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George Balanchine: 'Our Shaping Spirit'

June 28, 2007 By:
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There were a number of reasons why I purchased In Balanchine's Company -- mostly because I enjoy reading memoirs written by dancers of all stripes, especially those who were pioneers in famous companies and appeared in the premieres of classic ballets. But the true selling point in this case was that the book, a memoir by Barbara Milberg Fisher, published by Wesleyan University Press, has as its focal point George Balanchine, one of the gods in my 20th-century artistic pantheon. I was hoping that the work would tell a great deal about how Milberg Fisher got her start in ballet, how she worked along with the great master, and how she and others learned the steps to the masterworks being created in the early years of what became the New York City Ballet.

Some of these things are present in Milberg Fisher's book, but when they're offered, it's only in an oblique way, with a glancing touch. In their place, she provides a full-fledged portrait of Balanchine during some of his most productive years. We don't learn anything new in the realm of facts, but the author remembers him so vividly that we feel him as a living, breathing presence.

Bumping and Twirling

The prologue to the book contains some of its best writing, a sweet evocation of a childhood in the Brooklyn of the 1930s and '40s. "I was never supposed to become a dancer," writes Milberg Fisher. "They had me slated for a Phys-Ed instructor (at least you get a pension) and hoped my brother David would eventually take over the practice. Dad was a dentist, Mom a hygienist with her own office and equipment. We lived on the first floor of a six-story building at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Dorchester Road in Brooklyn, and my parents' offices were adjacent to our living quarters. There was a private entrance for patients from the hall; another door gave access to our apartment; inside, a third door separated office and home. The neighborhood was quiet, the streets tree-lined, and my school within easy walking distance."

Milberg Fisher says that she was one of those "skinny brats" who could not sit still. She admits that today she would be diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder, and that when her father took her to watch a class at Miss Selma's School of the Dance -- she was then somewhere between 8 and 9 years old -- she became so excited they could hardly hold her down.

"It 'took' instantly and I wanted to try everything I saw right away. Eventually they loosed me into an empty room where, tremendously stimulated, I bounced and spun, leapt about and fell down until my dad collected me to go home on the Flatbush Avenue Trolley. I loved dancing, and performed constantly, in the schoolyard at P.S. 139 where I bumped into people, in the living room at home where I bumped into furniture, and in the courtyard of my building when I sneaked down the gate under the window and set the neighborhood kids twirling until they were dizzy. I ignored the scoldings of the more elderly tenants and my brother's unsolicited opinion that I was a royal nuisance. After a couple of years though, Miss Selma announced she was planning to marry and would be closing the school. I was devastated. But she told Mom that I 'had something' and should try for the School of American Ballet, even if it meant taking me to Manhattan."

She was accepted to the school and moved quickly through the beginner, intermediate and advanced stages, then began dancing for Balanchine in 1946 -- she was not quite 15! -- as part of the company that was the precursor to the New York City Ballet. Writes Milberg Fisher: "Before I left the company in 1958, the year after I married, to join Jerry Robbin's newly formed Ballets: USA as a principle dancer, I traveled with the New York City Ballet on five European tours and three coast-to-coast American tours."

That, in a nutshell, is the story that Milberg Fisher tells. But her true accomplishment here is the picture she gives us of Balanchine. He "trained us," the author writes, "the way a gardener will espalier a tree to gain the most sunlight. He realigned our limbs, pruned and replaced, crossbred and experimented, demonstrated and patiently corrected, scolded, teased -- and occasionally made fun of us. His ridicule could be devastating. I remember one difficult class when he set out to improve his prize pupil's entrêchat-six, a vertical jump in which the legs beat back and forth and back again on the way down. Nicely done, with legs turned out, feet pointed down and knees very straight, the beats are crisp and distinct. 'Tanny,' he drawled to his long-legged future ballerina and wife [Tanaquil Le Clercq], 'your legs look like asparagus -- cooked asparagus!'

"On the other hand, Balanchine's gift for imagery could be genuinely helpful. 'Reach for gold!' he whispered loudly to a dancer who was wobbling on one leg in a long-held arabesque penchée, he dangling the imaginary treasure just out of reach of her outstretched arm. The wobbling stopped. Another's shaky arabesque was steadied with 'ice-cream, delicious ice-cream.' Balanchine knew who to tempt with what. 'Come down on eggs!' he directed a boy who was landing too heavily from a jump. It transformed the whole dynamics of the movement. Later, he would take the time to coach him, demonstrate to all of us how 'like a cat' you land first on the ball of the foot, then slowly roll down to the heel. Sometimes, crouching down with two strong hands clamped around your foot and ankle, he would do it for you, with you, make sure you got the feel of it.

"He was the husbandman for whom the least detail was significant, every element worthy of attention. This slender Georgian émigré with his limitless drive and laser focus was more than our major choreographer, more than our director, more than our teacher and goad. He was very simply the constant in the equation, our company's shaping spirit."

Plenty of Rats

Perhaps most telling, in a book sprinkled with anecdotal gems, is Balanchine's memories of his young years in Russia after the revolution. They are summoned, uncalled for, during a restaging of The Nutcracker in the mid-1950s. The dancers watched as he put the Mice Squadron -- made up of children -- through its paces.

"Several of us commented on his brilliant rodent-act during the break. He grew thoughtful. 'Yes, I am like rat.' The staging of this ballet had obviously brought back a flood of memories, none very pleasant. He began to describe what it was like to live in St. Petersburg directly after the 1917 Revolution. I, for one, had never heard him go into detail about this period before. The student were starving, he said. Everybody was starving; nobody had enough food. There were soldiers everywhere; people begging, sorting through garbage. The Maryinsky [Theatre] was closed, the Imperial Ballet School was finished, shut down. No classes. No teachers. No meals. Nobody to tell them how to survive. It was dangerous in the streets. 'I was hungry all the time. I was youngest boy with group of boys from School.' Georgi tagged along behind the older boys. 'We stayed together, safer.' Sometimes, he went on, after a pause during which you sensed the memory was growing vivid, 'sometimes we go down in basement of theater, very dark. Can't sleep. We hunt rats. Sometimes we find. Plenty rats down there.'

" 'Why were you looking for rats?' we asked.

" 'To eat. I was scared like hell but I was hungry, starving. Long time we have no food. Sometimes we catch rat and we kill and we eat.'

"He was 13 years old."

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