It’s not enough to pay homage to your mom on Mother’s Day. You’ve got to honor thy mother (as one command, said to come from on high, puts it)—giving her the respect, love, and attention she’s due—on a daily basis. The same goes for George Balanchine. This season marks the 100th anniversary of the master choreographer’s birth, and the dance world is rushing around commemorating it with productions of the ballets, exhibitions in multiple media, symposiums, lecture-demonstrations, and so on. Some of the activity will be wonderful. Some of it, inevitably, will be mediocre or, worse, merely bandwagon behavior.
The most important thing is the performance of the ballets, and we’re about to see what the New York City Ballet, heir-in-chief to the Balanchine legacy, can do with that, as it launches a Balanchine-heavy season. Its record in the 20 years since the choreographer’s death does not provide a sanguine forecast. The rival contenders already apparent are Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet—both of which are only glimpsed in the New York area, still America’s dance capital and Balanchine’s adopted home.
Performance, of course, is tragically ephemeral. Among the non-performance tributes, the ones with the most lasting value may be the archival ones, notably the George Balanchine Foundation’s Video Archives. In a pair of programs supervised by Nancy Reynolds, segments of valuable choreography are retrieved from oblivion by the dancers on whom the material was created, and veteran dancers honed by Mr. B coach the rising generation in roles they originated. The results of these projects enjoy ongoing life in videotapes available at research libraries. A live taste of the undertaking is slated for three programs in the Works & Process series at the Guggenheim Museum.
Meanwhile, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has mounted “The Enduring Legacy of George Balanchine,” an exhibition commemorating the choreographer’s career in America. Taken singly, its raw materials might seem pathetic—old sheets of paper imprinted with text and images, pieces of cloth constructed into costumes that now have no bodies to set them in motion. Such random souvenirs of glorious happenings are marshaled here into a simple, intelligent, mercifully ungaudy whole. It provides a resonant echo of Balanchine’s achievement and, obliquely, honors the devoted colleagues, from mastermind Lincoln Kirstein to the School of American Ballet’s children, who made it possible. My favorite items in the show are the photos that capture Balanchine dancing. Demonstrating for his acolytes, he becomes a veritable Astaire of contrapposto, then a wounded, faltering tilter at windmills; with fellow choreographer Jerome Robbins, he executes a spontaneous dos à dos. Among the Balanchine utterances writ large on the walls is this: “I don’t have a past. I have a continuous present.” Let’s hope so.
The George Balanchine Foundation provides a complete, continually updated list of the Centennial doings at www.balanchine.org/05/archive/2003cent.html.