More Balanchine Variations

  • Nancy Goldner
  • University Press of Florida
  • 157 pp.
  • November 3, 2011

From one of the best writers on dance, another collection of essays that offer a penetrating look at the works of a master.

Reviewed by David Vaughan

If ever a book called for a sequel, it is Nancy Goldner’s Balanchine Variations (2008). That book consists of 20 short essays on individual ballets by George Balanchine, originally a series of talks given by the author under the auspices of the Balanchine Foundation, to introduce the works when they were about to be performed by the company who had invited her to speak. This new book also consists of 20 essays, but this time they were written, we learn, in peace and quiet, at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. They are therefore somewhat more formal, perhaps more intellectually considered.

Goldner introduces literary allusions that can seem surprising to find in this context, such as those to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the essay on “Ballet Imperial,” or to Henry James in that on “Liebeslieder Walzer. But though her understanding of the ballets is profound, the language is refreshingly plain, free from the convolutions usually found in academic papers, and she can come up with a brilliant aperçu like “Out of asymmetry can harmony be born.”

Also refreshing is the fact that Goldner is not one of those who believe that every Balanchine ballet is a masterpiece, an attitude that devalues those that are. (It must have surprised some of those to whom she lectured on “The Nutcracker” to hear her say that some of the divertissements are “hack work.”) She is at her most eloquent on a true masterpiece like “Liebeslieder” or perhaps the minor but still flawless “Tombeau de Couperin.” Even she cannot quite persuade me to like “Bugaku” or (perhaps because I am English) “Union Jack.” On the other hand, she can be generous to other choreographers, especially Frederick Ashton. She is not afraid to compare (in the first volume) Balanchine’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Ashton’s “Dream.”

These modest paperbacks are illustrated, mostly by photographs that refer to relevant moments in the ballets, and most of them by Costas. One might wish that more of these showed the original interpreters, but I am especially grateful for those of Violette Verdy in “Liebeslieder” and of Nichol Hlinka, Ethan Stiefel and Jenifer Ringer in “Divertimento No 15.” Goldner draws attention to “the downward cast of her eyes and the upward thrust of her chin” in the former, and I cannot refrain from adding that the same qualities are visible in Hlinka’s face in the latter, in contrast to Ringer’s look of a happy teenager.

The books would be useful to newcomers to Balanchine, and even those familiar with his work would benefit from reading an essay before seeing a particular dance. Goldner gives enough historical background to enable the reader to see where a piece fits in the whole picture. It is also important to read both books as a whole: Their chronological arrangement allows her to tell the overall story of the choreographer and of his company. All this in only 150 pages (fewer in the first book), truly an example of much in little.

Mostly, however, her focus is on the dances themselves, with clear analysis of their choreography and structure, their relation to the music and, where necessary, some indication of what else is going on in a ballet, its deeper meaning. In this context, I want to tell a story myself that I have never seen anywhere else. When Balanchine was making “Caracole,” the Mozart ballet that later became transmogrified as “Divertimento No.15,” it was identified on the rehearsal call sheet, on the notice board in the School of American Ballet where the company worked, as “Rejection.” Nobody quite knew what was meant by this, but eventually the moment came when he arranged the opening andante of the finale. Goldner says he didn’t use this, and she is right, but Balanchine did come into rehearsal and, with a straight face, staged a tragic mime scene. When he had finished, he said, “Rejection.” It was his little joke.

Goldner writes that “Caracole” was a last-minute replacement for a ballet he started based on Richard Strauss’s “Don Juan” and then abandoned. But it was also replaced by another piece to music by Strauss, “Tyl Eulenspiegel,” an unusual example of a straight-story ballet by him. Another thing I’ll never forget was when he was showing Jerome Robbins his part in “Tyl,” and he, Balanchine, did a double tour en l’air and landed lying curled up on the floor. Robbins’ jaw dropped.

But I can’t help wondering if there might not be a third volume. There are, after all, at least as many extant Balanchine ballets that Goldner might write about. How one would love to read her on lost works like “Cotillon,” “La Concurrence,” “La Chatte,” the original “Danses Concertantes,” the Haieff “Divertimento”! There could be “La Source,” his only completely original ballet to music by one of his preferred composers, Delibes; “Bourrée fantasque,” to music by another favorite of his (and mine), Emmanuel Chabrier; “Who Cares?”, to music by George Gershwin, orchestrated by another favorite (not mine), Hershy Kay, if only for its magical pas de deux to “The Man I Love”; “Sonatine,” another perfect work from the mostly forgettable Ravel Festival; “Ivesiana,” with the most avant-garde passage in any Balanchine ballet, when the dancers cross the stage on their knees. There are ballets I, for one, would be glad to forget, like “Variations pour une porte et un soupir” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” But what about “Davidsbündlertänze”? Maybe Goldner could explain why so many people call it a masterpiece, because I don’t get it. She also mentions his “Don Quixote” so often in essays on other ballets that one would like a whole piece on it.

Well, one must not be greedy. But Nancy Goldner is one of our best dance writers, and there is too little of her in print: a small book on The Stravinsky Festival of the New York City Ballet, and that’s it. The essay here on “Agon” first appeared in Raritan, and a few others have been published in the English magazine Dance Now, unhappily defunct. Even as one of the editors of the International Encyclopedia of Dance, she wrote only one contribution, the entry on “Ronds de jambe.” Maybe there could be a collection of other criticism, though I have a feeling she is too modest to want such a thing.

David Vaughan, archivist for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is the author of Frederick Ashton and His Ballets and Merce Cunningham/50 Years, which under the title Merce Cunningham/65 Years will be made available as an app on Cunningham’s birthday, April 12, 2012. In the early 1950s Vaughan left his native England to take up a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York.

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