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Jennifer Homans' planned biography of Balanchine

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My only concern with Homans as a biographer is that she even more than say, Alistair Macauley has a few ideé fixes and can't or won't deviate from them. One is her obsession with ballet as an expression of Louis XIV's divine right to rule. So much of ABT;s 75th anniversary documentary is fixated on this. I appreciate her passion for this historical origin of ballet but I hope her biography of Balanchine covers HIS life and HIS works, and isn't just a retread of Apollo's Angels. 

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14 hours ago, dirac said:

I doubt that Balanchine will be a figure as remote as Petipa, or even Fokine, any time soon, although I see what you mean. 

 

 

For those of us who live in areas where we see a chunk of the repertory every year, danced by people who have significant experience, your observation is dead on.  But as we see the shifting repertories and personnel of many companies around the country, I think we all see a shift from people who knew Balanchine to people who know someone who know Balanchine.  In a world where artistic generations are relatively short, I think we are seeing an increased separation from that cohort, and it will continue to affect how we perceive that repertory.

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Considering that the French royals created the academy and then made the company a for-profit venture like other theater is something that gets lost in the idea that there was a direct lineage from king to tsar.

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18 hours ago, sandik said:

 

What I'm waiting for is a biography of Balanchine, or a critical examination of his work that is framed by someone who did not work with him directly or is an artistic descendant of the House of Balanchine...

 

A mostly biography-less biography that focuses on the art. Many of the old stories told about Balanchine that were necessary for the promotion of City Ballet in the 1960s perhaps should be retired. The "Picasso-mistress" approach – which art historians are always having to fight against – also dropped. The teleology of having everything point to Balanchine having to make it to America (saved by Kirstein), found a school, a ballet company, rescue ballet (Homans) while at the same time founding a genuine American form (while wearing cowboy ties and watching Wonder Woman) that none of the Americans could, etc.

 

Balanchine criticism also seems to neglect the currents of history around it in order to make a neat Balanchine point. (For instance linking Agon and Apollo so closely when Apollo is a product of the conservative, anti-experimentalism "Return to Order" movement in France where Stravinsky was purging his music of Russian influences, while with Agon he was renouncing that Neoclassicism. This alone makes the two ballets different projects rather than thirds of a trilogy.)

 

I agree with miliosr's take on Croce. I would further say that Croce is personality-oriented and sees ballet first through the figures of the performers (esp Farrell and Villella and Baryshnikov) and only then as ballet. She is very astute and can be wonderfully aphoristic ("hell is the space other dancers occupy") but not systematic. She also slips in many assumptions about dance without questioning their basis that you find yourself having to accept. But she is a very pleasureable read and does have many important insights about City Ballet.

 

Edited by Quiggin

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46 minutes ago, Quiggin said:

Balanchine criticism also seems to neglect the currents of history around it in order to make a neat Balanchine point. (For instance linking Agon and Apollo so closely when Apollo is a product of the conservative, anti-experimentalism "Return to Order" movement in France

Product of, or reaction to?  

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I would further say that Croce is personality-oriented and sees ballet first through the figures of the performers (esp Farrell and Villella and Baryshnikov) and only then as ballet.

 

She would probably say that is a misleading distinction. Farrell and Baryshnikov as dancers helped define the ballet of their era, as performers and in the roles that were made for them.   Also consider her audience and format: she was writing reviews on an almost weekly basis for a weekly magazine.

 

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Yes and no. She was always "a good read" but that doesn't mean all of her pronouncements were equally valid.

 

Did anyone say they were (?)

 

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I wish Robert Gottlieb's book had been more comprehensive because I thought he did a pretty good job dispelling some of the myths about Balanchine. Gottlieb is obviously a great admirer of Balanchine but he did talk a lot about Balanchine's life that wasn't exactly the same as the life Mr. B liked to present in the press. 

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1 hour ago, Helene said:

Product of, or reaction to?  

 

I'd say product of.

 

Stravinsky apparently wanted Giorgio di Chirico to do the sets for Apollo. You could say that Apollo is moving plaster sculptures in a kind of deep space, like di Chirico, while Agon is in terms of the cubistic fragmentation on flat ground of a contemporary Lee Krasner or Joan Mitchell or deKooning painting. The body whole vs bodily aspects.

 

Kenneth Silver did two important books on the "Return to Order" (Cocteau's phrase) - "Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Avant-Gard and the First World War" and  "Chaos and Classicism" based on the show he did at the Guggenheim in 2010. Apollo I believe is mentioned.

 

Description and short video here.

 

https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/chaos-and-classicism-art-in-france-italy-and-germany-1918-1936

 

With Balanchine too it would perhaps be fruitful to consider each period separately and related to the immediate history it came out of - horizontal integration you might say rather than vertical integration.

Edited by Quiggin

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Thank you all for a very interesting discussion.   Because I believe the most enduring artistic aspect of Balanchine's work is his choreography informed by his musical acumen (sometimes combined with the "mind of the poet" [Croce]) resulting in a look into the "Real World",   I would naturally like to see an emphasis on that, but a biography is probably not the place for it.  Probably more of the flavor of CM Joseph's writing but less technical (musically speaking) and more accessible to any person who can listen and watch at the same time.

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4 hours ago, Helene said:

Thank you, @Quiggin.  I've always been stymied by what Diaghilev was meant to be doing with his company.

 

Indeed, this looks nice and juicy!

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On ‎8‎/‎7‎/‎2017 at 11:49 AM, Quiggin said:

 

A mostly biography-less biography that focuses on the art. Many of the old stories told about Balanchine that were necessary for the promotion of City Ballet in the 1960s perhaps should be retired.

I couldn't agree more with this. My hope for Homans' biography is that (a) it moves beyond the overreverence accorded to Balanchine's every utterance (no matter how lightly uttered) by some (but by no means all) of his followers, and (b) really separates the accretions that have accumulated since his death from the life of the man and the creation of his works. (The life and the works being highly interrelated.)

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My impression in talking to people in dance studies is that there are a few academic biographies of Balanchine in the works.  I'm very much looking forward to have a wealth of critical, academic biographies to compare, because it is so hard right now to separate out fact from myth. 

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1 hour ago, Swanilda8 said:

My impression in talking to people in dance studies is that there are a few academic biographies of Balanchine in the works.  I'm very much looking forward to have a wealth of critical, academic biographies to compare, because it is so hard right now to separate out fact from myth. 

It will always be hard to separate fact from myth. What we have is the work. It will be presented and performed. Audience members will react. Academic biographies have value but will differ in points of view, and for the most part will remain on book shelves. We (I) try to get closer to genius, a performance, a masterwork etc. by reading about it, but truly in performance art there is only now. I think that is the essence of Balanchine.

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I do think that, as we get further from his actual lifetime, most of us will know the works far better than the person.  And while there are all kinds of things we can learn about the ballets from the comments he made and the stories his dancers tell us, this transition will keep unfolding. 

 

I'm also looking forward to a new generation of dance writers taking on this repertory.  I learned an incredible amount from those who were writing during his lifetime (especially Croce, Denby, and Siegel), and I expect to learn from the new work as well.

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I wouldn’t say that even now we know the man better than the works. In some respects he’s still very much “a cloud in trousers.”  

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To me the real Balanchine biographies are the memoirs from the people who worked for him. Because they all had different interactions with him but the man they portray is remarkably consistent. 

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I agree with canbelto.  Taken together, the memoirs of Kent, Villella, D'Amboise et al. provide a more interesting picture than the current biographies.

 

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On 8/7/2017 at 2:02 PM, DanielBenton said:

... I believe the most enduring artistic aspect of Balanchine's work is his choreography informed by his musical acumen (sometimes combined with the "mind of the poet" [Croce]) resulting in a look into the "Real World" ...

 

I'm also in agreement with canbelto and DanielBenton, just above.

 

But I am especially struck by DanielBenton's earlier post, because it reminds me of a remark of Balanchine's, that

 

Quote

This is not the real world.  The real world is somewhere else.

 

which, whenever I think of it, makes me wonder whether it was part of his view of things that when we watch certain kinds of dance - his kind, in particular - listening as we watch - we may glimpse the "real world" he had in mind, or whether he meant something entirely different.

 

Many of his recorded remarks were "in the moment", so that we would benefit from knowing their context, which I can't provide this time, having forgotten, but this one seems to be general in its very expression.  And consistent in its mysterious content with his commonly "evasive" reply, when asked what something in one of his ballets means, "What did you see?" or words to that effect.  I put evasive in quotes because I think Mr. B. was not being evasive at all, but coaxing his questioners to find their own way to their own answer. 

Edited by Jack Reed

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17 hours ago, vipa said:

... What we have is the work. It will be presented and performed. Audience members will react. Academic biographies have value but will differ in points of view, and for the most part will remain on book shelves. We (I) try to get closer to genius, a performance, a masterwork etc. by reading about it, but truly in performance art there is only now. I think that is the essence of Balanchine.

 

14 hours ago, sandik said:

I do think that, as we get further from his actual lifetime, most of us will know the works far better than the person.  And while there are all kinds of things we can learn about the ballets from the comments he made and the stories his dancers tell us, this transition will keep unfolding. 

...

 

What worries me is whether we have - or will have - the work(s), the steps and gestures, or most of them - I've seen some disappear and then reappear; or whether we have, or will have, the worlds of those ballets.  It depends a lot on qualities of performance, and those who knew Mr. B. won't be around a lot longer - though there is film and video, not least the Interpreter's Archive of the Balanchine Foundation.  

 

Even the steps and gestures, performed just as show-off material, are something - some spectators will listen as they watch, and be rewarded by what the dancing shows them in the music, for example, but I'm not sanguine that we will still know the ballets - ballets as worlds of their own.

 

But if we do know them, don't we know the things most intimate to their maker?  The artist's interior life?  

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6 hours ago, DanielBenton said:

I agree with canbelto.  Taken together, the memoirs of Kent, Villella, D'Amboise et al. provide a more interesting picture than the current biographies.

 

 

I also think that any biography of Balanchine, no matter how complete, will always pale to any serious analysis of his work. I think in this case the man's work was more important than the man's personal life. 

I sort of wish there could be a critical edition of some of the best Balanchine criticism all in one volume. Stuff from Edwin Denby, Arlene Croce, etc. 

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5 minutes ago, canbelto said:

 

I also think that any biography of Balanchine, no matter how complete, will always pale to any serious analysis of his work. I think in this case the man's work was more important than the man's personal life. 

 

Certainly the work was more important if we're talking about ballet, but I don't think the two are in competition. While I wonder how there is to left to discover about the man at this late date (especially now that Elizabeth Kendall has discovered so much about his life in Russia) with so many of his friends and associates gone, there are times when I want the work analyzed, and times I want the life examined, and of course each illuminates the other. 

 

Jack wrote:

Quote

Many of his recorded remarks were "in the moment", so that we would benefit from knowing their context, which I can't provide this time, having forgotten, but this one seems to be general in its very expression.  And consistent in its mysterious content with his commonly "evasive" reply, when asked what something in one of his ballets means, "What did you see?" or words to that effect.  I put evasive in quotes because I think Mr. B. was not being evasive at all, but coaxing his questioners to find their own way to their own answer. 

 

I don't remember reading those replies, so thanks. They're also consistent with what a lot of other creative people say when asked about their work, refusing to shrink it down to a definition, insisting its meaning is up to each viewer/reader/listener. That said, I do like to understand as much as possible what it means or might mean to the artist - so bring on the bio!

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Having read Apollo's Angels my fear is that Homan's book will be less about Balanchine than her interpretation of Balanchine. I don't think another bio is needed now. If any written word accounts are needed, IMO it's a continued collection of remembrances of people who worked with him. 

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I admire Frankfurt for her candor, but if she was going behind Martins’ back to complain to the big boss that Martins lacked poetry in his soul, it’s no wonder she wasn't around much longer.

 

I don’t see any reason why such details wouldn’t make it into a biography. It depends on the book. Balanchine and Ashton both got away with things that wouldn’t be acceptable today. Who knows, maybe even Petipa copped a feel now and then. Times are changing, fortunately. 

 

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What worries me is whether we have - or will have - the work(s), the steps and gestures, or most of them - I've seen some disappear and then reappear; or whether we have, or will have, the worlds of those ballets.  It depends a lot on qualities of performance, and those who knew Mr. B. won't be around a lot longer - though there is film and video, not least the Interpreter's Archive of the Balanchine Foundation.  

 

You know, it is what it is. Balanchine at least has many knowledgeable and committed people dedicated to the preservation of his legacy.  I get the impression that what can be done is being done.

 

The testimony of friends and family can be as important as that of dancers and other employees. Some of the most interesting remarks in "I Remember Balanchine" were made by people like Lucia Davidova and Edward Warburg. In that respect Homans is starting  late, again depending on the kind of biography she wants to write. When Julie Kavanagh undertook “Secret Muses” she got to a lot of Ashton’s contemporaries just in time. On the other hand, Balanchine was much more of a workhorse than Ashton ever was, so an emphasis on his life at the theater and running the company wouldn't be inappropriate.

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