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Balanchine biography by Jennifer Homans?


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#31 Helene

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 08:33 AM

Thank you so much for the heads up on Janet Malcolm's book: I just ordered the Kindle version.

#32 sandik

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 08:59 AM

Thank you so much for the heads up on Janet Malcolm's book: I just ordered the Kindle version.


Absolutely -- it sounds fascinating. Just got on the hold line at the library.

And the description from the review is very appropriate considering our discussion here. We are in an intensely first-person age right now, and this influences much of the writing we see. Homan's Apollo's Angels is absolutely a personal view of ballet history, and I assume that her biography of Balanchine will be in the same vein. It is, in a way, the distinction between art history and artist history.

#33 Helene

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 09:12 AM

We are in an intensely first-person age right now,

Just this morning I read an article on salon.com titled, "Jason Collins' ex-fiancee to write a memoir about his coming out: Former WNBA player Carolyn Moos will reflect on her recent life events about her former fiance." And all of this time I thought a memoir was written by and/or ghostwritten for the subject him or herself.

#34 dirac

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 11:00 AM

Anyway, when I read the opening paragraph in Pamela Erens' review of Janet Malcolm's Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, I knew exactly what kind of book about Balanchine I really wanted:


Janet Malcolm understands that artists make things. This may seem a more than obvious truth, but it’s startling how often it is sidelined. A fair amount of writing about artists is premised on the idea that they are better or worse or more generous or brutish or attuned to the subtle vibrations of the universe than the rest of us. Malcolm doesn’t seem to think so, and it’s very refreshing. The profiles in her new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers focus primarily on thing-making – the ideas behind it, the process of it, and the way those things are received by the public – as opposed to personality. Not that personality is missing from her essays; the reader gets a very strong sense of various artistic characters and their mannerisms. But there is little here of sleazy affairs, bad behavior toward family and colleagues, or other familiar fodder of artistic biography. (Often such biography suggests that the artist’s main career is being an asshole, while the paintings or photographs or books happen somehow in his free time.)

from "Making Things Is Hard Work: Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts," posted in The Millions on May 7, 2013


I know enough about Balanchine's life; what I really want to understand is his art.

ETA: I'm not by any means suggesting that we ought avert our eyes from the uglier episodes in Balanchine's life. We don't need a hagiography either.


I think most of us understand that artists make things, no? That's why we want to read about them; we love the art and want to know more about the person who made it. The issue arises with those who do seem to make careers of being a--holes, and such cases exist. (Some come across as a--holes even when their biographers are trying to put the best possible face on things.) I don't think Mr. B. was one of the a--holes, for what that's worth, but his private life - insofar as he had one, really - was part and parcel of his art, more so than for most artists. The Farrell story is an illustration of that, in a sense: personal human relations are often as not messy and disappointing, but ultimately for both parties the art is what really matters. For myself, I do want to know about Balanchine's art but I think it's time for a more compleat life of Balanchine as well. I hope Homans comes up with the goods.

#35 dirac

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 11:04 AM

Mr B's exes seem to have been able to move on their lives - most remarried, had children, made friends, and even worked with Mr. B after divorcing him. I can't read their minds, but I think they respected his creative force, and realized he wasn't cut out to be a long term devoted husband. [...]


How can I put this respectfully... From my personal point of view, Tallchief certainly did "move on" with her personal life, no doubt about it. But I think when she was in the studio, she more often than not replicated the scene of her own intense training with Balanchine. (Again, this is my own observation.) In the best cases dancers whom she favored (few and far between) were able to learn something from her first-hand knowledge of working with Balanchine. In most cases, though, her approach sometimes made no sense (i.e., most of the young bodies Tallchief had to mold were far more flexible and well-trained from the start than hers ever was); sometimes it was just cruel.


Thanks for this observation, Ray. I remember an interview with Tallchief where she said she told Balanchine something like, "George, I teach it to them just the way you taught it to me," but the potential problems with such a literal approach didn't occur to me at the time.

#36 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 12:18 PM

I think most of us understand that artists make things, no? That's why we want to read about them; we love the art and want to know more about the person who made it. The issue arises with those who do seem to make careers of being a--holes, and such cases exist. (Some come across as a--holes even when their biographers are trying to put the best possible face on things.) I don't think Mr. B. was one of the a--holes, for what that's worth, but his private life - insofar as he had one, really - was part and parcel of his art, more so than for most artists. The Farrell story is an illustration of that, in a sense: personal human relations are often as not messy and disappointing, but ultimately for both parties the art is what really matters. For myself, I do want to know about Balanchine's art but I think it's time for a more compleat life of Balanchine as well. I hope Homans comes up with the goods.


Ideally, what should one look for in a new biography of Balanchine? What would make such a document more complete -- or at least more satisfying -- than what we already have? Are there archives that have yet to be reviewed and analyzed -- documents in Russia or France, perhaps? Is there a need for someone to transcribe, compile, and synthesize the vast trove personal recollections and observations that currently exist?

I'd be interested in a book that examined Balanchine's art in the context of the intellectual, cultural, and political climate in which he worked. (Or books -- his career did encompass the bulk of the 20th century and it might take more than one to do it justice.) Since "Apollo's Angels" was an attempt at a cultural history of ballet, perhaps that's what Homans has in mind for her Balanchine book as well.

#37 Quiggin

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 01:31 PM

I'd like to see a new alternative biography of Balanchine that strips away all of the stories he told and all the stories we tell ourselves about why the ballets are the way they are. Balanchine's reasons were often just to keep working, to keep the company going (per Eliott Carter), and many of the stories we tell serve to fit him into an all-American context.

For instance, Balanchine tells Taper that he had never really looked at modern art before Diaghilev sat him down in a museum and left him there. However, Balanchine tells Solomon Volkov that in Russia in the early twenties, at the house of the collector Alexy Zheversheyev, which he visited often, "I saw the works many left artists, including Malevich. I liked the pictures, even though I didn't understand them completely." Zheversheyev, Volkov says, played an "exceptional and under-appreciated role in young Balanchine's artistic development." He was also Tamara Geva's father.

Because of his Russian/early Soviet education in theater and visual arts, Balanchine's aethetics would seem to be pretty much formed by the time he came to France, and so it would be interesting to see the dynamics between Diaghilev and Balanchine, as teacher and apprentice, also recast.

#38 pherank

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 03:13 PM

I'd like to see a new alternative biography of Balanchine that strips away all of the stories he told and all the stories we tell ourselves about why the ballets are the way they are. Balanchine's reasons were often just to keep working, to keep the company going (per Eliott Carter), and many of the stories we tell serve to fit him into an all-American context.


Hear, hear! I have to agree with what Quiggin is saying above, though I have a feeling that Kathleen O'Connell's suggeston ("a book that examined Balanchine's art in the context of the intellectual, cultural, and political climate in which he worked") will be closer to what Homans is likely to attempt.

#39 dirac

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Posted 07 May 2013 - 05:39 PM

Ideally, what should one look for in a new biography of Balanchine? What would make such a document more complete -- or at least more satisfying -- than what we already have? Are there archives that have yet to be reviewed and analyzed -- documents in Russia or France, perhaps? Is there a need for someone to transcribe, compile, and synthesize the vast trove personal recollections and observations that currently exist?

I'd be interested in a book that examined Balanchine's art in the context of the intellectual, cultural, and political climate in which he worked. (Or books -- his career did encompass the bulk of the 20th century and it might take more than one to do it justice.) Since "Apollo's Angels" was an attempt at a cultural history of ballet, perhaps that's what Homans has in mind for her Balanchine book as well.


I'd say the short answer is, yes, there is a need for a book (or books) that will synthesize the testimonies and other materials already generally available about Balanchine the artist and/or Balanchine the man, and I would bet there there are archives out there to be explored. I would say the immediate need is for a nice solid tome, as Ray said earlier in the thread, and a conventional biography would be fine with me for starters. (You may well be right that two volumes will be called for, but I'd like to see a one-volume attempt. Not going to be too choosy at this point, though. :))

#40 Ray

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Posted 08 May 2013 - 05:00 AM

I think all of the comments above re our desires for more knowledge about Balanchine register the need for more, and varied, writings about him, his work, the cultural context(s), etc., etc.! No one work (i.e., Homans's) is going to be the end of it but, I hope, the beginning. I just think there need to be more heavyweight scholarly works on him/his work right now, from which other, perhaps smaller/more incisive studies/essays/articles could flow.


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