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Dueling Balanchine Bios: Gottlieb vs Teachout


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Buy them (use the AMAZON link at the top, and support Ballet Talk!), read them, and let's talk!

George Balanchine : The Ballet Maker (Eminent Lives)

by Robert Gottlieb

All in the Dances : A Brief Life of George Balanchine

by Terry Teachout

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I bought the Gottlieb largely for the wonderfully amusing reprint of a 1965 Life Magazine article printed in Balanchine's name. There is this passage, for example, as Balanchine is insisting, as he would not have to insist today, that ballet boys are not "sissies."

"We used to have no male students at all. But Jacque's D'Amboise started with us at the age of 8. He is now married and has four children. And Edward Villella also started at about age 8 and also grew up to be a man. And both of them are good. So our percentage is 200%. 100% for each."

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I read Gottlieb's book last week, and was a bit disappointed. It seemed to be little more than a brief regurgitation of everyotherbook about Balanchine, full of "in her book, great dancer and ex-wife # N says..." followed by a memorable quote from book XYZ. I expected somewhat more depth from a person who has been associated with the company for many years in one capacity or another. :rolleyes:

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Roma, the same can be said about Teachout's book, except he doesn't give credit to his other sources. He made some explaination about this in the beginning of the book, but it was sort of lame. I'm still waiting for a real bio on Balanchine or at least a book that looks at him in an original way. Oh, Ms. Croce, please hury with your book!!

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I gather that the “Eminent Lives’ volume by Gottlieb is part of a series of brief bios, and it would be surprising to find new information there – I haven’t seen a book from the series yet, but it looks as if they are aimed at a general reader who is new or relatively new to the subject. (In any case, it’s unlikely that Gottlieb or Teachout would have anything new to tell ballet fans and followers of this board -- many of us have been reading them for years on the subject -- given the format and purpose of this kind of biography.)

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I don't expect much if any new information from a book this small, but when the subject is Balanchine, and the writer is distinguished and had a long association with him, the reading is pure pleasure.

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I haven't read Teachout's, but I found a few things that were interesting in Gottlieb's book:

*In his discussion of Balanchine's women and men, he talks about the difficult relationship Balanchine had with some of his top male dancers. I liked his point about Villella being the ultimate prodigal son, one who returned to Balanchine not personally, but through his Company, Miami City Ballet, which from all accounts, upholds Balanchine's standards and teaching as well as any.

*He was pretty gentle on Peter Martins.

*He describes briefly how he became involved on the Board and in the Company, taking on huge responsibilities like season programming, because upper management was spread so thin.

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I understand that the book is written for the general reader and wasn't expecting to be astounded by a flood of new information. I just wish, since the labor was undertaken, for the finished product to be a bit more than a summary of quotes from other sources.

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I see your point. I have read several of the "Penguin Lives" series, and when they are good, like Edna O'Brien's biography of James Joyce, the interest lies chiefly in the writer's take on the subject, along with having a concise account of the famous person's life. Obviously, my view will be better informed once I actually get hold of Gottlieb's book. :D

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My order's in for Gottlieb's book, too, having used the link at the top of the page. Meanwhile, Roma, have you read the Vanity Fair article on NYCB Gottlieb wrote some years ago? Maybe it has the substance you found the book lacks.

As for the Teachout book, I am allowing myself to be guided by Mindy Aloff's review in the 24th October LA Times - your local friendly public library may be able to furnish the article if you don't want to go to the expense of subscribing - and passing it by.

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Having looked through Gottlieb’s book at Tower Books and Records, I decided to give it a pass, speaking for myself only. I heartily recommend the Vanity Fair article, also. It’s a splendid piece.

(Whenever I order online, I recommend our site sponsor, but Tower has been struggling recently and I greatly appreciate having a place to go where I can browse through books, CDs, and specialist magazines not easy to find elsewhere, browsing being one of my great pleasures in life. My branch also offers the Sunday editions of many out-of-town newspapers. So do pay a visit to your local Tower Records/Books once in awhile, if you have one. They offer a 20% discount on hardcover books, and I bought the Daneman bio of Fonteyn there.)

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I'd like to add my voice to the chorus recommending the Vanity Fair article. Roma if you need a copy I can send it to you.

I'm halfway through the Gottlieb book. I think it's spendid for what it is. It doesn't pretend to be the definitive Balanchine book, of which I have high hopes for Ms. Croce's book.

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I confess, Roma, I did see what you mean about the lengthy quotations – it was particularly noticeable in such a brief volume. “Geva said [long excerpt from Geva’s book], but Danilova said [long excerpt from Danilova’s book].” :)

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The article was in the December 1998 issue, with Ewan McGregor on the cover. The article was called "Happy Birthday, Mr. Balanchine; 50 years of Beauty, Passion and Intrigue at the New York City Ballet." I think the article, in a slightly alterered form, appeared in an issue of Dance Now.

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I mostly enjoyed Gottlieb's biography of Balanchine. It is a model of concision, and manages to weave Mr. B's personal life and professional accomplishments into a seamless whole. Among other things, I learned that Balanchine was as distraught when Zorina left him as he was years later when Farrell defected, and that he suffered anxiety attacks for years after Tanaquil le Clercq was stricken with polio.

One small matter, however. It used to be conventional wisdom that when Mr. B accepted Kirstein's invitation to form an American ballet company, he agreed and said, "But first, a school." More recently, Jennifer Dunning, who chose that phrase as the title of her history of SAB, has written that it was Kirstein who said it. Gottlieb seems to attribute it to Dimitriev, but obscures the point by suddenly switching to the passive voice:

"A few days after that, Kirstein was in Paris, meeting with Balanchine and Vladimir Dimitriev to sweat out the arrangements. On August 11 the three men got down to specifics, with Dimitriev laying down the law. Since leading Balanchine, Danilova, and the others out of Bolshevik Russia, Dimitriev had stood by, handling practical matters for them and sharing in their income. In the discussions now, two things were insisted upon: In America, they must start with a school, with the company to follow, and Dimitriev's presence was nonnegotiable."

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This evening I heard Terry Teachout speak about Balanchine at the Wadsworth Atheneaum in Hartford... and bought his book... though honestly, I don't think many readers of Ballet Alert are the target audience for it... It's specifically intended for someone who has just or is just about to experience Balanchine for the first time and would like to know a little about him without being overwhelmed by a 3-inch thick book.

I told him as he signed my book that there was a lively discussion of his book & Gottleib's book going on at the Ballet Alert site, and he said he wasn't surprised... that they had been doing joint book signing events.

So, as a book intended for the first time ballet goer (or nascent balletomane?), what do you think? It's so hard to judge these things. I have an equally hard time figuring out what ballet class is like for adults who have never studied before.

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I don't know what someone who is new to Balanchine would make of Terry Teachout's book, but I enjoyed it immensely. It's quite different from Gottlieb's -- less a brief biography than a long essay by an opinionated spectator. He compares Balanchine to Matisse instead of to Picasso, as is usually the case. Why? As far as I can figure out, because he likes Matisse better. (So do I.) Though there are things to quibble with on page after page -- he finds a resemblance between Davidsbundlertanze and Liebeslieder; cites Serenade as "entirely plotless" in contrast to Apollo; describes Balanchine's early love life in the U.S. as "an endless series of torrid affairs" -- the net result nevertheless makes a compelling case for Balanchine's genius. In my misspent middle-age, I used to write book advertising and always studiously avoided the cliche "compulsively readable," but I finished this in one sitting, so the cliche was true for me.

Incidentally Amy (and anyone else who's seen the book) what do you make of the photo on the front of the jacket? I had never seen it before. Though it calls to mind Tallchief's account of the last time she visited Balanchine in the hospital and he was choreographing with his fingers, he looks healthy and more like a puppeteer And the bandaids on his thumb and index finger are like what baseball catchers use to make their signs more visible to their pitchers. Weird. I hope someone can provide an explanation.

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Not in this photo, Dale... his index finger tip is intact... Wasn't it a lawnmower accident?

I agree, Farrell Fan, it's an odd photograph. I remember having a negative reaction to it when I first saw it (where? maybe Amazon.com? ), but now I kind of like it. It seems somehow unbalanchine, doesn't it... as if he's working out a choreographic problem with his fingers Petipa's chessboard style? I never had the privilege of watching him work, but had the impression it wasn't like this. I didn't pick up the puppetmaster image though. I like the long photo blurbs at the center of the book, perhaps because so many people I know when they encounter a dance book immediately flip to the photo sections first. It looks like a piano to me. I can't quite imagine him crouched under a table or desk, can you?

I think the photo on the back is stunning. It's a 1949 photo by George Platt Lynes of Balanchine supporting LeClercq in attitude while Moncion looks on. It's not that the pose is extroadinary, but rather there's something unnatural about the lighting that makes LeClercq look like an ideal rather than a woman.

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A sample of the style of Teachout's book...

[after some discussion of a few flops by Balanchine (after Farrell's departure)

against Robbin's rising success]

The answer came with a vengeance in the spring of 1972. The New York State Theater went dark for a week, then reopened on June 18 for the most ambitious undertaking New York City Ballet had ever attempted, a weeklong Stravinsky Festival at which thirty-one different ballets were performed, twenty of them new, including eight premieres by Balanchine and four by Robbins (plus a new version of Pulcinella that the two men choreographed jointly).  Balanchine set the tone on opening night by detonating two masterpieces in a row, Symphony in three Movements and Stravinsky Violin Concerto. ...

It may not be a major academic work, but it's plenty fun to read.

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Although Gottlieb's book is the more authoritative and comprehensive, I agree that Teachout's is more fun to read despite (or maybe because of) some dubious assertions. For example, of the New York State Theater: "The balconies are too high, the auditorium too deep, and unless you're lucky enough to be sitting in the first fifteen rows of the orchestra, you feel as though the stage is a mile or two away." That sounds more like the Met to me.

Incidentally, Gottlieb's book counts Danilova as one of Balanchine's wives, for a total of five, while Teachout's credits him with only four wives but adds numerous, unspecified "romances" and affairs.

I reiterate, though, that I enjoyed both books tremendously.

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