Elizabeth Kendall talks about her new book, Balanchine and the Lost Muse
Elizabeth Kendall braids two lives together to show how Lidia Ivanova—the Russian ballerina who died in a boating accident—haunted the ballets of George Balanchine
Wed Jul 24 2013
Time Out New York: Like what?
Elizabeth Kendall: When you order items, there are various catalogs where you find them; when you order, you write down what you need, and you also have to write the theme of your research. And if you change the description of the theme of your research by even one word, all hell breaks loose. So that was my first real archival residency, and I found a lot of stuff. But then I went to the theater museum, which is a museum with exhibitions. And that is a very hip all-women team that was totally welcoming and they were all running around the building trying to figure out with me what these photographs were saying. That was the team where somebody would bring candy, somebody would bring wine, and you would have a tea break and you would sit around the kitchen and talk. What have you found today? It’s very odd because to be an archivist in Russia, you don’t earn very much money, but you’re extremely well educated, and you have a specialty: You’re, like, a Ph.D. in an archive. They’re amazing. The people who run the reading rooms, where you take it to a desk and turn on the little Soviet light—in TsGALI, you write it down by hand, because no photographing and at that time no computers. I would use them, I would say, “I can’t read this handwriting. Would you just tell me what it says?” It took me about two months before I got asked to tea, which is a crossing-over line. In TsGALI, the Soviet one, I was rooting around one day in the various books and I found Vera Kostrovitskaya’s private archives, and that was the greatest find of the whole thing.
Time Out New York: Why was she so important?
Elizabeth Kendall: She was important because she was two classes below Balanchine and Lidia. She was a boarder at the school from her first year, so she was there before the Revolution. But mainly because she was alive and clear and humorous as a personality, and in the late ’60s–early ’70s, when Yuri Slonimsky went to write his memoir, he couldn’t remember anything apparently, so he used mainly her memory and other people’s. He wrote letters to everybody saying, “Could you please remind me about X, X and X?” And she began to write letters to him, and then she began to write other things down—some for talks and some just to write down memories. She wrote in a careful, wonderfully round hand. I think I said that in a footnote.
Time Out New York: Yes. You could read it: It was legible.
Elizabeth Kendall: I could read her language with no problem—and the only handwriting I could read with no problem was hers. There was a school function—a little celebration of her. Some kind of anniversary, because she was an important teacher at the school. She was Vaganova’s assistant and she’s the author of 100 Lessons in Classical Ballet. So there was a little exhibition at the school, an opening, and I attended and there was a woman who people were deferring to, and they said, “You should meet her—she is the widow of Kostrovitskaya’s husband.” Kostrovitskaya had been married to another person in the Young Ballet circle. She died and then this painter, Solomon Gershov, married a younger woman who was at the exhibition. I said, “Maybe we could meet and talk,” and she said, “Would you like to see the apartment where she lived?” It turned out that when she became his widow, she also inherited Kostrovitskaya’s affairs, and she’s been really wonderful. She’s kept the apartment where they lived like a museum, but it’s not open to anybody. She just keeps it. She pays the rent and everything. By our third meeting, I thought to ask her what she does and she says, “Well, I’m a retired atomic scientist.” [Laughs] We subsequently became quite close and went to her house where she lives with her sister, a former medical doctor, and I learned about their pure intelligentsia—their parents were scientists. This country, the history, it’s tortured no matter whose surface you scratch, but there’s so much humor, there’s so much awareness, there’s so much living with tragedy and what that brings.
Time Out New York: Vera Kostrovitskaya was not there when Lidia died, right?
Elizabeth Kendall: Vera was not there that summer because she was in a tuberculosis sanatorium and she didn’t have a significant ballet career because of the tuberculosis. She was in the Young Ballet. I’m sure she would have been a wonderful dancer if she hadn’t lived through the civil war.
Time Out New York: I’m sure that’s true of so many.
Elizabeth Kendall: Yeah. And the other side is how many became dancers in spite of it.
Time Out New York: What do you think she knew?
Elizabeth Kendall: She knew something. [Alexandra] Danilova knew something. They knew more than we know. And nobody wrote it down. When I came to the sentence in one of her manuscripts that she’d had a visit from another one of their circle recently who had told her something that lifted the veil on this mystery that had haunted them for years and clearly it was terribly important to them. But this, I’ll tell you about in person or I’ll pass it through Galya T.—so I went rushing around saying, “Who the hell is Galya T.?” I met somebody who could have been, and she was old and I spoke to her, but it wasn’t the same one. And then I talked to Tamara, the widow of the husband. And I thought that [Kostrovitskaya] was just, Oh I’m reaching the end of this letter, I don’t have time to write, but Tamara said, “No, she was afraid to write it down.”
Time Out New York: Balanchine and Lidia were quite different—he was the dreamer, and she was the extrovert. I love how you say that she was late to everything. You really get at her personality.
Elizabeth Kendall: Before every yoga class when I was really intensely finishing, when I had to dedicate the practice to somebody, I would really say, “Okay Lidia, this is your time—come back.” [Laughs] It really helped. That’s why I don’t like yoga anymore. She’s not there anymore. I tried evoking George, but he doesn’t really need me as much because he’s alive in many people’s minds and hearts.
Time Out New York: You’re creating a portrait of Balanchine when he was young and even though people are around who knew him, they didn’t really know him. Now I can see how his past is in all of the ballets so profoundly. He would say, “The ballets aren’t about anything,” but they were and are about everything.
Elizabeth Kendall: One thing I didn’t get to say clearly enough is how stylized was the faux-naive persona that he presented to the West. This ‘we are simple people, I am just a carpenter,’ all this stuff is cleverly fashioned, and it’s not anything like what people take it as the real guy.
Time Out New York: Explain what you mean.
Elizabeth Kendall: It’s always saying, “You can’t say what the ballet’s about.” “Just dance, don’t think.” Things that could be taken as anti-intellectual. I think a lot of instinct and thought went into what sort of an artist he would be seen as in the West. Maybe he became the antithesis of [Lincoln] Kirstein, but it’s quite marked how he played, in a sense, a little bit the holy fool. Maybe there’s a little bit of anger at dance being considered not intellectual. I don’t know. I can’t really read that. I wanted to explore that, but it didn’t somehow find its place. But, yeah, nobody exactly knew this Balanchine except maybe some people in the Russian community. [The play] Nikolai and the Others really makes you think about the other Balanchine—who he was with the Russians. [In it] George is very much of a loquacious, kind of life-of-the-party in a way that rings slightly false. Still we don’t know because it was two worlds. I have a feeling he was just as closed in other ways to other Russians except for maybe one or two people. But I hadn’t thought about all the women around him until I saw that play. Not just the American dancers, but the Russian émigré.
Time Out New York: He did not have a happy early life. It was just one thing after the other.
Elizabeth Kendall: There was a lot of unrequited longing.
Time Out New York: The loneliness.
Elizabeth Kendall: And the sense that you were in a place where people were perfectly nice, even adoring, and they didn’t have a clue who you were and where you’d come from. And to start to explain is just hopeless: “You see my ballet training was very strange…the Revolution…” And again the Cold War was such a different time. Nobody traveled to Russia because it haunted children’s nightmares. That place where you could be swallowed up—in fact, I had those nightmares. And that’s why in ’78, my first time in Russia, I went by myself. I worked at the Ford Foundation after my first book, and they sent me to the Salzburg seminar with two other young people and I looked at the map and saw how far east Austria really was and thought, This is my chance. So I gathered up all the available money and went to Intourist and said, “Could I go to Russia and then go to Austria?” They gave me two levels of price, and of course the lower level was higher than anything I’d ever paid, but I scraped the money together—you didn’t know your hotel in advance, you just paid the money. You got off the plane and you went to the desk. They told you where you were going—everything. And I remember coming out of the soupy clouds in this plane and seeing the soldiers in gray coats and thinking, I’m home. I’m behind enemy lines. [Laughs] It was a wonderful week. Nobody knew who I was, where I was from, but the ballet mafia took care of me.
Time Out New York: Would you tell the story of the boating accident? Where was Lidia going? Why?
Elizabeth Kendall: Lidia had been invited by some fans on an excursion on the canal in St. Petersburg. There were people who had motorboats. The little party of apparently four men and one ballerina was thinking of just going up to the main Neva [River]. But they couldn’t get there.
Time Out New York: What happened?
Elizabeth Kendall: One newspaper article said there were barges, and another said the water was too choppy so they turned around and went the long horseshoe way to the open sea; when they got to the mouth of the river—it’s a complicated place for currents. There’s a little island, and it’s where the Neva also meets the Baltic Sea. The newspapers gave the account of the little rowboat from the men who survived. The rowboat’s motor heated up, and they tried to cool it down and in cooling it down, they drifted to the open sea from the mouth of the canal, and they didn’t see that a large ferryboat was coming right toward them. And it was the complicated place with shoals and currents and this island, and the ferry couldn’t turn quick enough to miss them, so the ferry ran into them and split the boat in two. That ferry and another tugboat that appeared on the scene threw ropes down to the people in the water and saved three of the five passengers. And that’s all we know.
Time Out New York: What do you believe?
Elizabeth Kendall: I believe that there are enough really strange things about no follow-up that something was fishy, and I think the best-case scenario was that it really was an accident and the guys were so terrified that they fudged it all. And the party protected them—the press wasn’t working at full transparency. [Laughs] And the worst-case scenario would be what one of the immigré accounts implied, which is that one of the guys who initiated the excursion was a spurned suitor, and they knew that Lidia planned to go away with the four other young dancers, and perhaps they thought this is our last chance to somehow have revenge or have our way or prevent her from leaving—whatever a crime of passion does.