George Balanchine: His Ballerinas.

Posted by on 01.11.2011

This is my next Balanchine series installment as I continue to read “George Balanchine The Ballet Maker” by Robert Gottlieb.

Balanchine was notorious for having muses who inspired him throughout his career.  He would find his first major muse when City Ballet moved into City Center in 1948.  Balanchine would end his marriage to Vera Zorina and turn his focus to emerging star, Maria Tallchief, whom he would later marry. In her autobiography Tallchief says, “Work took precedence over everything…. Passion and romance didn’t play a big role in our married life.  We saved our emotion for the classroom.”  However, in the studios, their union flourished.  In 1949 she confirmed her place as the company star with her performance in Balanchine’s reworking of Firebird.  Tallchief wowed audiences in her confident Orpheus, as well as the first movement of Symphony in C.  In the coming years, Balanchine would create Bourree Fantasque, Sylvia Pas de Deux, Scotch Symphony, Pas de Dix, Allegro Brilliante, and Gounod Symphony especially for her.  She was the original Odette in the one-act version of Swan Lake, as well as his original Sugar Plum in The Nutcracker.

As Tallchief and Balanchine’s marriage came to an end, he turned his attention to his next muse, Tanaquil LeClercq.  In 1951, Balanchine created La Valse, putting her on the map.  By the time LeClercq was in her mid-teens, she was already well on her way to becoming another New York City Ballet star.  On December 31, 1952 Balanchine and LeClercq were married, he was forty-eight and she only twenty-three.  Her promising career was cut short in 1956 when she was diagnosed with polio.  Balanchine was devastated and would stay by her side throughout her illness.  Balanchine stepped back from the company and would not return to choreographing for a year and a half.  In LeClercq’s short career, she danced for Balanchine in roles that defined her as an artist, including Metamorphosis, Divertimento No. 15, Dew Drop in The Nutcracker, as well as Robbin’s Afternoon of a Faun.

Balanchine found his favorite dancer in Diana Adams.  She was the definition of a ballerina in Agon and a compelling, icy Siren in Prodigal Son.  Balanchine would chase Adams for years, but to no avail.  She wanted to have children and married the company’s stage manager, later giving birth to a daughter.  When she married, Balanchine was destroyed.  Lucia Davidova reported his as saying “Somebody just put their hand on my head and is holding me under the water, and I don’t know when I’ll come up.”

As the fifties approached a new young dancer entered the company taking Balanchine’s mind of his most recent heart break; Allegra Kent.  In 1954, when Kent was only seventeen, Balanchine created The Unanswered Question section of Ivesiana for her.  She would also come to be known for her performances in the revivals of La Sonnambula and The Seven Deadly Sins.  Kent would come into her own in Bugaku as an innocent and virginal character.  She was the Prodigal Daughter.  Despite her numerous absences from the company throughout the years, Balanchine would always welcome her back.

Next came the most infamous of Balanchine’s partnerships, Suzanne Farrell.  She arrived in the school in 1960 as Roberta Sue Ficker from Cincinnati.  In her autobiography, “Holding On to the Air” she says, “If he thought I could do something, I would believe him… In short, I trusted him with my life.”  In 1963, Farrell recieved her big break when Diana Adams became pregnant and Farrell was chosen to replace her in Movements for Piano and Orchestra. She was 18 at the time.  Balanchine would then go on to make his first ballet for her, Meditation.  In company class he would focus on giving exercises explicitly to fine-tune her technique.  He would stand in the wings every night, watching her dance, then leave the theater with her, even if the performance had yet to end.  Balanchine, still married to LeClercq, obtained a Mexican divorce in order to marry Farrell.  But he was too late.  Farrell had fallen in love with another dancer, Paul Mejia.  While Balanchine was out of the country, Farrell and Mejia were married.  In retaliation, upon his return, Balanchine began to take parts away from Mejia.  One evening, Mejia was not cast in a part he felt entitled to causing Farrell to give Balanchine an choice; if Mejia would not dance that night, they would both leave the company.  Balanchine ignored her, and responded by removing Farrell from the casting as well.  The couple resigned.

After the company’s dominating ballerina had departed, two other dancers would emerge, Patricia McBride and Gelsey Kirkland.  McBride was found to be useful to not only Balanchine, but Robbins as well.  The first major work created after Farrell left, was Who Cares?, which featured McBride.  The audience took an immediate liking to her.  Kirkland would have a short career with City Ballet, leaving to dance with Baryshnikov and American Ballet Theater.

In the summer of 1974 Farrell would write a letter to Balanchine: “Dear George, As wonderful as it is to see your ballets, it is even more wonderful to dance them.  Is this impossible? Love, Suzi.”  By January 1975 she returned to the company.  Her return changed everything.  A dancer in the company at the time said, “Suzanne’s coming back is the best thing that’s happened to us since she left.”

Earlier George Balanchine Series posts:

2 Comments

  1. Dear TUAPT,

    This was a lovely & well written piece. I have always loved George Balanchine. I stumbled upon this looking up information for my page. I shared your link. Although never a serious student, my daughter was. She spent several years studying at CPYB. That was where I learned about ballet and why I love anything “Balanchine”. Thank you for posting! I subscribed and will be back.

    Fondly,
    Crazed Confessions

  2. Dear Rebecca, This is an important piece and I’m proud of you for writing it. I believe that the dancer who commented on Suzanne Farrell’s return to the company said that her return after a six year absence was not only the best thing that happened to the company because Mr. B was inspired again, but also the worst thing, because many of the leading ballerinas who had taken over Suzanne’s roles lost those roles to her once she returned. So it was a mixed blessing for other dancers in the company. I’ll get you the cite for the quote. Keep writing! D

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