A Surfeit of Swans

Peter Martins Revamps a Classic

The stunning show fills six galleries and dates from the background years to the day before yesterday. There are big, eye-catching objects like costumes and posters and handsome 8x10 photographs. Videos play. But much of my delight is prompted by smaller objects, like a 1933 cable to NYCB founder Lincoln Kirstein confirming Balanchine's trip to America, Balan chine's 1943 draft card, a program for the Ballet Society's 1946 debut at the Central High School of Needle Trades, curly doodles in a Balanchine appointment calendar, snapshots of dancers at play taken by ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, and a pic of LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, and Melissa Hayden on their return from a 1955 tour, showing a little cheesecake on an airport runway for an Associated Press cameraman. There's also a charming Hirschfeld caricature of a bearded Jerome Rob bins assuming a classical stance.

The book is anything but a run-of-the-mill appreciation. Musicologist Charles M. Joseph's essay, "The Making of Agon," is almost reason enough to buy it. Joseph documents Stravinsky's sources for the score and the fascinating back-and-forth between the composer and Kirstein. Sally Banes takes a provocative position in "Sibling Rivalry: The New York City Ballet and Modern Dance"—making every possible connection, including the "constructivist effects" and expressionist grotesqueries in Prodigal Son and the "American" themes that, during the '30s, attracted Kirstein as well as Graham, Humphrey, and Tamiris; she even suggests, daringly, that Cunningham's 1947 The Seasons (for Ballet Society) may have influenced Balanchine to adopt practice clothes for costumes. Thomas Bender's essay links the NYCB, via Kirstein, with the circle of New York intellectuals, such as those who gravitated to Muriel Draper's salon in the '20s, and Garafola's masterful introduction situates the company in the political and social climates that paralleled its development. (Opposite a picture of groundbreaking ceremonies at Lincoln Center is one of local residents protesting the razing of their homes.) I disagree with some of Garafola's emphases—like her characterization of The Four Temperaments, Agon, and Episodes as "anguished and sexually charged" in keeping with postwar anxiety. But such statements scarcely detract from her accomplishment.

There's an abundance of elegantly reproduced illustrations. An essay by Jonathan Weinberg on the ballet photographs of George Platt Lynes includes many of his glowing pictures; some look as if they'd been shot through veils, and a few have an erotic sheen. A portfolio of shots of Robbins is followed by a bonus: a complete chronology of his works for NYCB.

Benjamin Bowman and junior jesters from the School of American Ballet brighten NYCB’s new Swan Lake.
Paul Kolnik
Benjamin Bowman and junior jesters from the School of American Ballet brighten NYCB’s new Swan Lake.

What a birthday party!

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