auden found in Anglo-Catholicism, and which had a profound influence on many 20th-century artists. Theirs was a faith in which rituals, vidual images, powerful words, and ambiguity about theological details were the primary vehicles of spiritual experience. Kirstein's version of it, which he developed in older age, seems to have been primarily based in Roman Catholicism.

Here's something from the Duberman biography.

Llincoln, as he grew older, grew closer to Balanchine's attraction to religious orthodoxy, or at least to its theatrical rituals.

The folllowing applies to the early 1980s, the period in which "A Ballet Master's Belief" was written:

[Lincoln] is half taken up with Catholicism," said his friend Michael Leonard, though without being a fully paid-up (baptism and confession) member.

Though Lincoln never would become a"fully paid-up Catholic, the Mass, for a time, became "increasingly the center of my thought, even of my life." Still endlessly curious at age seventy-six, he read with particular interest the writings of the radical Catholic authors Father Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Hans Kung [Roman Catholic theologians of the period of the Second Vatican Council]. They gave him "a lot of hope that First Century Christianity is neither dead nor buried.".

It seems that by the 1980s, When official Roman Catholicism veered back towards political and social conservatism Kirstein reduced his Mass attendance. He was especially distressed by the growing anti-homosexual bias of the Roman Church hierarchy.

There was a prayer of benediction at the scattering of Kirstein's ashes in Connecticut. The priest who delivered the benediction -- Father Adrian -- is the same man to whom Kirstein dedicated his "Ballet Master's Belief" a decade earlier.

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 17 May 2008 - 06:48 PM

I'm faced with having to interpret this sort of belief system all the time, as I work in a museum which deals with George Washington. People try to explain him in a couple of sentences when it comes to matters spiritual, and they might be right, or they might be wrong. Washington, like Balanchine and Kirstein, did not write or speak of his own spiritual and religious beliefs at any length at all. Indeed, among Washington's surviving papers, the word "Christ" is not once mentioned, except with reference to Charles Christ, one of his neighbors, and that only once. Watch what they do, and find the occasional references you can salvage, and then try to extrapolate a description of the beliefs involved. Chances are that they won't easily match any modern denominational notion.


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