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: They serve to continue the conversation.
Elizabeth Kendall: Good. I suppose it’s also an invitation to the readers to join in. I have loved writing this book, because I really feel it’s a tale and it feels alive to me. With any book you think everybody’s going to drop everything and react and that never, ever happens. But more things happen than you think and they don’t happen when you think they will happen, like the letter from Jared Angle. It’s terribly moving to hear that something you wrote changed the way a dancer performed. What kind of a dream is that?
Time Out New York: Have you spoken to ballerinas who have read this?
Elizabeth Kendall: No. Only Zippora [Karz, a former NYCB member]. She was there through the whole thing. She’s really smart and when I came to a place where I needed to know what it felt like to dance something, I always called her. I’ve known her forever. And Stephanie Saland I’ve known forever also, since I was a young critic and she was a very young dancer. But one part that I’m proud of is when I realized, Okay, Lidia was learning all this stuff. What did it mean to somebody to study ballet and to master the art? What did it feel like to be an adolescent? So I called Zippora, and she talked me through it and it was kind of a revelation just because it’s the kind of question that we critics don’t usually ask so we don’t hear all this information about what’s going on in the psyche together with the body.
Time Out New York: Can you talk about Lidia’s jumping ability? No one had done a split jump before?
Elizabeth Kendall: No, because you weren’t supposed to open your legs that wide. It was not done. Even when I first started going to the Kirov, when the Soviet Union opened up in 1990, there were people who said an arabesque should remain at waist level. That that’s the line. And Farukh Ruzimatov was once rehearsing and I said, “Why do you have such a high arabesque?” And he said, “We’re not in the 19th century.” I think a lot of the decorum of the Mariinsky remained after the revolution, because personnel remained. So Lidia just did what she felt she could or what the music was telling her to do or what her body was telling her to do and so you could say that Lidia would be the admitter of the split leap and the big pas de chat, and George would be the inventor of the air lift, among other things, that hadn’t been done. But they were that first generation that hit the revolution not formed but already thinking. Another thing I kept thinking about was in the ’60s, when I was young, we had that same kind of time: When you were invited to think “why not?” about anything. And I think that was a kind of time in the revolution that if you weren’t starving to death, you could think, Why not? About anything. And I think they did, both of them in their different ways.
Time Out New York: What did he and what did she think about?
Elizabeth Kendall: He thought, What can I express with steps that has been [forbidden] till now, and she thought, What can I do with this power in my body that hasn’t been allowed? And the jump—I gave a lot of space to her teacher, [Olga] Preobrajenska, because I found myself fascinated by that figure. That chapter was a breakthrough, because I realized that what you had to do was find the people who captured their imagination. For a long time, I was like, this is crazy—they all have three teachers in the course of their schooling: Why do we get only one teacher by Lidia’s name? I had to go on a very long search and find lots of other memoirs to piece together the idea that Preobrajenska took this class all the way through, with a few pauses. There was no place that said that. There was no proof; you had to put all the sources together. But then I think, Oh well, let’s see who she was, and I realized that she was an extraordinary figure. An amazing teacher and the Vaganova cult has sort of set on her. It’s the same with the George cult. Vaganova isn’t a superwoman. That she took from someone else. Good heavens.
Time Out New York: Another fascinating figure is [Andrei Alexandrovich Oblakov.
Elizabeth Kendall: The director of the school. Yes, I fell in love with him too. He was a real mentor.
Time Out New York: He brought in other artists—musicians and visual artists—to the school. In a way, for Balanchine, he was the Diaghilev before Diaghilev.
Elizabeth Kendall: Yes and I think more of the school people were people who’d been rejected or banned or sent away after the 1905 Revolution. They came back to be part of the post-Revolutionary theater school. I think that all of the reasons that had made them revolutionaries inside the imperial system went into their pedagogical thought after the revolution. One of the things Oblokov was saying was, “Why can’t dancers become choreographers?” I think that was his dream, that the students would own the art and not just become products of the Imperial system. I’m glad you liked him. I loved him. His dates—nobody can find when he stopped being director and what happened to him. Where did he die? You think with such a key figure that somebody would have tracked him.
Time Out New York: But it was a funny time.
Elizabeth Kendall: And it’s been a funny subsequent time, because our colleagues in Russia—one who is a major critic-historian, said, “Why are you telling the story of Balanchine? We know the story: His father was a composer. He was especially sensitive to music. End of story.” I was like, What? [Laughs] So I don’t know why they haven’t done it. They haven’t done it because he’s ours, and we haven’t done it because he’s theirs in a way.
Time Out New York: So Lidia wanted to be the ballerina of the future.
Elizabeth Kendall: I think so, I really do. I think she really was thinking about what it meant to not be [Mathilde] Kschessinskaya. To be someone that meant something to audiences, and not just by accident or by coincidence. Not just because they had never seen it and here they were enthralled, but because like any great performer that takes in pieces of their time that the audience hadn’t realized could be shown—I think that’s what she really wanted.
Time Out New York: Did you know Alexandra Danilova well?
Elizabeth Kendall: Yes, I did know Danilova. In fact, she always thought I was that Tudor dancer, Sallie Wilson. I would say, “Can I come watch your class?” and she would say, “Why you no take?” [Laughs] But at the end of her life, I started going to see Danilova, and I forgot kind of why. I would just call her up and, it was really kind of amazing because she was in her nineties and it was hard for her to get up and down from a chair and yet she would meet you at the door in a satin blouse with a tie at the neck and full makeup and she would conduct you to be seated and you would have a conversation and she would raise herself from the chair to see you to the door. There was someone there helping. I thought, This is really courage. Let me remember this; let me make a note for my old age that you have to present yourself to the world. I didn’t know enough to ask her about Lidia or to ask her more about the history, because it’s not been known to us; it was many years after I interviewed Balanchine, but still I was ignorant and didn’t speak Russian. She got very excited at one of my last visits because I told her where I was from. I was from St. Louis, and apparently the Ballets Russes loved to go to St. Louis—there are some rich people in St. Louis. Decadent. Elite. And they would always go for Christmas and would be royally entertained, and that meant so much to her. She’s the real orphan of the story. I got her personal file—the most exciting was getting the personal files and they were strangely thin, but just to see things like the letter from the father about the ballet school and some official documents. But then Danilova’s file had this sense that she really was alone in the world.
Time Out New York: And how she coped with that—it’s illuminating to see how these young people coped with everything.
Elizabeth Kendall: Yeah. But I think I did include a bit about that person who even at the end, in her nineties, made herself up every day. Created herself anew every day with dignity. Even though I’m sure she was a killer. At one point, I got mixed up a little bit: She was telling me about the general’s house in Crimea, and I was like, “Wait a minute—who’s the general?” I got some family details wrong. She essentially said, “It’s so simple. Why are you so stupid?” I was like, I think you’re right. I need to pay closer attention. She was something. They were all. To think that they ended up working together at SAB [School of American Ballet]. And think where Lidia would have been…
Time Out New York: Lidia and Balanchine were not a couple.
Elizabeth Kendall: No.
Time Out New York: Was he just too young? Or was he kind of a nerd then?
Elizabeth Kendall: I think he was smaller, nerd…I think he didn’t dare. But I think that also male dancers before the Revolution had a funny cap on their existence because the high ballerinas were for a much more glorified society then they could offer and I think after the Revolution that’s one of the things that changed: Couples could form within the theater. But I think George was a little skinny, undernourished. And also, all of the later George obsessions were mostly blond, and Lidia was earthy and dark. So she wasn’t his type. All of them were blond, except for Maria Tallchief, who doesn’t fit the pattern. Vera Zorina, Norwegian mother. Karin [von Aroldingen], German. Tanaquil [LeClercq] was half European. Suzanne [Farrell], German-American. They’re all the same kind of remote blonds except for Maria, and she was on the rebound anyway. I think. And Lidia just wasn’t that type, but Tamara Geva [his first wife] was alluring and charming, but an ice princess. So were all the others in a way. As probably was the mom.
Time Out New York: What do you want this book to accomplish?
Elizabeth Kendall: I want the book to allow the ballets to be both the timeless machines of emotion that they are and to be real artifacts rooted in history. I want to work against the ahistorical approach to Balanchine’s art that implies that he was born fully formed out of the head of Zeus. I want him to be thought of as a person. I would like the very particular conditions of his time in history to be known more, because I think they’re very much present in the ballets. I’d like people to continue to be aware of Balanchine—that he shouldn’t dwindle out of existence, that a fresh look means fresh talk and fresh awareness about him and his art.
Balanchine & the Lost Muse: Revolution & the Making of a Choreographer (Oxford University Press) is out now.
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