@2023 Art Imagined Photo
@2023 Art Imagined Photo

Kick Off 2023 With These Dance Reads

Martha Graham & George Balanchine were two of the most celebrated choreographers of the 20th century. Yet they both resisted attempts by biographers to document their legendary lives officially. Since then, they have been the subject of countless books, and currently, two new titles are vying for a spot on the dance bookshelf.

Martha Graham

Martha Graham-A Life When Dance Became Modern by Neil Baldwin
Knopf Hardcover; 554pgs, photographs

Neil Baldwin’s biography covers of Martha Graham cover about half of her life, leaving several decades in this otherwise lengthy book unexamined. That said, Baldwin pens a prose portrait of Graham emerging during the late 1920s on a daring mission to create distinctly American choreography. And along the way, he examines and even demystifies the foundations of Graham’s persona as ‘The Mother of Modern Dance.’   

Along with a focus on Graham’s aesthetic, Baldwin brings in a more panoramic overview of the era’s performance art culture and commerce with lengthy backstories of other artists in and out of Graham’s orbit, so Martha gets sidelined in many chapters of the book. At the same time, Baldwin chronicles the lives of dancer-choreographers Ruth St. Denis, Charles Weidman, Ted Shawn, and Michio Ito. Of course, the two men who meant the most to her, personally and artistically, were composer Louis Horst and dancer Erick Hawkins. At the same time, Europeans fleeing the increasingly unstable political, financial, and cultural environment eclipsed the trends of the American dancers. 

There is a very condensed dozen pages of Graham’s childhood in Pittsburgh, and her mother, Jane, who had three daughters and one son who died before in infancy. They moved to Santa Barbara when Martha was 14, and she was entranced after seeing Ruth St. Denis perform at a local theater. Her father, a noted physician specializing in mental health, died when Martha was still in her teens. 

Graham’s template of so-called ‘modern’ dance’ is as much of a philosophical mission, built on her father’s telling her that he has observed in treating his patients that “Movement never lies” and “you must look for the truth.” 

Martha later explained that “dance must not be perceived intellectually the gesture inventions must be experienced within the body.”

In effect, she advocated for the women’s movement of the era and among the artists responding to world events and social issues and the increasing threat of fascist governments. In 1936, Graham refused publicly, for instance, an invitation to perform during the Berlin Olympics because of the Hitler regime’s treatment of Jewish citizens. And her concern about how Jewish members of The Martha Graham Dance Company.

Graham was a star of the Greenwich Village Follies in a semi-nude solo that was indeed an artistic success. She established her school and the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1926. 

Meanwhile, she was in demand as a dancer. Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski cast her as ‘The Chosen One’ in the US premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.’ The American premiere of Nijinsky’s scandalous ballet, in its first reconstruction since 1913 by former Ballets Russes choreographer Leonide Massine. Graham sticks to her interpretation with the complete backing of Stokowski. To get around Massine, Graham revealed her full performance onstage at its premiere in Philadelphia’s Grand Opera House premiere and a week later in NY.’

Graham was building something with a singular vision of non-decorative, socially relevant dance. Graham’s experimental theories about movement psychology, primal physicality, and training techniques revolutionized the art form. Baldwin also profiles the often-forgotten Japanese modernist dancer Michio Ito, who co-choreographed duets with Graham. The chapter on Graham’s principal set designer, Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is equally fascinating. 

Graham’s interactions with composers with the proviso of “choreography before music” led to brilliant ballet scores from Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Paul Hindemith, et al. 

Baldwin only delves into the circumstances of its founding of MGDC. Considering how in-depth Baldwin goes with several other artists, on balance, MGDC dancers as collaboratively pivotal and devoted to Graham as Pearl Lang, Anna Sokolow, et al. are slighted.

But in terms of Graham’s choreographic history, creative methods, and impact on such masterworks s most defining choreographies, including Primitive Mysteries, Letter to the World, Errand into the Maze, Cave of the Heart, Night Journey, and the iconic ‘Appalachian Spring. 

Graham’s personal life is examined only as it is seen through the lens of her work. For instance, details of her long relationship with Louis Horst remain sketchy. Horst was the company pianist and composer who taught at Juilliard and published the Dance Observer. Already older than Graham, and they had an on-and-off romantic relationship. He finally left when Graham fell in love with Hawkins, and Horst quit the company. 

Some things are apparent from the start. Her attraction to Hawkins, who previously danced for Balanchine, was so immediate that she not only made him the first male member of her company and let him choreograph his own works. But Hawkins started to resent his co-dependence, artistically and personally, on Graham.

Hawkins decides to leave the company, but they aren’t done. Instead of splitting up, they get married in Mexico. But it all ends when Hawkins persuades Graham to embark on a European tour in 1950, the first MGDC tour, and with Graham, in her mid-50s, scheduled to dance 15 repertory works. 

And during a duet in her celebrated ballet, ‘Every Soul is a Circus,’ Hawkins drops her out of a lift they had done hundreds of times. Graham suffered torn cartilage in her knee, and the remainder of the tour was cancelled. They moved on to London, but distraught Graham flew back to the US. Baldwin abruptly ends the book with only a few pages about Graham’s life after she couldn’t dance. 

A passing reference to her depression, alcoholism, and inspiring return to teaching, she created significant works during this period, including the transcendent ‘Acts of Light.’  

For those looking for a complete portrait, choreographer Agnes DeMille’s published in 1992, a year after Graham’s death, still stands as the full biography in one volume. It took DeMille ten years to convince Graham that chronicling her life and work was essential to preserve her artistic legacy. And then, of course, Martha’s ‘Blood Memory’ her posthumously published memoir, where she gets to dance around her immortal mythos. 

Mr. B George Balanchine’s 20th Century by Jennifer Homans 
Random House 769 pgs: photographs 

Dance historian Jennifer Homans spent over a decade researching and writing one of the most comprehensive biographies of George Balanchine. Homans’ author of ‘Apollo’s Angels’ conducted over 200 interviews researching Mr. B. most from the dance world and traveled to Russia and Georgia to track down Balanchine’s surviving relatives . the book is full of previously unverified facts about his life and career.

That Balanchine survived his harrowing journey of poverty, disease, war, and no prospects as his native country fell apart to his international fame as a choreographer, founder of the School of American Dance and The New York City Ballet, and creator of neoclassical dance in America. 

Homans gets inside Mr. B’s mercurial, often raucous private life through five marriages (one unofficial), his many affairs, and soap opera entanglements worthy of TikTok. But, for all intents, this is, without doubt, one of the most comprehensive prose portraits of the enigmatic Mr. B.

He was born in St. Petersburg, and his mother, Maria, raised Georgi, Tamara, and Andrei herself. His father, Melitonovich Balanchivadze, left them to fend for themselves to continue his opera career in his native Georgia. He suddenly returned when Maria won a lottery and purchased land and a home, the only legal right for an unmarried woman. And by official decree of the czar, the future titan of dance was officially given his father’s name. 

His life in dance started accidentally when his parents took him to the Imperial schools for enrollment at age nine. His sister Tamara did not qualify for the czar’s dance school. Meanwhile, Georgi also failed to get into military school, but because of his erect posture was put in line and chosen for the dance program. In less than a day, Georgi felt abandoned.

Homans’ account of Balanchine during this period is understandably fragmented. Her captivating chapter, ‘A Cloud in Trousers,’ is how Balanchine described himself then and for the rest of his life. As a student at the Imperial Ballet, the social hierarchies were firmly in place, and dance artists were treated like serfs in the service of the czar’s court. 

In Balanchine’s time, the school and housing were insulated from the revolution exploding outside. There were food rations, and eventually, they faced the collapse of czarist Russia with the Bolshevik revolution. Even though the Mariinsky Theater was stripped of its imperial trappings, it now belonged to the people, and they embraced the Russian Ballet as an institution of national pride.

Meanwhile, war, poverty, disease, malnutrition, and death were part of everyday life in Russia. Georgi contracted tuberculosis and would live with its lingering health problems for the rest of his life. Balanchine didn’t talk about the hardships of his childhood when he became successful. He glossed over those memories and instead reminisced about his early experiences with dancing and music and learning to play piano. 

By his teen years, Balanchine was also emerging as a gifted danse choreographer creating the lead Candy Cane dance in The Nutcracker and the sorcerer in the Firebird and other Imperial Ballet’s repertory ballets. 

Life became more restrictive under Stalin’s regime, but Balanchine and a group of dancers managed to escape and became part of the bacchanalian performance world in Weimar Berlin. Even though it was rough going, it was an artistically fertile ground for Balanchine. He was finally lured to Paris by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, where he was prolific and working with top theater and design artists, and most significantly with Igor Stravinsky. It was the start of a ballet score partnership that lasted until the composer died in 1971. 

Both Sides Now

Homans brings fresh insights into the tumultuous years of Balanchine and American impresario Lincoln Kirstein in establishing a first-rate American ballet company. First with Ballet Caravan and other iterations and then the formation of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet.

The company’s first success was at New York City Center and Lincoln Center, where Balanchine insisted on architectural changes in the theater being built for his company. 

Balanchine first talked about establishing a training school that would feed his company. He envisioned a racially integrated company. Homans demonstrates Balanchine’s “fascination” with African American dance diaspora. Aside from his appropriation of the vocabulary of black dance culture, Balanchine broke the color line in the business. NYCB was the first white ballet company in the US to hire a principal black dancer with Arthur Mitchell. And he publicly thumbed his nose at racist politicians of the Jim Crow era. 

Balanchine was full of dualities and contradictions and often was just petulant. As dismissive as he could be to people who crossed him, he just as often got over it and allowed them back into his life. He controlled every aspect of NYCB’s daily operations but was still restless enough to hire guest choreographers and step away, even at critical times for the company. He refused to sign contracts that provided him an annual fee from Lincoln Center because he wanted to avoid answering to boards and donors. 

Homans illustrates how Balanchine loathed those writers who tried to reveal his life and work. He instructed Betty Cage, the company’s all-around business fixer, to write a ‘terse’ letter to a critic who had asked about writing his bio. “If he wants to know about my inspiration and who is my muse,” Balanchine wrote, “then he will never know that because I won’t tell him, and it is not going to be written enywhere (sic) for anybody to know.”

One of the book’s highlights is Homans examination of NYCB’s artistic flowering in the 50s and early 60s. Homans’ review of Mr. B’s technique is extensive and tangential at times, but for all intents, a sharp analysis of many of his defining masterpieces of the era. 

The creation of Agon in this period of personal turmoil launched a new era for the company. Agon would be the finale of his masterpiece mythic trilogy with Apollo and Orpheus, all with scores by Stravinsky. Mr. B struggled in many ways to deal with his broken marriage with Tanaquil but still tried to do what he could in the aftermath of her polio diagnosis. Using the company as an excuse to keep his distance, he was creatively at the height of his choreographic powers. 

To Russia, without Love 

Homans’ account of the US State Department sponsoring NYCB to perform in Russia captures the first time Balanchine returned since the revolution. Kremlin officials coldly welcomed the company but wildly embraced the open performances for the public. Balanchine’s demands for dancing his ballets were met after he threatened to cancel the tour. Still, he felt out of place and rightly suspicious of the Soviets from every angle. For instance, he knew the company’s hotel had been bugged. Tensions further escalated as the Cuban missile crisis brought the US & the Soviets to the brink of nuclear war.

Homans’ account of Balanchine’s return to Russia at a politically volatile time is thrilling to read. Balanchine was not holding back on his animosity toward the Soviet regime. His bittersweet reunion with his brother Andrei after 40 years only went so far, with him ignoring Andrei’s success as a composer, a deliberate dig. Meanwhile, he didn’t hold back his total disgust at Russian officials, but he embraced non-official Russian audiences at performances. 

Back in the US, Balanchine worked with Mac Lowry, an advocate for ballet in America who brokered a $7.5 million grant “to strengthen dance in America” by establishing regional companies under his guidance. Separate millions went to NYCB and SAB. American Ballet Theater’s Lucia Chase did not get any slice of that pie, nor did Martha Graham, who made it a point to call out Lincoln Kirstein, yelling “THIEF.” 

But even being solvent enough to expand, all was still not beautiful at NYCB. Homans reveals just how controlling Mr. B would routinely be. From the man whose most famous quote, ‘Ballet is woman,’ his muses could at any moment be treated like serfs. Incidents with ballerinas abound that today would be considered sexual harassment involved body shaming, unsafe work conditions, hectoring dancers about the slightest weight gain, and feeling free to tell them not to get married or pregnant.

Indeed, this was the status quo in a deep misogynist era, and Homans delves into the rationales that dancers used to put up with it. By the late 60s, many were not so willing, and there was such a morale slump among women and the men in the company. They threatened to strike while Balanchine petulantly told them to go ahead. He was ready to replace them or start a new European company. While much of that may have been bluster, the dancers always backed off.

Meanwhile, he had no problem working with gay men, including Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, who he made NYCB’s resident choreographer, and any number of dancers. Yet, he was not above using antigay slurs and crude jokes behind their backs. 

The cloud in love

Balanchine had many affairs in his lifetime and during his five marriages. His first marriage to 16-year-old Tamara Geva ended when he escaped Russia. A seven-year unofficial marriage with international ballerina Vera Zorina followed this. Then came Maria Tallchief and his longest marriage with Tanaquil LeClercq. 

Even though LeClercq had doubts about their wedding being real, they were devoted to each other. When LeClerqc contracted polio on tour in Europe, he did everything for her, but eventually, he used work to end it. 

By then, he was courting his newest ‘muse’ Suzanne Farrell. When he found out she was having an affair with her dance partner, NYCB Paul Mejia, he pulled their ballet roles and snubbed them until they left the company. 

In the aftermath of Igor Stravinsky’s death in 1971, Balanchine was completely adrift and isolated. He was not only in poor health but had been getting negative press over a series of new ballets he created.

A year later, Balanchine’s triumphant Stravinsky Festival restored Mr. B’s standing as a master. He remounted his ballets scored by the composer and made seven new ones. Other choreographers also created pieces all scored to Stravinsky’s music. Homans’ account of their collaborations on pivotal works illuminates much about Balanchine, personally and professionally, had hidden from everyone. 

Balanchine even returned to the Russian Orthodox church when he got older. Remarkably, he survived a heart attack and surgery in his mid-70s, even though he could never fully recover. During his final years, he struggled physically, mentally, and emotionally. Mr. B did not go gently into that final curtain.

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