On Thursday 24th November, DANSOX and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing presented a joint event in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford. DANSOX director Professor emeritus Sue Jones introduced the Centre’s founder, Dame Hermione Lee, who interviewed writer, academic, and former dancer Jennifer Homans about her biography Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century.

Homans had spent ten years working on the book: in 2017 at the Dancing Lives conference at Wolfson College, Oxford, she spoke of her quest to explore Balanchine’s work with a view revealing the man himself through the dances that he created. Five years on, this was an opportunity to discover more about that process and about how Homans had addressed the problems that she had encountered.

An initial difficulty had been the limitation of the written word as a means of conveying the ideas expressed in Balanchine’s dances. Describing dance is an act of translation and Homans read an extract from the section of her book on The Four Temperaments (1941) to illustrate the quality of her writing and the way in which she conveys atmosphere and images.
Lee remarked that Balanchine’s dancers did not smile, to which Homans responded that smiling is external, and Balanchine was concerned with the internal aspects of dance. The unsmiling dancer compels the attention of the audience, just as the flatness of a Russian icon draws in the viewer. Nonetheless, Homans noted that Balanchine was a great entertainer with a keen sense of what the public would enjoy: an evening of his ballets was like a well balanced meal with lighter works offsetting the more serious and demanding material.

Homans discussed Balanchine’s interest in the present moment, his rejection of the bourgeois, and his unceasing search for ways further to heighten the body. Open to the influence of popular dance, he integrated the vocabulary of black dance styles into his own work. Balanchine respected and supported black dancer Arthur Mitchell’s work founding Dance Theatre of Harlem, but, perhaps paradoxically, also typecast him in roles in which he wore minimal costumes that objectified his body.

Balanchine’s relationship with his dancers, particularly the women, is now widely considered to have been problematic. He was a charismatic choreographer, and Homans admitted that working with Balanchine marked her for life. She had interviewed and recorded the testimony of a long list of dancers, some of whom were speaking about their experiences for the first time. She had concluded that as a biographer, she should describe what happened without judging those involved and allow readers to assess the evidence for themselves. Homans conceded that some dancers were deeply troubled, feeling as if they had surrendered to a cult. On the other hand, she suggested that Balanchine created a theatre in which the work itself was paramount, and the involvement was greater than the self. In response to a question from the audience, she argued that the extreme technique required of Balanchine’s dancers is not so much an abuse of the body as a reflection of an artistic practice that pushed the boundaries and deliberately unsettled to the audience.

Lee asked Homans whether she had discerned an arc of development in Balanchine’s work, such as a progression from spirituality to abstraction. Homans had found this kind of trajectory hard to pin down, but she clearly perceived his bursts of creativity following personal losses, such as his wife Tanaquil Le Clercq’s illness, and the choreographic crisis that coincided with his break with Suzanne Farrell.

As for the afterlife of Balanchine’s work, fewer than a quarter of his four-hundred-plus ballets are still performed, and Homans pointed out that Balanchine himself had claimed that without him they would no longer be his ballets. Balanchine died nearly forty years ago, in April 1983; since then, dancers’ bodies have changed, and so has society. A member of the audience asked about the tension inherent in the threefold discussion surrounding the dancers, the choreographer, and his works. On the one hand, Lee said, the biographer needs a heart of ice and cannot take a moral tone, but on the other, as Homans commented, it is not enough to say ‘it was different then’: in laying out the information and inviting the reader to decide, Homans acknowledged that she has, nevertheless, made an interpretative choice.

Maggie Watson

11th December 2022

Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century was published by Granta in November. ISBN 9781847087737

You can find out more about this book and buy it here