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

Lidia Ivanova who is featured in Elizabeth Kendall's book "Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution & the Making of a Choreographer"

Lidia Ivanova who is featured in Elizabeth Kendall's book "Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution & the Making of a Choreographer" Photograph: Author's collection

Elizabeth Kendall talks about her new book, Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer, which investigates the lives of George Balanchine and Lidia Ivanova, his friend whose life and ballet career ended precipitately in a boating accident, directly before the two—and Alexandra Danilova—planned to leave the country. Following Ivanova's death, Balanchine came to the States where he co-founded New York City Ballet. The book suggests that the memory of Ivanova influenced the choreographer's work, including the classic Serenade.  

In Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer, writer Elizabeth Kendall digs into the history of two profound figures: George Balanchine, the dreamer who transformed 20th-century ballet, and Lidia Ivanova, the extrovert and his close friend at the Imperial Theater School. But the ballerina’s life ended tragically; in 1924, days before she would have left Russia on a tour with Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, Ivanova was killed in a boating accident. (Balanchine went and escaped to the West.) It’s likely that she remained an alluring inspiration in many of his ballets, including the ever-luminous Serenade. Recently, Kendall spoke about her research, which paints a psychologically riveting portrait of Balanchine and Ivanova as they came of age during the Russian Revolution. You’ll never look at his ballets the same way again.  

Time Out New York: How did you get the idea for this book?
Elizabeth Kendall:
Everybody who’s read the two main biographies, which are the [Bernard] Taper and the [Richard] Buckle, knew of Lidia, but she’s only a couple of sentences. And she’s only a couple of sentences in the Solomon Volkov book, too—a couple more revealing sentences. I had finished a memoir, and I didn’t know what to write about, which seems to be the plight of most memoirists. I thought, Now it’s time to write about Balanchine, because I’ve been meaning to for many years. How can I do this in a way that’s not straightforward and expected and conventional? I thought about Lidia. Evil is always interesting. Mystery is good. And bringing someone back to life seems to be something I do. In other words, my mom died in an accident; Lidia died in an accident. That was not conscious, but maybe working behind the scenes. 

Time Out New York: And she danced.
Elizabeth Kendall:
And she danced, and she shouldn’t be dead. I’ve always been angry that she’s dead, so I decided to start with her. But then you open a force field around you of people who know what you’re looking for and thinking about and they tell you when they think you might be interested in something. There are very interesting archives. One of my most important was at the National Library of Finland, because Finland was part of the Russian Empire in the whole 19th century. In fact, the Finnish library was one of the three main libraries of the Empire so designated, which meant that they received every piece of printed material automatically. The other two main libraries were both in St. Petersburg. So Helsinki has kept the materials wonderfully, and they have one, in particular, very wonderful curator, so the result is that it’s a little-known place where the greatest Russian scholars of the world gather in the summers. It’s a wonderful community because we have lunch, we can ask each other questions, and I’ve learned a lot from them. But at that moment, the director of the Slavic department told me that her colleague had just been made director of the provincial library in Finland that has the material from Karelia, the strip of Finland that was lost in the Winter War of 1939. I said, Oh I should look there, so I went there and ended up going three times to the town of Mikkeli, where the provincial archives do indeed have whatever they could scrounge from Karelia when they all fled. I was interested because of the Balanchivadze dacha, which was in Finland, and I wanted to know what life was like, but instead I found the property deeds of the sale of the buying of three pieces of land. I thought, I’m learning so much about Balanchine, I’d better make it about both of these people.

Time Out New York: Do you speak Russian?
Elizabeth Kendall:
Yes, but in a funny way. It’s self-taught. It’s my outsider art project. I speak fluently, but a little cavalierly.

Time Out New York: Did you speak Russian when you interviewed Balanchine, which you talk about in the book’s introduction?
Elizabeth Kendall:
No, I did not. I wish I had. I wish I’d known anything more than I did. With Russians—I’m not sure exactly why—it might be because the language is very much an echo chamber, a sound environment because it’s very inflected. So when you cross over into the language, you’re more inside and away from where you were than with some other languages and you become something else—which you do if you speak any language well. But if you go inside the Russian language, you get welcomed in a way into a secret society that’s kind of large and very local. So I wish I had spoken Russian.

Time Out New York: Did you only interview him that one time?
Elizabeth Kendall:
Yes, but I saw him lots of other times, at library events and on the street. He was completely around. You saw him around the theater. I saw him at the Korean vegetable market. You sort of took it for granted that you would see him.

Time Out New York: He’s such a ghost to me.
Elizabeth Kendall:
Yeah, I know. I can imagine. And now he’s kind of a ghost to me too, but he wasn’t. We knew so little [about him], and “we” is the whole community. Because the Soviet Union was so closed.

Time Out New York: So you decided to make the book as much about Balanchine as Lidia Ivanova.
Elizabeth Kendall:
Officially, I decided to braid the two lives together. I didn’t know if it would really work until the end. You have to create the structure that seems to have preceded the facts; until really the second-to-last chapter, I didn’t know whether she would be significant enough a dancer to hold her part of the biography. And then she turned out to be.

Time Out New York: What do you mean you didn’t know? That you were learning about her as you were researching?
Elizabeth Kendall:
Yes that, but also I was putting it all together. And also the Russian texts have been hard. I’ve speeded up my reading as I’ve gone along. At the beginning, it was very hard to get through because all the terms about how people dance are not terms that you know about in another language. All the adverbs and the verbs that describe someone dancing are very thick, dense, foreign-language stuff to master, so I wasn’t sure what it looked like, and if it was just good or something more.

Time Out New York: You write that she was probably most like Suzanne Farrell. What made you come to that conclusion?
Elizabeth Kendall:
Because of Lidia’s astonishingly vivid presence when she danced. That she could make you think she was making up the steps, that she was certainly performing as if for the first time and that’s the quality of Suzanne, but it’s the quality of all the best Balanchine ballerinas. For me, personally the great ballerina of my watching was [Patricia] McBride. Suzanne was completely everywhere and yet McBride—I felt close to her, not because she was the underdog. She never was. But because of her great pleasure in the stylization, which is not Lidia. Lidia, I feel, was an overwhelming force on the stage like Suzanne was.

Time Out New York: Was McBride more of a generous dancer?
Elizabeth Kendall:
Yes she was the opposite kind of a dancer in that you felt she was always connected to the audience. She didn’t go away inside and yet she did in her own way. But she was a theatrical creature, and Suzanne was sort of anti-theatrical in the theater. Patty seems a little like Violette [Verdy] was to me too; when I saw her, it was at the very end of her career. The very first time I went to a Balanchine evening, I had been resisting because I was a modern-dance person—avant-garde, Judson, and I knew that if I was writing about dance I had to go to Balanchine and this was like this huge mountain in front of me. It was like, Ballet? What do I need it for? And then someone, I think [critic] Tobi Tobias, said, “You have to go to this evening,” and I went. I saw Violette in Raymonda Variations, and I thought, My God, this isn’t hard at all. This is a party, and we’re the guests and Violette is the hostess. I was like, what a lot you get—it’s not work! In the ’70s, you really had to work to put the dance back together. Judson. And here it was like, No, we’ve done that work for you. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: So you started watching Balanchine in the ’70s? 
Elizabeth Kendall:
I came to New York in the fall of ’73 and began to write about dance, and you could publish right away because all the little journals that couldn’t pay you needed your copy. Somewhere in the winter of ’73 to ’74 is when I first went to City Ballet.

Time Out New York: You put together Lidia’s story like a detective. Where did you start?
Elizabeth Kendall:
There was no starting place, except that a very nice Russian immigrant, Valery Golovitser, said, “Oh, I was just in St. Petersburg and I met a curator at the theater museum and she said there’s a Lidia archive, and she will be waiting for you.” I said, “This is wonderful.” I went right over—that was the summer of 2004—and I went to the theater museum [St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music] and it wasn’t really an archive. It was a bunch of family photographs. That was it. I sat down and I tremblingly described each one, which was totally unnecessary research work. [Laughs] Describing each photograph. That was the beginning. I didn’t know anything.

Time Out New York: But you were getting your imagination going, right? 
Elizabeth Kendall:
Yes. A lot of things in this book, I would say were unnecessary and yet they helped the force field, they helped the soup get thicker. And that’s when the staff of the theater museum kind of kicked in. The archives in St. Petersburg and in Moscow are very interesting because some of them are more open than others. When I got to go back in 2006 on a Fulbright was when I really learned about the archive. That was six months of the fall semester of 2006. And that’s when I felt the difference among the archives; some are very Soviet. And also, all the archives are split in two: pre-1917 and post. There are two different archives for those things, so it’s very hard to make the arc over to 1917. The first archive I realized I needed to spend a lot of time in was called TsGALI—they have acronyms: TsGALI Central Gosudarstvenni Archive of Literature and Art. Which, strangely enough, has the school documents after 1917, and that archive was very forbidding indeed. In fact, the first day I was there working with fear and trembling, the scholar next to me photographed a document and I thought, That’s great—I’ll bring my camera tomorrow. I said, “So you can photograph documents?” And they said, “No—absolutely not! What gives you that impression?” Before I was even thinking, I said, “Because that guy…” But it happened that the reading-room surveillance was gone in that moment and that’s why he photographed that document. And I had no idea. Really, they almost went through the roof, but that’s the mood there and that’s where you learn the real bedrock conventions.

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