Who Cares about Balanchine?
The Eugene Ballet Company recalibrates weary eyes
BY RACHAEL CARNES
My sniffy dance profs back in college didn’t have much good to say about George Balanchine: “He used to make women hold cigarettes between their thighs to show how good their turnout was.”
It was the late ’80s, and we reveled in the amorphous noodling of the dance era: Exploring our feeeeeeelings, making pieces with social and emotional relevance andmore often than not, using costumes and or props that harkened back to some distant,pre-war past. There’s a whole canon of work like this in the Pacific Northwest: Complicated, introverted, angry “girl” dance. We thought we were so hip, but wasn’t the reliance on narrative and dramatics a little dated? And after soaking it up for 15 years, I have to tell you, I love Balanchine. Line, form and music: That’s all you need.
Set to ticklers by George Gershwin (‘S Wonderful, The Man I Love, Embraceable You), the Eugene Ballet Company’s new piece “Who Cares,” by Balanchine himself, tips its hat to Broadway’s heyday. The sturdy jazz standards still sound bright and optimistic and serve as the riff for a lovers’ quartet.
Balanchine was perhaps the most important contributor to ballet in the 20th century. He was born in Russia in 1904, and his lifetime achievement built the bridge between classical and modern ballet. Imagine if visual art or theater had never moved past the coquettish narrative, the “artifice” of imagination, and into the realistic, stripped-down style we’ve grown accustomed to. In ballet, it was Balanchine who pulled away the frilly tutus, the contrived plots, the gimmicky theatrics to reveal the ballet lexicon for what it could be: Multidimensional painting, with bodies as the stuff of artistry.
Little Georgi Balanchivadze, in Saint Petersburg, discovered dancing at 9 years old, only to have his school disbanded by the Bolsheviks.
But an artist has to eat, and Balanchine got to busking as a piano player in cabarets and silent movies. When the Imperial Ballet School reopened in 1921, Balanchine re-enrolled there while simultaneously pursuing a music degree. (Look at our most favored and long-lasting choreographers: What do they have in common? Music. Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, Garth Fagan. They understand music.)
But let’s imagine young Georgi, when ballet master Serge Diaghilev invites the 20-year-old to join his Ballets Russes in France, prompting him and others to defect. (Had that not happened, there would probably not be a Eugene Ballet Company). As company master for the Ballets Russes (a great documentary of the same name is available — lots of fun), Balanchine created nine ballets and suffered a performance-ending knee injury.
After a tumult following Diaghilev’s death, the Ballets Russes settled in Monte Carlo (wouldn’t you?), and Balanchine took the helm. During this period, Balanchine collaborated with the likes of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Anti-authoritarian rhetoric and ballet? Really? I wish I could have seen it.
But in 1933, Lincoln Kirstein, an American arts patron with a dream of establishing a ballet company in the U.S., persuaded Balanchine to move to this country. By October of that year, Balanchine had landed here for the first time and launched his influence on the character of American dance.
In New York, Balanchine’s first order of business was to establish a ballet school: the School of American Ballet. And in 1935, a professional company was formed — the American Ballet.
Balanchine continued to serve as resident choreographer for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo from 1944 to 1946, but he soon formed a new dance company — the Ballet Society — again with the help of Lincoln Kirstein. Success leads to space, and the Ballet Society became the New York City Ballet in 1948. And an institution was born.
Even 25 years after his death, Balanchine is still a star. Through cooperation with the Balanchine trust, companies are allowed to perform his masterworks to exacting specifications. We’re fortunate that under the watchful tutelage of Toni Pimble, EBC is up to the task.
Eugene Ballet Company. Balanchine / May Dances / Silk and Steel. 8 pm Saturday, April 19; 2:30 pm Sunday, April 20. Hult Center • www.hultcenter.org 682-5000 • $18-$42