Picks and Pans Review: George Balanchine: Ballet Master

updated 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Richard Buckle with John Taras

In Dancing On My Grave, Gelsey Kirkland described George Balanchine as a tyrant who jeopardized the emotional and physical health of his ballerinas. This book, however, is a most admiring biography of the choreographer who was co-founder of the School of American Ballet and a major 20th-century innovator. The authors, a dance critic and a choreographer, bring different perspectives to this comprehensive volume. Buckle, author of the ballet biographies Diaghilev and Nijinsky, was enterprising, talking, for instance, to Balanchine's brother Andrei in the Soviet Union. Taras, who worked with Balanchine for more than 20 years, interviewed many other members of the choreographer's company. What emerges is a sometimes endearing portrait of a dance legend who liked to unwind by losing himself in "Dear Abby" columns. Born Georgi Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Balanchine enrolled in the Imperial Theater Ballet School in 1913 while hanging around waiting for his sister Tamara to audition. On a European tour in 1924 he defected, later hooking up with Sergei Diaghilev's company in London. Although the authors' prose at times is stilted ("Did this make a big impression?" I asked Andrei. "Overwhelming!"), Balanchine's story is so richly textured that few will care. He was part of the European ballet world during the '20s, when the costumes were by Matisse and the scenery by Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Picasso. To earn money during his early years in America, Balanchine did everything from choreographing the hit Broadway play On Your Toes to contributing routines to the Ziegfeld Follies. He even worked with his soulmate Igor Stravinsky on an elephant dance for a circus. Throughout his formal career, Balanchine's neoclassical style—more pure dancing, less acting—redefined ballet, infusing it with energy and excitement. "Balanchine at New York's State Theater is equivalent to Shakespeare at London's Globe," critic Richard Poirier once raved. In his private life, Balan-chine was less successful. He had five wives, all dazzling ballerinas, only to have his ego bruised by the one who got away, Suzanne Farrell. (When she married in 1969, Balan-chine created the jazzy ballet Who Cares?) The authors don't even mention Kirkland, but they do show how Balanchine's obsessions were destructive to some of his female soloists. More typical of the biography's tone is the touching scene of Rudolf Nureyev kneeling at Balanchine's deathbed in 1983, crying. While Buckle and Taras go overboard in comparing Balanchine to Michelangelo, they do present a many-faceted picture of a fascinating man. (Random House, $29.95)

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