Balanchine’s Plot

The great choreographers have all been more than dancemakers, none more so than George Balanchine. He was in truth one of the supreme dramatists of the theater, but he specialized in plotless ballets with no named characters or written scenarios, and so this aspect of his genius has gone largely unexamined. Instead, everyone accepts the notion — it has become the greatest platitude about him — that he was the most musical of choreographers — a notion that, for all his musical virtues, should be qualified in several respects. Even at this late date, there is much about Balanchine that we still need to under-stand. He belongs in the small august company of modern artists who shattered the distinction between abstraction and representation. His work renders such categories useless. Balanchine’s dance creations often eliminate ingredients that others regarded as the quintessence of theater. The performers of his works are verbally and vocally silent. Facial expressions and other surface aspects of acting are played down. In many of his works, costumes are reduced to an elegant minimum: leotards and tights, “practice clothes,” often only in black and white; or simple monochrome dresses or skirts. In particular, he pared away layers of the social persona of his dancers, so that on his stage they become corporeal emblems of spirit. Liebeslieder Walzer, for example, his ballet from 1960, has two parts. In the first part, the four women wear ballgowns and heeled shoes; in the second, they dance on point and in Romantic tutus. “In the first act, it’s the real people that are dancing,” Balanchine told Bernard Taper. “In the second act, it’s their souls.” Serenade, one of his supreme creations, made in 1934 to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, is a masterpiece for many reasons. No ballet is more rewatchable. (If you don’t

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