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Balanchine's Muse

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I'm reading Maria Tallchief's autobiography.

For the first time, I'm learning about a Balanchine muse other than Suzanne Farrell.

According to this book, Balanchine made many important ballets on Tallchief (she lists Firebird, Swan Lake, Symphony in C, Scotch Symphony and The Nutcracker). He continued to do so even after they were no longer married.

In addition, she seems to have had unprecedented training as a Balanchine dancer. Balanchine spent one summer giving class to just Tallchief and her partner at the time (Nicky ??? -- can't remember the last name).

Why does Suzanne Farrell get so much more recognition as Balanchine's muse and interpreter?

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Balanchine had serial muses, some of whom, like Tallchief, he married. But, as Jacques d'Amboise says in the film "Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse," "Suzanne was the last great muse of his life." And the story acquires more poignancy, perhaps, because she declined to be another in the long line of Mr. B's ballerina wives. It's also worth noting that he choreographed more ballets for Suzanne than for any of his earlier muses.

Nicky was Nicholas Magallanes, a long-time stalwart of NYCB and its predecessor companies.

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Good question, fendrock! In addition to what Farrell Fan posted, I think that it often happens that history remembers the latest as the greatest. But Tallchief was extremely important, not just to Balanchine and NYCB, but to American Ballet in general. A friend of mine who's been watching NYCB since the early 1950s told me that Tallchief was Balanchine's first true ballerina, and that's why he staged "Nutcracker" -- before, he'd had people who could do the steps, but no one with a ballerina aura.

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Well, women have a few more options now. :)

It's possible that Balanchine may have made a few more roles for Farrell, but that in itself wouldn't make her more significant to the Balanchine oeuvre than Tallchief. Otherwise our Muse Supreme might very well be Karin von Aroldingen. (I wonder, also, if Balanchine's later ballerinas didn't benefit, in a sense, from his declining health – Kyra Nichols notes in the most recent issue of Ballet Review that he was working only with people who knew him very well at that point.) Also, if you factor in roles that were restaged or revived for her, Tallchief might very well come out ahead. It's also generally conceded, I think, that the ballets made especially for Farrell were by and large not masterpieces. I'd also argue that Balanchine made roles for Tallchief that were at least as crucial to the repertory as the ones he made for Farrell, if not more so – she was Odette, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Firebird – you might say he was rethinking the ballerina canon through Tallchief. And she was the first homegrown American ballerina to become an international star.

I'd hazard that the two have in common that they were both company figureheads – the Chosen Ones whom Balanchine presented as exemplifying The Balanchine Way, the ballerina for our time, so to speak. Patricia McBride, for example, was a great ballerina but does not seem to have served in that function. ( I bet that if Balanchine had made "Diamonds'" in Tallchief's time, it would have been Maria's part.)

Le Clercq fits in between Tallchief and Diana Adams, and you have to squeeze Allegra Kent in there, too. There's a funny scene in Tallchief' s autobiography where she confides to her good friend Tanaquil that her marriage is not in the finest shape. Little does she know, etc……………

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Farrell and Tallchief were totally different dancers. Farrell was about excess and in that way redefined the look of the company. I think Tallchief certainly lead the NYCB in the fifties, and I think she was one of its first stars (it was her presence on the first international tours that gave it legitimacy.) I'm not sure she shaped the look of the company in the way that Farrell did. It doesn't make her "better" or "worse" but I think Farrell gets the attention she does partly (in agreement with Alexandra) because she was the last, but also because of her impact. She was archetypal in a way Tallchief never was.

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For those new to the field, or who simply want to read further, there is a very good book called Balanchine's Ballerinas: Conversations with the Musesby Robert Tracy (S&S, 1983). It is out of print, but many libraries own it, or can get it. The picture of Allegra Kent in The Couch Pose is worth the search ......

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Yes, I agree the Robert Tracy book is worth the search. He lists no fewer than nineteen, count'em, 19 Balanchine Muses. There are interviews with them all, action shots, and lovely portrait photographs. The complete list:

Alexandra Danilova

Tamara Geva

Felia Doubrovska

Tamara Toumanova

Ruthanna Boris

Elise Reiman


Mary Ellen Moylan

Maria Tallchief

Melissa Hayden

Diana Adams

Allegra Kent

Violette Verdy

Patricia McBride

Suzanne Farrell

Kay Mazzo

Karin von Aroldingen

Merrill Ashley

Darci Kistler

The front-jacket photograph is of Farrell and Balanchine. A different photo of them adorns the title page. The Farrell chapter begins: "Suzanne Farrell is the paradigm of the Balanchine ballerina, in her size and speed, her physical proportions and beauty, the spontaneity and musical sensitivity of her performances. Arlene Croce called her 'probably the most important dancer who ever entered Balanchine's life.'"

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There's also a video, "Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas," that's very illuminating. The six are Tallchief, Moylan, Hayden, Kent, Ashley, and Kistler. One of the noteworthy things about this excellent film is how Farrell figures in the remarks of several of them. And the filmmaker, Anne Belle, went on to devote her next film entirely to the Elusive Muse.

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I recall Barbara Walczak talking about a generational change that happened right around the time of the creation of Agon, which coincided with Tallchief's final years in the company. The dancers he was taking into the company (the Nearys, Mimi Paul, Farrell) looked very different than the some of ones that had been there. To me, his choices show a fascination with a certain facility and type from Doubrovska through to Adams and LeClercq to Farrell. In 60 years, one is not closed-mindedly consistent, and there were certainly always the Danilovas and Tallchiefs (and Verdys and von Aroldingens for that matter), but I don't think they were archetypical.

Tallchief was important and her import spreads well past Balanchine (which may be another reason I think of her as less archetypical of Balanchine), but I'm having a hard time naming her "descendants" at NYCB. She was a smaller, strong dancer with a grand scale to her (Firebird, Scotch, Sugarplum, Gounod Symphony), and I'm guessing, but I'd say the dancer "before" her was Marie-Jeanne. In one sense her heir might be Verdy, but I may be stretching to say that, especially as I think Verdy was even more independent than Tallchief.

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I didn't mean that she had descendants at NYCB but that she was a model for her generation across companies. If one look at Dance Mag during that period, one will see dancers with her silhouette -- and she is in many of the little collections of articles about dancers made into books at that time. One could certainly argue that Fonteyn was THE ballerina type in the West, but I think Tallchief was there, too.

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And we mustn't forget Mary Ellen Moylan, the original "Sanguinic" girl (that role went to Tallchief when Moylan left).

It's true that Tallchief's look and style were not imposed on the company as Farrell's were, but then for much of her time the company wasn't yet the company, strictly speaking. Leigh, I understand what you're saying about Balanchine's perennial fascination with The Look, and it's true that Tallchief didn't have that. But does that leave her as far outside the Balanchine mold as Verdy? I still don't think so. I'm inclined to agree with Alexandra about time bias playing a role here. ( And Croce does say "probably.")

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Here's a game: which ballets are the most explicit messages from Mr. B to his muses? Certainly Don Quixote when he felt too old to be with Farrell, similarly Midsummer Night's dream. Tzigane when she came back from exile (you gypsy!... the first time whe wore red on stage). These just off the top of my head.

I have read that his creative flourish right after there was no more hope that Le Clerq would dance again changed the whole relationship between men and women in his ballets.

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Fascinatingly, Farrell and Tallchief overlapped slightly at NYCB, in the early 60s when the former was a soloist, and the latter returned to reprise some of her old roles, and also, it seemed, to dance Balanchine's "Swan Lake" with Erik Bruhn. That's all he seemed to do that season, and moved on right after it. I recall a program containing both "Raymonda Variations" and "Firebird" in which Farrell danced one of the former, and Tallchief the title character of the latter.

I do wonder if Dream is as much a "letter to the Muse", (at least in the person of Farrell), as some of the others, as it was set on Melissa Hayden. I saw it back at City Center, then next again during opening week at State Theater. Suzanne had already started to make the role her own, and a couple years later, when Hayden returned to her original role for an occasional performance, it was such a contrast!

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That's correct, dirac. Balanchine left Midsummers to Adams in his will so I think his inspiration for Titania can be guessed from that.

Which actually brings me to a heretical observation about Farrell: I mean in no way to diminish her impact or greatness, but I do think the best ballets she danced in (rather than her best roles) contained roles she assumed or reinterpreted, (Symphony in C, Agon, Midsummer, Monumentum/Movements) rather than ballets choreographed at the time she created the role (I'd even include Diamonds in this, though I am sure others would not.)

As archetypical and inspiring as she surely was, to me, she wasn't the one who was there when Balanchine made the masterpieces.

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You know, you're right about Adams! I had forgot about the pregnancy, which caused a casting shakeup at the company for awhile. Things got even less predictable than they were previously in that season, and substitutions in both casting and program became the rule. And if I recall right, sadly, that pregnancy didn't work out, and she lost the baby.:)

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She did, poor thing. I think the pregnancy that caused her withdrawal from Movements for Piano and Orchestra also ended prematurely. Fortunately she did have a daughter eventually, named Georgina, if I'm remembering right. But I wander afield of the topic.

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I don't feel it's exactly afield of the topic, as it marked her retirement from the stage and her full-time attention could then be paid to the directorship of SAB. Balanchine then had a synoptic eye in the school, at which, by the 60s, he had started to become less comfortable. Having Adams there, his standards and practices for NYCB could be worked into the program, and his technical reforms, love them or hate them, could be regularized into the curriculum.:)

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I have watched Tallchief f rom her early beginnings with the Denham Ballet Russe from 1944 on to Ballet Society and NYCB. She was a wonderful soloist then and had an exalted free way of performing--not to worry about positions or correct technique--just dance in an exhilarating way! To this day I can remember with fondness how she led the pas-de-sept in Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme, the second ballerina part in Ballet Imperial and the Fairy in the Fairy's Kiss. Using the analogy of horses; think of the beauty of seeing a free horse roaming the plains, and then a much in control racehorse. Both beautiful conceptions! Balanchine saw all this talent and turned her into a thoroughbred. As much as I admired the outcome of Balanchine's influence, whenever I saw her dance I would think---just this once, break loose.

As to being a muse---I'm not so sure. Balanchine needed a ballerina for his Company (Maryellen Moylan was no longer around, having left, I think, as early as her Ballet Society days). She filled a necessary need.

As to the list of the 19 would-be muses, I have seen all of them except Geva and Doubrovska. I wouldn't classify the remainder as Muses---of course with the exception of Farrell---I think he waited all his life for her.

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