IT’S HARD TO RECALL the last time I heard someone say Balanchine’s name aloud. Since his death in 1983, more and more ballet companies around the world have fueled their repertories with his visionary neo-classical dances, yet it feels like his legacy could be much stronger. If he’d had kids, for example, there’d be someone around to bear (or market) his name in a way that his former institutions do not. The company he founded — until recently, still run by his handpicked heir, Peter Martins — has always been called only New York City Ballet, and the Lincoln Center stage where he created his revelatory ballets, formerly the New York State Theater, was rechristened for David H. Koch in 2008, when the billionaire industrialist gifted $100 million. Even the block of West 63rd in Manhattan, named George Balanchine Way, is not searchable on Google Maps.
Yet in dance scholarship, thankfully, the name still proliferates, and Balanchine’s own voice remains influential in print as well. The choreographer left behind a strange, intoxicating tome of ballet stories originally called Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets in 1954; the thick paperback is now titled (echoing Scheherazade) as 101 Stories of the Great Ballets. The book is strange because it features Balanchine, the emblem of 20th-century plotless ballets, recounting some of the longest, most convoluted ballet stories ever told.
With an almost pious attentiveness (editor Francis Mason assisted), Balanchine fills hundreds of pages with wayward noblemen, exotic despots, zombie virgins, and giant eggs that destroy curses when they’ve been cracked. “Some members of the ballet audience who are familiar with my own ballets might have occasion to wonder why this book is primarily devoted to ballet stories,” he explains in the introduction. “Comparatively few of my ballets, it is true, tell stories in the usual sense. I think that dancing to music is entertaining alone; but other choreographers have thought stories extremely important and their work is naturally vital to the modern repertory.”
To be “complete,” then, both in terms of representing himself (he had a traditional Russian schooling in Classical and Romantic ballets) and the evolution of the art, Balanchine threw open the doors to all influences, whether or not they might repel or magnetize his ballet-goers. Thus his lasting text does not wear the same unfettered, streamlined sizzle of his contemporary choreography. Instead, it bears a more bumpy and surreal shape.
Tipping his hat to Balanchine’s text with his new title, The Complete Ballet, essayist and novelist John Haskell — author Out of My Skin (2009), American Purgatorio (2005), and I Am Not Jackson Pollock (2003) — sets off on a different kind of silhouette-stretching compendium. Also a maker of compact, thoughtful experiments in abstraction, Haskell plays games with narrative perspective and collage that leave space for intense themes and melodies to drift slowly into his novels. The loose, cool surface tension of his language, where shrugs and slouches are set beside the most chiseled moments, also shares something with the Balanchine ballet vernacular. And in opting to deliver his own discussion of the “complete” ballet, he sets off on his own bumpy ride.
Subtitled “A Fictional Essay in Five Acts,” the book features alternating streams of Romantic and Modern ideal, with context buckets that juxtapose past and present, realism and noir, documentary and dream. Each of the five “acts” posits the plot of one 19th- or 20th-century ballet against fragments of an evolving L.A. noir story line. Sometimes there’s overt bleed-through, as when the young narrator describes Luck darting back and forth like a winged Sylphide around the players at a poker game. But for the most part, the two streams run seemingly independent, offering endless open interpretation simply by their side-by-side placement. How clearly the essay’s argument is revealed is debatable. On first reading, at least, the final emphasis seems to be on felt experience, the stunning visual more like an energetic crescendo than an intellectual one.
Both sections of the The Complete Ballet are narrated by a young, unnamed loner in some unspecified pre-digital era in Los Angeles (access to a Xerox machine, for example, enchants him). He begins each section setting up a ballet’s story line and historical context; the five discussed works appear chronologically by their original premiere date: La Sylphide (1832), Giselle (1841), La Bayadère(1877), Swan Lake (also 1877), and Petrushka (1911). The first four dances are seminal 19th-century “ballet blancs,” mythic full-evening symphonic works that unveil the full possibilities and power of dancing en pointe and en masse. Story lines often sprawl over three acts, driven to operatic levels of tragedy by characters’ instantaneous, all-consuming desires for some otherworldly love, the Romantic longing for a life beyond the present. Though there are different recipes for these ecstatic flights of soul and body, in the end what tastes like passionate eternity always turns to a spreading poison.
In his ballet discussions, Haskell’s narrator weaves together a collage of plot summaries and exposition on each specific ballet, plus poetic animations of some well-worn stories of ballet artists (Pavlova’s tour, Nijinsky’s madness) and famous working partnerships (Nureyev and Fonteyn, Balanchine and Farrell). Technical steps or role interpretations are lightly sprinkled throughout — hasty snippets only, but scattered with a consistent hand. For the balletomane, the more interesting asides portray some associated artist and project that advances the aspects of Romantic vulnerability and loss brought up by each ballet (Joseph Cornell’s Homage to the Romantic Ballet constructions, Éric Rohmer’s La Boulangère de Monceau, Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto).
A compact telling like this, which only allows for fragments and outlines of ballet history and biography, is antithetical to a Romantic stance. As well, the whittling syntactical rhythm Haskell favors — a see-sawing repetition of language or beats — keeps the narrator relentlessly in the foreground. But it also fits the book’s ambition to pit battling structural and thematic forces against each other, and more often than not, the ideas that find expression are worth the rub, as when the narrator writes:
In Romantic ballet the tragedy that happens is less about the people than the emotions inside those people. It’s not Giselle or Albrecht who has a tragic flaw, it’s love. Inside the crystalline purity of love there’s a crack, and as the story unfolds the crack is revealed, and the Romantic part isn’t the romance, it’s the attempt to stop the crack or hide the crack or glue it back together. Or believe that’s even possible.
To understand the force of that unstable Romantic ideal means seeing characters destroyed by its force, and men’s suffering is particularly cruel in these ballet stories. Consumed and fortified by desire, the peasants and noblemen of La Sylphide and Swan Lake who cast off impending marriages or inheritances after meeting a girl/swan/slyph usually unwillingly survive the final tragic break, with parting images of their crumpled bodies foretelling lifetimes of impossible loss and regret to come.
In contrast, the unnamed narrator of The Complete Ballet has the most slight, tenuous presence, newly alit in the unfamiliar sprawl of Los Angeles, prepped and wanting for nothing. Filtered through a diffusive, aspirational American lens (the era is unspecified but for a mention of the allure of the Xerox machine), the narrator’s gaze is entirely focused inward on his own identity and value. His barren, suspended inner landscape blurs with the indistinct urban blocks and businesses he passes through. The young man engages little with society: he reports having done some phone work in the past and now drifts on the edge of a massage therapist career, landing only a rare client or two solely because he does not charge (did he even finish school?).
I was still in my twenties then, newly arrived in Los Angeles, not a writer or an artist or anything really, just knowing that what I was had come to nothing, that I had nothing, and unable to live with that I started spending time with Cosmo.
Any kind of Romantic longing has trickled down to an itchy wish to hang out with Cosmo, a strip club owner who dresses his life with tuxedos and champagne, and turns every situation into a party. Later, we learn of one time when the narrator almost leaped into the void of the unknown, lunging for a live microphone to perform just as the lead singer of the band returned and grabbed it back.
The narrator’s vicious disavowal of his worth and ability stands in direct contrast to his stance during the ballet storytelling. Moments before he has said that he’s “come to nothing,” he leads off the opening lines of “Act I: La Sylphide” with language suggesting a curious sense of ownership about ballet and the way it functions:
The story of my ballet begins in a large house. It has wooden beams, a stone fireplace, and in front of the fireplace a man, slumped in a wingback chair, is sleeping. He’s young, about to be married, still living with his mother, and we can’t know for sure but he’s probably dreaming, not about his future wife but about another woman, in this case a girl, a young girl, a thin, young ballerina playing the role of a sylph.
Despite the feeling of a casual, offhand construction, the narrator’s choice of words for the book’s opening line (deeming the story “my ballet”) sows the seeds for major identity questions later. He also profoundly dislocates the parameters of the fantasy by splitting the two participants into two parallel worlds: the man remains a fictionalized stage character while the ballerina “playing the role of the slyph” resides on the other side of the artifice.
Further identity games abound in the following paragraph: the narrator references a description of ballerina Maria Taglioni written by Arnold Haskell, the prodigious British dance writer who witnessed a dizzying array of 20th-century ballet history. While never addressing this legacy of names (there’s no relation), the narrator only furthers the conflation during ensuing references to the critic as simply “Haskell.”
In the 20th-century Los Angeles of The Complete Ballet, there’s little or no risk that the narrator will fall prey to a vision of life-altering romance. The city feels to have been emptied of sensual texture and society, but more importantly the narrator wields a remarkable passivity, especially in his physical body:
Pleasure was on one side, and anxiety was on the same side, and I was experiencing both of them, in my mind and body, and as I did I noticed the heat begin to dissipate. […] [A]nd I was trying not to think about money, trying to imagine a mind that can bear to keep burning when Cosmo stepped up to the table. And when he sat down in the empty chair, the one that had been mine, almost immediately we turned toward him. Like heliotropic plants, except we weren’t plants, we were human, and I did it too, Cosmotropic, turning toward him because that’s where the life was. Our thoughts turned, and our desires turned, and the heat I’d been feeling so intensely was now just a warmth, if that, and it didn’t take long before the champagne bottles were empty, and when Cosmo stood up we all stood up, and down at the bottom of the steep concrete steps, at the curb, the limousine was waiting.
Over time, he discloses wounding loves and losses he suffered back in Chicago, and demonstrates deft psychological insight into the self-deceptive motives of the Romantic hero: He wants to believe his desire, because it’s forbidden, is unconscious, and because it’s unconscious it’s more powerful than he is.
Yet a slow-burning fuse quietly ignites inside the Los Angeles “fiction” after the narrator follows Cosmo to a poker game one night and leaves at daybreak with a $23,000 debt to a mobster. No matter how completely still the narrator holds his body or his thoughts after this — he barely takes any steps in response, neither raising money nor fleeing — he cannot evade being forced into motion by a return of the mobster’s henchmen. Their demands require that he undertake physical action, which may be how he contracts a reckless courage for new experience he’d previously ascribed only to dancers:
Because dancers are attuned to the irrationality that resides in the body, and because the nature of dance is to follow the dictates of the body, the dichotomy of real and imaginary becomes elastic.
Soon the narrator’s perceptions of Los Angeles show increased energy, more in line with his ballet writing. One day he ventures beyond Cosmo’s strip club to visit the cemetery where his mother has been buried — the first fumbling steps into uncharted realms. Yet on the hillside there, his rutted patterns of resistance and self-negation attempt one last effort at domination:
Standing under the cemetery’s blue sky, the uneven gravestones pushed up by the earth, or sinking into the earth, and although the earth isn’t a fluid, under the crust it is fluid, and it’s that thin crust we live on, and we die, and that’s why I’m here, to check on my grave. When my mother bought her plot she also bought a plot for me, but the undertakers somehow misplaced my plot or sold my plot to someone else, and the cemetery man said he’d fit me in and now I see they’ve moved my mother’s stone closer to her brother, creating a space for me between her and the concrete pathway. The entire hill is filled with these same stones, the people beneath them with different names and dates, and […] names won’t matter when I’m dead because, first of all, I won’t exist, except in memory, and since memories die when people die it’s all the same, the same doing nothing and being nothing, and I suppose at one point I wanted to be more, or do more, to make my mark as they say.
How the mark of a man is measured alters by orientation, and everything changes when “Act Five: Petrushka” cleaves from the Romantic to the bleak tragicomic, across both story lines. The chronology and nature of ecstatic transcendence is flipped with the arrival of Nijinsky’s rejected harlequin-puppet “Petrushka,” suspended by strings, twisting and flailing to Stravinsky’s escalating atonal beats. No possibility for love exists here; audiences wince to see this character longing for more. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the narrator sprints from freeways to burger joints to hot tubs as if newly cut from hooks. He enters a state at this point in which his needs are beyond judgment and his actions are preternaturally ordained. Attention flows to him (better than love?) and he earns a flashy, elevated name, perfect for hot pink neon.
Yet as the book settles, another name starts reverberating, as if conjured by the stridency with which The Complete Ballet emphasizes dance stories over portraits of the dancing body itself. Balanchine, again, moving bodies in space, never the same way twice — it’s still so unthinkable that death stilled his ballets and stories both. Haskell includes some of that in the book, too: how Balanchine died chasing youth, chasing muses, chasing life. There’s such a sense of protest — a drawn curtain — in the way Haskell prevents readers from seeing any views of the narrator’s full body in The Complete Ballet. For the majority of the text, he’s seen moving only his fingers, and finger gestures are one of the few things he notices in others.
After this heady, radical tussle with Haskell, I pulled open my old copy of Balanchine’s book and opened to La Sylphide. How animated the text now looked. How alive!
The story of La Sylphide is a romance of old Scotland. The scene is the living room of a Scottish farmhouse. The time is 1830. The room is large and high. On the left a fire blazes in a great farmhouse; a huge stone mantel rises from it to the rafters. The mantel is hung with trophies of the hunt — colorful stuffed birds, powder horns, and flintlocks. A staircase runs up the back of the room to the upper story, a bright plaid decorates the banister. Near the first landing of the stairs is a high, peaked window through whose diamond-shaped translucent glass we can discern the break of day.
[This piece originally ran in the L.A. Review of Books]