The Girl Who Waltzes

Laura Jacobs

  • Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer by Elizabeth Kendall
    Oxford, 288 pp, £22.99, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 995934 1

In 1973, when George Balanchine was asked by his biographer Bernard Taper to appraise the previous decade of his life, he replied: ‘It’s all in the programmes.’ He meant that the most important information was already onstage: in the new ballets he made, the old ones he revived and the dancers he chose to perform them. ‘You have to look everywhere, everything, all the time,’ he told the dancer Ruthanna Boris, when she asked him how to be a choreographer. ‘Look at the grass in the concrete when it’s broken, children and little dogs, and the ceiling and the roof. Your eyes is camera and your brain is a file cabinet.’ Balanchine didn’t want to list chronologies or conscious decisions. It was the cabinet of the unconscious – the energy of its images and echoes, its illusions invented in dreams – that held truths and answers. ‘I never knew anybody who trusted his unconscious and was able to follow it through as much as he,’ Boris went on to say of him.

Taper’s Balanchine, first published in 1963 and revised three times, most recently in 1996, grew out of a New Yorker profile, a probationary period in which Taper won Balanchine’s respect: he spent six weeks observing silently before asking a single question. The book is the fruit of informal conversations with Balanchine, plus unprecedented amounts of time spent behind the scenes at the New York City Ballet, which Balanchine founded with Lincoln Kirstein in 1948. Taper compares Balanchine to ‘a mythical guide’ who could make ‘a Tiepolo-esque flight’ out of a mundane event and this captures the tone of the three chapters covering the years 1904 to 1924: Balanchine’s birth and childhood, his time at the Imperial Theatre School, and his coming of age after the Revolution. These chapters read like a folktale – charming, intimate, cosily predestined. Taper’s book has served for fifty years as the authoritative record and those wishing to analyse Balanchine’s ballets through the prism of his private life have drawn from its pages. But with the publication of Elizabeth Kendall’s Balanchine and the Lost Muse, the first twenty years of Balanchine’s life have been revisited free of his mythical guidance (‘soft focus’ might be a better way to put it) and revised.

A historian and dance critic fluent in Russian, Kendall had to win the respect of the Balanchivadze descendants, all living in Georgia, who then shared with her what they knew of the family history. She tracked down facts in archives, ancient city directories and previously classified files in Russia, Finland and Georgia. She has found illumination in letters, diaries, poetry and fiction, and she brings an ear for unspoken emotions and telling omissions. There’s something of predestination in this book too. In her preface Kendall writes that as a cub critic in 1981 she was sent by the Ford Foundation to interview Balanchine, then 77 (he died two years later). Having finished her questions she prepared to leave – but no, he wanted to keep talking. He told Kendall of his life in 1920s revolutionary Petrograd, ‘tales about starving, and sewing saddles and playing battered pianos in movie houses just to get food’. It was a long way from there to the early 1980s, but not in his mind. It’s to these years that Kendall has returned, almost as if Balanchine had placed her on the path that afternoon.

But she returns with a pas de deux. Alongside the story of the young Balanchine is the story of his classmate Lidia Ivanova. Those who know her name at all tend to know it in one context. Ivanova was a Mariinsky soloist, one of five young dancers – an inner sanctum that included Balanchine; his wife, Tamara Geva; Nikolai Efimov; and the soloist Alexandra ‘Choura’ Danilova – who were all ready and waiting to leave Russia for a summer tour in Europe, if only their exit visas would come through. On 16 June 1924, Ivanova was killed in a freak boating accident. The next day the visas arrived. On 4 July, four dancers left, never to return. Ever since, Lidia – Kendall refers to her in the diminutive, as Lidochka; Balanchine called her Lida – has been a tragic footnote to a central episode in Balanchine’s life: his slipping, like mercury from broken glass, out of Soviet Russia and into the West.

No one in Ivanova’s circle (or circles – she belonged to the overlapping worlds of St Petersburg music, literature and theatre) believed her death was an accident. The mystery of how and why Lidia died has continued to haunt many in Russia and beyond. Kendall sensed there was a reason to know more about her. After all, how could the sudden death – and passionate life – of a much loved friend and fellow artist not bear on the poetic young Balanchine?

A quest, then, this searching after Lidia, but an inspired one. It turns out that Ivanova and Balanchine were a golden pair, not romantically but as leaders, she prima inter pares among the girls in her class and he among the boys. ‘They’d been each other’s first dancing partners,’ Kendall learns, combing Mariinsky casting records (it’s all in the programmes!), and they would continue to be paired while at the Theatre School. After graduation ‘they remained an informal king and queen of their generation. Lidochka was impulsive, headstrong, full of vitality. George was detached, dreamy, mysterious.’ Kendall calls him ‘the revolutionary Pierrot’ to Lidia’s bold ‘flapper edition of Columbine’. These two poured their souls into art. During the period of capitalism known as the New Economic Policy (NEP) – a bacchanal on a tightrope that began in 1921 – both dancers flung themselves into the city’s frenzy of artistic experimentation. Both questioned the traditions of the Mariinsky, hoping to find a classicism that spoke to a new world. The dance historian Yuri Slonimsky, who was there at the time, saw them as twin spirits and wrote of Ivanova: ‘She was a talent like Balanchine himself.’

In 1920 Ivanova choreographed a frightening solo for herself to music by Sibelius, Valse Triste. Descriptions of it – a lone girl overwhelmed by an unseen power – suggest something like the final mortal solo of 1913’s Le Sacre du printemps, the ‘Danse sacrale’. With Balanchine’s help the solo was strengthened, so much that he would later count it among his first creations – No. 10, to be exact, in his Catalogue of Works – thus making the ballet an early stirring of the collaborative synergy, the almost clairvoyant understanding, that would mark his work with women. On the June night when Ivanova didn’t appear at the theatre where she was scheduled to dance, Balanchine, Geva, Efimov, Danilova and Ivanova’s boyfriend went to the harbour to look for her. In the opaline blue of a St Petersburg summer night – a light that the dancer Vadim Strukov has described as ‘everything immaterial and floating, like the coloured layers of a tutu’ – they went to the water for Lida.

‘The two stories told in this book are parallel stories, intertwining at many points,’ Kendall writes, but they begin ‘as separate strands, in a lost time and place before there was a revolution, in the winter of 1903-04, when both were born’. She starts with Georgi Balanchivadze (he would be Georges at the Theatre School and George Balanchine in the West) – or rather, with his parents. The cosy family snapshots we’ve had until now always contained vagaries. Kendall has waved away the fog, or most of it, with dates nailed, dots connected, key moments set in vivid cultural and political context, and hence sharpened. All of this makes things less cosy. The father, Meliton Balanchivadze, was by all accounts a charming man and a gifted musician –‘the Georgian Glinka’ – but he was also irresponsible and often absent. In Georgia he had a wife, Gayane, and two children, but he left them to study music in St Petersburg. It was there that he met and courted the much younger Maria Nikolaevna Vasilieva, a blonde with a classical profile, even though he wasn’t a widower (as Taper says he was) or divorced. Maria eludes Kendall – elusiveness is part of her character – and she remains mysterious in her parentage and her class. The Balanchivadze grandchildren think she was German; Kendall believes she may have been hiding Jewish blood on her mother’s side, and was probably illegitimate.

Then too, the famous winning lottery ticket that lifted the family into the St Petersburg bourgeoisie, and led to disastrous investments by Meliton, was not bought by Meliton as formerly thought, but by Maria. It may be the reason he stayed with her after their first child, a daughter, died. He finally married her, or made it look as if they’d married, after she bore him three children – Tamara (1902), Georgi (1904) and Andrei (1906). There’s no record of Meliton ever divorcing Gayane and it’s possible he was a bigamist. One wonders how much the young Balanchine knew of all this. Throughout his long life of serial infatuations and four marriages – always with dancers – there would be overlap, sometimes protracted, between the woman he was leaving and the new one he loved. This ever shifting pas de trois, a man between two women, was a structural refrain in his ballets and a pattern in his life, always pulling him onwards.

As for Maria, she was a responsible caretaker and ambitious for her children, but those who knew her remember her as cold. That she favoured Tamara and Andrei can’t have helped matters for Georgi. He longed for, but didn’t get, the singular attention of either parent. In 1913, his mother put him into the audition at the Theatre School. He was accepted, and that very day his mother left him, returning to the family’s dacha in Finland. Kendall believes it ‘constituted the greatest trauma of his life, greater even than revolution’. When the Revolution did come, in 1917, Meliton was in Finland, Tamara was in Kasimov, and Maria, Andrei and Georges were in Petrograd. Meliton told everyone to make their way to Georgia, but Georges stayed put and continued his study of ballet. The belief has been that he never saw his mother again. Kendall startles us with the news that Maria didn’t leave either, and for another four years found reasons not to rejoin the family in Georgia. Georges not only saw his mother, but for a time in 1918 lived with her and his aunt. ‘Neither mother nor son,’ Kendall writes, ‘could abandon the only city they knew, and the selves they were in it.’ Here is the template for a distinct type that would be catnip to Balanchine: the elusive beauty (Vera Zorina), not always blonde (Diana Adams), present but unpossessable (Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell), unwilling or unable to give the longed-for love. It’s said that in the last days of his life, drifting in and out of consciousness, Balanchine was calling for his mother.

*

Kendall’s portrait of Balanchine’s first twenty years will now be the standard reference for this period. Her portrait of Ivanova, drawn from far less material and requiring daring research strategies, is mesmerising. Ivanova has resided in two English-language reliquaries: an essay by Yuri Slominsky in Ballet Review and the chapter Gennady Smakov devotes to her in The Great Russian Dancers. But in Russian newspapers and monographs of the day as well as in the eyewitness memoirs of the dancers Mikhail Mikhailov and Vera Kostrovitskaya and the choreographer Fedor Lopukhov – all untranslated works, unread in the West – Ivanova looms large. Her death inspired poetry (Mikhail Kuzmin: ‘Warmth and life have left the fields’) and fiction: Bambochada, a novel of 1931 by Konstantin Vaginov, describes a grieving man whose daughter, a ballerina, has died prematurely. Clearly based on Ivanova and her father, the pairing suggests a relationship overly enmeshed, the obsessive adoration of the father oppressing the daughter. Kendall takes psychological insights from Vaginov, but carefully. And she takes visual cues from photographs, those velvety, deep-focus studio shots that have disappeared from the world. There is a poignant image of little Lidia, an only child and the sum of her parents’ dreams, in peasant costume. Alexander Alexandrovich Ivanov and his slightly older wife were climbing the ladder in St Petersburg, but with more discipline (he was an army man) than the Balanchivadzes.

Tracking Ivanova’s rise through the Imperial Theatre School, Kendall discusses the girls’ curriculum as well as the boys’, and compares the styles of teachers (Olga Preobrazhenskaya v. Agrippina Vaganova) and of ballerinas (Matilda Kshesinskaya v. Preobrazhenskaya, Elizaveta Gerdt v. Olga Spessivtseva). In their different ways they influenced Balanchine the choreographer as much as they did Ivanova the dancer. The Revolution ripped away the gold bullion and buttons of tsarist institutions, as well as the privileges, but the ballet and its school – without heat, food or new costumes – were allowed to continue. Why? Because dancers were categorised as labourers. Ivanova and Balanchine graduated in 1921. A photograph of them taken that year, when both were 17, shows her seated and him standing. They are angled towards each other, he leaning over her like a bough, she inclining under him. Their serious, pale faces are turned to the camera, aligning vertically, and in this moment their bodies, the over-and-under inward curves, seem to merge in the shape of a treble clef. ‘I am not a man, but a cloud in trousers,’ Balanchine would often say, quoting Mayakovsky. ‘Sometimes I would like to be one of the sounds created by Tchaikovsky,’ Ivanova once wrote, ‘so that sounding softly and sadly, I could dissolve in the evening mist.’ Affinity is a kind of lyricism, fluid, intangible – the cloud in communion with the mist.

After graduation both were taken into the company. Balanchine was already making a name for himself as an experimental choreographer; Ivanova was experimenting too, pushing the boundaries of what a ballerina could be. She had a mighty leap – like a man’s, everyone said. It was the first split jeté and it hung in the air. She had a gift for making old roles look new-minted. ‘Ivanova was the most incredible dancer I have ever seen,’ Geva said toward the end of her life, ‘she was like a gift from God.’ Kendall writes: ‘Lidia created something like a forcefield around herself, composed of emotions that can break the heart if embodied onstage.’

Kendall’s penultimate chapter, ‘The Last Year, Summer to Summer’, is a cadenza in which we see Ivanova caught up in non-stop performance – roles at the Mariinsky, freelance numbers at hyper NEP nightclubs, and intense work with the Young Ballet, a small communal troupe of classical dancers that looked to Balanchine for leadership. He was choreographing for the theatre as well as the ballet, a wunderkind on the rise. And yet both felt they were moving fast towards uncertainty. ‘They had an attitude towards life,’ the dancer Marian Horosko said of Balanchine and his generation of Russians, ‘that they were going to play that game full out no matter what, and whatever happened to them was the hand of fate reaching down.’ When a man from the opera world, Vladimir Dmitriev, offered the five friends a summer tour in Europe they signed on. ‘Ivanova’s up-and-down signature is the biggest and boldest,’ Kendall writes. ‘Balanchivadze’s is fancy, its letters diminishing to form a cone on its side, enclosed in an oval made by the last stroke of the pen.’ Lida, thrown open and vulnerable. Balanchine, enclosed and contained.

In the last chapter, ‘Death and Life’, Kendall herself goes to the harbour in search of Ivanova. The tragedy happened where the Fontanka River opens to the sea, a treacherous spot. Ivanova met with four male admirers for an afternoon’s boating; their motorboat collided with a ferry (which takes some doing). All five went into the water; one man and Ivanova never came out. That same night the three survivors were seen in a restaurant, toasting one another. The city, the ballet, friends, all were numb with disbelief. Lidochka drowned? ‘Lida was a marvellous swimmer,’ Balanchine told Solomon Volkov in the last months of his life. An investigation was half-hearted, then closed. Was it an accident or a plot? A crime of passion or a political murder? Most thought murder. Ivanova had moved in one circle too many, socialising with fans who happened to be party members and Chekists (secret police). Friends had cautioned her, but she’d laughed away warnings. Balanchine and others believed she’d learned something she shouldn’t have and therefore couldn’t be allowed to leave Russia. Kendall identifies every shady character, traces every connection to the GPU/Cheka, and examines every report, memory, theory and rumour (they proliferated). It’s riveting research, done from a distance of more than ninety years. But as the poet Mikhail Kuzmin wrote: ‘Smooth still water./To the question comes only an echo.’ The case can’t be solved. So Kendall goes in search a second time, Orpheus-like, to find Lidochka – her likeness, her legacy, call it what you will, inside Balanchine’s ballets.

Kendall’s book has come in for criticism from academics. They’re unconvinced that Ivanova mattered to Balanchine, or influenced him. In the New York Review, setting the tone, the historian Jennifer Homans wrote that ‘with scant supporting evidence’ Kendall is determined to give Ivanova ‘pride of place in Balanchine’s psyche and art’. I would argue that Kendall has given Ivanova, finally, her rightful place in Balanchine’s psyche and art, and that she has done so on compelling evidence. Homans says Kendall ‘goes too far, speculating for example that Serenade, which premiered in New York in 1934, was a kind of ode to Lidia’. She is more comfortable with the idea that Serenade is an ode ‘to loss and leaving’.

It’s a critical fallacy, the notion that it has to be one or the other, that it can’t be both. And it displays a surprisingly superficial grasp not only of the creative process, but of Balanchine’s multivalent genius. The unconscious is a stealing thing, performing acts of retrieval under cover of darkness, hiding wolves in sheep’s clothing. A work of art often finds light quite a distance from the root.

Serenade has roles for three female leads: they have come to be called the Russian Girl, the Dark Angel and the Waltz Girl. ‘Many people think there is a concealed story in the ballet. There is not,’ Balanchine wrote in his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets: ‘The only story is the music’s story, a serenade, a dance, if you like, in the light of the moon.’ Here Balanchine is running true to form, refusing to explain or to reveal. (‘He didn’t like to impose on the audience,’ the dancer John Clifford said recently, ‘but believe me, every step meant something.’) In response to Balanchine’s statement, Kendall writes: ‘Even if Serenade has no story line, its creator went to specific lengths to give it a narrative shape. He reversed the order of the last two of Tchaikovsky’s four movements, so the third, an elegy, comes at the end, and the ballet itself becomes an elegy.’ We also know that his process was permeable to ‘everywhere, everything’ – visual, aural, historical – and that pain and loss, longing and love were dependable wellsprings. Danilova tells us that Balanchine dreamed of Lida – that, beckoning, she said: ‘I am so lonely.’ Who’s to say she stopped coming to Balanchine in his dreams?

In 1934, when Serenade was made, Balanchine was newly situated in America. It had been ten years, a span that has meaning for most people, since the tiny troupe had left the old world without Lida. Balanchine had recently recovered from a second life-threatening bout of tuberculosis: ‘I was supposed to die,’ he told Ruthanna Boris. One can’t help hearing the unspoken words, ‘like Lida’. We know that Serenade owes a great deal to the moonlit groupings in Fokine’s Les Sylphides, a seminal work that Balanchine greatly admired. Kendall reminds us that Serenade is musically connected to a lost Fokine ballet, Eros, which was choreographed to the same score, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Lida was in Eros and was reportedly unforgettable.

And no one really thinks Serenade is without subtext, least of all the dancers who’ve performed it, beginning with Danilova. When she was dancing the Waltz Girl in Serenade she asked Balanchine about the Dark Angel and the man with whom she walks. Stunningly – for him – Balanchine replied with a scenario in which the names Tamara Geva, Georges and Lida could have been attached to the roles. The Dark Angel ‘is his wife’, Danilova recalled, ‘and together they pass down the road of life. I, the girl on the floor, was pitied by the man, but I was a frivolous girl who had one affair after another. Then I was left alone.’ Boris, who was in the 1934 Serenade, saw something similar: ‘A figure comes in and all the configurations change. That figure initiates the change but does not participate in it … In the end she’s the one that goes to heaven.’

Look at the language dancers use to describe what it’s like to be inside this ballet, clothed and lit in the immaterial and floating blue of a white night. Suzanne Farrell: ‘The dancers aren’t human, their movements represent forces, energies, and these energies are disturbed, whirling … then subsiding before rising again.’ And here is Jenifer Ringer, a dancer who joined the New York City Ballet six years after Balanchine died, describing Serenade: ‘There is a ballet that is like an ocean: it seems to stretch beyond the horizons of the stage and hides invisible mysteries beneath the currents that sweep dancers from calm pools to rushing vortexes.’ Invisible mysteries, disturbed energies, forces whirling, pools rising. Kendall tells us that in 1924 Ivanova’s accident was described in the Krasnaya Gazeta as taking place at ‘the point where two currents meet’, a signal phrase that implied, she writes, ‘a meaning beyond the literal’. Serenade takes place where currents meet: Fokine and Balanchine, Russia and America, Lida’s death and George’s destiny.

Ivanova wasn’t a muse to Balanchine in the way we understand his muses today – a ballerina he fell in love with and either married or wanted to marry. Some reviewers have missed this point but Kendall is clear: ‘Lidochka wasn’t anybody’s personal muse. She’d invented herself. Even so young, she was muse to her age … she’d divined new ways to move, new ways to use ballet. Georges absorbed her discoveries.’

In fact, this flapper-Columbine, this brilliant girl, seizing the day and tempting fate, presented Balanchine with yet another template of female autonomy, one quite different from his mother’s aloof beauty. This persona, to borrow a term from Martha Graham (who borrowed it from Henrik Ibsen), is ‘doom eager’. As Graham said, ‘You are doom eager for destiny no matter what it costs you.’ In Balanchine’s ballets this is often the girl or woman who waltzes. We first see her in Serenade, then spectral in La Sonnambula (1946), then ecstatically avid in La Valse (1951), Balanchine’s doom eager role for another brilliant and impulsive girl, Tanaquil Le Clercq, who plunges her hands – her all – fatally into long black gloves (Anna Akhmatova: ‘In black memory you’ll find, fumbling,/A glove to the elbow that unlocks/A Petersburg night’). She is self-dramatising in 1960’s Liebeslieder Walzer (the Violette Verdy role) and dreaming her destiny in 1977’s Vienna Waltzes (the ‘Rosenkavalier’ movement). Kendall shows us that this girl was born in Valse Triste – the haunted solo that Ivanova worked on with Balanchine and which colleagues later felt was a deadly premonition. ‘For me, with the death of Lidia and the dispersal of the Young Ballet, the spring of youth had come to an end,’ Slonimsky writes. ‘And perhaps not only for me. Perhaps for Balanchine, too, and for many of our contemporaries. Could this be why Balanchine, talking in 1972 … referred to those distant times as “the best years of my life”?’

We don’t forget the years of our becoming, just as we don’t forget the gifted one who fell by the wayside, the first tear in the tulle. The day after Ivanova died the exit visas came and Balanchine was released into his future. ‘You can spend your life reading scholarly books,’ he said, ‘and still miss the most important thing in Tchaikovsky’s music … you have to talk with Tchaikovsky himself.’ And you have to talk with Balanchine. Listening to voices from a faraway world and trusting what rings true, Balanchine and the Lost Muse is a breathtaking conversation with the master, and with Lida. Those who insist that she was unimportant, who think that she had ceased to swim in Balanchine’s subconscious and doesn’t still surface in his ballets – the first one into the darkness, the first one to see what’s there – gravely misunderstand both the human heart and the nature of dance. He did not leave her behind.