Another brief biography published to coincide with the centennial of the legendary choreographer’s birth, gaining color and immediacy from the author’s behind-the-scenes knowledge of the New York City Ballet.
Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, served on the NYCB board of directors for more than a decade and knew Balanchine personally, though not intimately. The author makes excellent use of quotations from his subject and from generations of dancers’ memoirs to vividly capture the choreographer’s personality. Early chapters on Balanchine’s youth in Russia and apprentice years at the Ballets Russes in Paris highlight the charm and calm professionalism that enabled him to make radical breaks with ballet tradition without alienating his dancers—as seen in such late 1920s masterpieces as Apollo and Prodigal Son. As the narrative moves on to Balanchine’s rootless early years in America, working on Broadway and in Hollywood while he struggled to establish his own school and company, Gottlieb continues to emphasize the important role played by the women and men who studied with Mr. B and incarnated his visions in the flesh. (For once, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Melissa Hayden, Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella and Peter Martins get equal time with Balanchine’s more famous muses/wives.) Gottlieb began attending the ballet in 1948, NYCB’s inaugural season, and his descriptions of such historic premieres as Firebird, Agon, Stars and Stripes and Don Quixote benefit from his firsthand knowledge. Readers will also get a solid understanding of the backstage contributions made by NYCB administrators Lincoln Kirstein, Betty Cage, Eddie Bigelow and Barbara Horgan. At the center of it all stands the choreographer, much loved (even by his ex-wives) yet fundamentally unknowable, more deeply engaged with his art than with other human beings. Since Balanchine took that art form to new heights over the course of his lifetime, that doesn’t seem like such a tragic trade-off.
Livelier and gossipier than Terry Teachout’s earnest primer, All the Dances (p. 953), though less explicitly instructive about Balanchine’s historic significance. Ballet lovers, of course, will want to read both.