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.’

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