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: And then the exit visas for the other dancers—Balanchine, Danilova, et cetera—came through the next day.
Elizabeth Kendall: So said Balanchine. It’s quoted in John Malmstad’s article. There was always a little Lidia cult all through those years in the Soviet Union and one of the people was Gennady Smakov, who was a ballet scholar and a Lidia person and his friend and fellow scholar from our side is John Malmstad from Harvard; [Mikhail] Kuzmin—who was this wonderful gay poet—he later died of AIDS here—asked Malmstad to ask Balanchine about Lidia and then Malmstad in the ’70s wrote an article in which he interpreted one of Kuzmin’s poem’s about Lidia.
Time Out New York: Were you thinking about Serenade the whole time? When did you start really concentrating on the ballets and wondering what Lidia’s influence was?
Elizabeth Kendall: Early. Maybe as soon as 2004; some photographs got out of Russia and they were bought by a collector named Carl Taggersell, who was a strange, childlike sort of man, a lovely man whose passion in life was collecting. He worked in the New Jersey educational administration system, and he had sort of trained as a musician, but he became a collector of musical and ballet artifacts. Somehow, some Lidia artifacts got into his collection, and Valery also knew about these. There are a couple in this book. I called Carl and told him that Valery had told me about him, and he brought his photos and we scanned them at the library and then he died having spoken every day about how he was going to give the collection to the Houghton Library. We all thought he’d done it legally, but he hadn’t. A nephew sold them on eBay. But it was one of those where there was an inscription written to a fan by Lidia over one of her photographs, which said, “Sometimes I would like to be one of the sounds created by Tchaikovsky so that sounding softly and sadly, I could dissolve in the evening mist,” and I thought, Oh my God, Serenade in Strings—and in the end, she’s going up into the mist. Serenade was a landmark in the sky of this book for me. And not just Serenade. La Valse. The thing that also made the ballets come alive was learning about the theater scene in St. Petersburg in the late teens and early ’20s. All that stuff I assimilated relatively late when I got to the final chapters. I had the material. I knew where it fit and then when I got to that chapter, I really went into it and that’s when I started to see the plays that were being described in my mind and to see the ballets that corresponded to the plays. There were so many minutes when I was like, Oh my God, that’s what that’s about.
Time Out New York: Like what?
Elizabeth Kendall: Especially this great production called Masquerade, of the [Mikhail] Lermontov play from the 1830s that was produced famously—[Vsevolod] Meyerhold took five years to put it together, and the night after the February Revolution began, the night before the tsar abdicated, was the premiere of Masquerade. It played again and again over the time when Balanchine was growing into being a professional. I hadn’t realized that it had a score—that all of the plays had music written for them, and this had been written by Glazunov, a composer Balanchine loved. He built a whole piece around the score of Raymonda Variations. I’ve always loved this music, but then I found that Glazunov had built the score around the Glinka waltz that came from the play called Valse-Fantaisie. And Balanchine also made a ballet called Valse-Fantaisie. I thought, I’m getting warm. But the more I read about Masquerade and the more I looked at pictures of the production, the more I thought about Liebeslieder Walzer,which also takes place in a ballroom. And the key moment in this book was when I found a book that we should all know about called The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination. All these Pierrots and all these Columbines wafting around in the cultural life of the city and also wafting around on the stage of Balanchine.
Time Out New York: La Sonnambula too.
Elizabeth Kendall: Yes. One of the first moments when I was first getting to know the repertory of Balanchine, I saw Harlequinade. I totally fell in love with this aroma of commedia dell’arte. I remember thinking: This is the essence of the theater, this is the kind of theatrical catnip that just makes me terribly excited. The idea that the harlequin fell apart, and the goddess is putting him back together, and that happens more than once in Balanchine. It also happens in Petrushka at the end. That moment marked me so strongly when I was a very young critic that it partly was telling me to go and look at, why in Russia, in the early 20th century the revolution that we think of as modernity bursting through an archaic system, what are all these Columbines, Pierrots and Harlequins doing all over the landscape? The answer is because the enterprise called a search for a modern theater of the people led by the great Russian theater experimentalists back to the theater of the people of the Middle Ages: commedia dell’arte. Balanchine was there. He was young. Anything that is that prevalent and that insistent when you’re young it just goes right in like an X-ray.
Time Out New York: It’s part of you.
Elizabeth Kendall: Yeah. So I saw how the Pierrot and Columbine theme for Lidia and Balanchine held—it held as one of the frames of the real-life story of both of them, so I pulled that thread out a little bit more. He really was a stylized creation, his own creation, and it seems to me that he was a creation from this kind of theater.
Time Out New York: This is a little different, but I watched the Elegie fromTchaikovsky Suite No. 3 recently after reading your book, and I was like, Whoa. That is literal. The man is left alone onstage.
Elizabeth Kendall: It is. In fact I gave the galleys to Joan Quatrano who does City Ballet events; I’m going to do a guild and supporters event in September. But I got an e-mail from Joan who had read the book and said, “Jared Angle wants to read it.” I said, “Sure, absolutely let him read the book.” He’s putting together a program for the Hamptons about where Balanchine comes from. I wrote him a long e-mail about how I admired him, and I didn’t hear and I didn’t hear and finally I wrote him saying, “Hello! An author is a precarious person, and you’re one of the early readers—what did you think?” And then he wrote back this long letter and said, “I was waiting till I finished the book.” He said some lovely things, but he also said, “I’ve really performed the Elegie differently since I read the book.” Maybe you saw one of those performances?
Time Out New York: I did. It was crazy. But I wasn’t sure if it was him or the information from the book that was making it so profound for me—because when a book like this enters your consciousness, it changes the way you see everything.
Elizabeth Kendall: Does it really? Because it changed the way I saw.
Time Out New York: I never believed that line that Balanchine’s ballets weren’t about anything anyway—there’s a great spirituality that I can relate to. I’m not Russian, but I’m Greek, and there is a certain mysticism is in there somewhere. I know I’m not being very articulate.
Elizabeth Kendall: It’s very hard for us in America to confront this word calledspirituality, but it wasn’t hard for Balanchine. I really think that spirituality wasn’t just taken from the Russian Orthodox Church. It was a mixture of many things. It had to do with the theater, with his worship of women, with his exile, with his concept of hate.
Time Out New York: And thinking about what everyone from that time went through, and what do you come away with? One important aspect you pointed to is humor in the face of tragedy. And how in the end what really matters?
Elizabeth Kendall: And haven’t you always found that with the greatest dancers that they’re always really funny? They’re so quick that the sense of deep spirituality and the sense of humor are mixed because they follow each other so quickly in a psyche.
Time Out New York: It’s true. Because you can’t have one without the other.
Elizabeth Kendall: You cannot. Nobody sets out to be funny and a great dancer, but it turns out like that. It’s kind of magic. When I set out to write this book after going through a crisis called, “What do I write now that I’ve written a memoir?” I thought, Well, I want to give something back to Balanchine because when I first came to New York, I was not only young and lost and at the beginning of a professional life, but I was also thrown off balance by my mother’s death. So I went to City Ballet—the great press agent Virginia Donaldson made it possible for the young would-be critics to attend the ballet all the time. And so we were there, and I would go and say, I’m so confused. I give to the stage all this confusion. And give me something back. And I would always get an enlarged psyche, more space for all the thoughts. I would get rinsed and things would be in place. I got that from the stage, and that’s nothing if not spirituality. In my professional life, I’m not known as a Balanchine person. I haven’t written about City Ballet a lot—some, but not enough for me and so this is my chance. As I began to write it, I kept that thought that this book is for Mr. B, but I also thought of myself as an emissary from our community who happened to have language skills, and so I feel we’ve had a very ahistorical approach to Balanchine ballets. When I was first a young critic, I was encouraged to make up what I thought the ballets were about because nobody knew. I made up a lot of things—like everybody. But that’s not enough. I think the other message is he was a real man, he had a real life, he had a family, he had origins, he had the experiences that everybody had and sure he was a genius, but the kind of genius somebody becomes has to do with who they really were, i.e., history.
Time Out New York: I love when you talk about a choreographer’s “primal” material, which is the basis for everything else a choreographer creates, or “those recurring compositional tropes that comprise a signature.” You see that in any artist whose work has lasted, don’t you?
Elizabeth Kendall: Yes. I myself once tried to make a dance. [Laughs] It turned out so inert that I realized my primary material had to do with someone coming on the stage in a dress, holding a suitcase and putting the suitcase down, and I thought, My primal material does not lend itself to a kinetic experience.
Time Out New York: Do you think his was rooted in Funeral March or Marche Funèbre?
Elizabeth Kendall: That’s what he chose to do as his first group piece. So all we have is why. I think it had to do with the times, with being young and he saw that death was all around.
Time Out New York: In putting these stories of their lives together, you ask a lot of questions. Did that help you to figure out where they might have been coming from?
Elizabeth Kendall: Whenever I reached a point where I didn’t have enough material, my voice would fall into question mode; some of the questions are obviously rhetorical questions, but probably the question mode for me has to do with the leap that any historian has to make when you’re drawing conclusions from a bunch of chaotic information and often in this case, there were hiatuses in the information. I really haven’t made any fictional leaps at all in here. This is really a work of history. But as my Russian researcher, who’s a wonderful, fascinating genealogist, said—she specializes in the early ’20s, which is the hardest period. She gave a whole monologue that at one point was in the book, but I took it out. It didn’t fit. She said: “Yes, we have a hard time because rats ate the documents, pipes burst and doused the documents in boiling water, archives fell down, whole archives froze and the papers weren’t recoverable. There was a shortage of paper.” She went on and on, and this was the litany that is part of her life as a researcher. And she said, “And archives move and they throw out documents because they think we have too much. Just the other day, somebody called me because in the corner of their office was stuff that a certain archive had left and they didn’t know what to do with it, and I went and I saw scads and scads of this wonderful material with no place to put it.” The archive culture in Soviet Russia was pretty great because they had a skewed sense of values so the intellectual values were elevated and archives are a part of that. So an astonishing amount was kept, but under the conditions surrounding the revolution a lot absolutely got lost. So the question mode is partly my talisman against the possible lost parts of this story.