the best friends you’ll never have

One of the many things I learned from the books is who Balanchine was. He is mentioned in Jessi’s Awful Secret:

There’s a look in ballet – dancers are thin, square-shouldered, and have a more-or-less oval face. I’ve heard that it started because the great choreographer George Balanchine wanted his corps de ballet (all the dancers who aren’t the stars) to look alike. Since his death, this has started to change. That’s what people say, anyway. It seems to be true.

Now, this basically blames Balanchine for a hell of a lot. Not only is it blaming Balanchine for image issues in ballet, but, especially since it is in Jessi’s voice, also carries implications of Balanchine only wanting women who look alike in terms of race as well to be in his corps. Also, while I’m not a ballet scholar–although I have studied ballet history and the work and influence of Balanchine in particular before–this does not even appear to be a true statement. In Lincoln Kirstein’s Program Notes, about Balanchine’s 1971 staging of Serenade, he writes: “If there is a star, perhaps it is the corps de ballet, which Balanchine, at the start of his American career, intended to strengthen past anonymity or any subordinate position” (Source).

This, of course, could still be interpreted as dancers still looking alike, while their work is elevated en masse. In Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet, Robert Greskovic writes:

In concept, “individuality in the corps” is something of an oxymoron. Or so it has been until more recent times, notably in the era of George Balanchine. The founder and guiding light of the New York City Ballet altered the concept of regimented uniformity of the corps de ballet. Balanchine’s vision of the corps de ballet definitely included the dimension of individuality. It allowed for personal distinction within its ranks. Answering criticism for his company’s lack of strict regularity in the dancing of his corps de ballet, Balanchine likened likened his preferred, individualized effects to those of an unclipped garden” (p. 167).

Now this, to me, does not sound like a guy who wants all of his ballerinas to have oval faces. The reason why I’m bringing all of this up is that in the September 22nd issue of The New Yorker, there’s a profile of Misty Copeland. This article provides insights into the issue of race in ballet that I think are helpful for understanding and looking critically at the way Jessi’s dancing is described, putting the whole “dancing major roles en pointe at age 11″ thing aside. Once again about Balanchine, Rivka Galchen, the author of the profile, writes:

The original dream of a uniquely American ballet was of a company that mixed whites and “Negroes”—the term used by George Balanchine, one of the co-founders of New York City Ballet. Balanchine had been influenced by working with Josephine Baker, the black American dancer who became a celebrity in France during the twenties. His vision was only occasionally realized: in his famous “Agon,” he choreographed a pas de deux for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell, a white woman and a black man. “Agon” was performed in 1957, to critical celebration, even though it could not be shown on television until 1968. Balanchine also made Maria Tallchief, who was of Osage heritage, an early star of the New York City Ballet. (For a time, he also made her his wife.)

I suppose that the point of this post was just to direct you guys to the profile, because it is very interesting. Also, I felt like clearing up some things about Balanchine, because Suzanne Weyn (a ghostwriter I usually like, since she wrote all of the juicy Stacey stories) created an image of Balanchine in my head as someone “who wanted his corps de ballet to look alike, but since his death ballet dancers are not as overly conscious about their looks and weight” (from the Complete Guide). An entire generation of girls, hating Balanchine. Poor guy.

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Eowyn said, September 27th, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Very interesting Greer. Was the suggestion that ballet dancers not supposed to be a certain weight before Balanchine, not just having an oval face?

greer said, September 27th, 2014 at 5:51 pm

@eowyn my thought is that it has to do with changes in the art itself–more athleticism from the dancers, and having to be able to be lifted higher by the male dancers, etc. Here is an interesting bit about Balanchine wanting dancers to be long and look like his muse, but this was already fairly late in his career:

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