Ballet maestro George Balanchine

Balletmaster - Moira Shearer

A few months ago, Miami City Ballet came to my home city, Vancouver, with an all-Balanchine evening. Good ballet troupes don’t often visit Vancouver, so of course, I went. It was a magical performance. It was also the first time I’ve seen Balanchine’s ballets alive on stage. I fell in love.

I’m not the only Balanchine’s fan. George Balanchine, the choreographer, was an era in the world ballet. He was one of the first to introduce abstract ballet to European and American public. His unique, cool and brilliant style enchanted or repulsed the ballet-loving audience all over the world, but nobody was left indifferent. His musicality was legendary. And his personality was huge, not easy to deal with. He was a genius.

After the performance, I came home and took this book off my shelf. I wanted to read it. It has a subtitle: A Dancer’s View of George Balanchine. The author was a ballerina herself, although most readers would probably recognize her name from the old movie The Red Shoes.

Shearer’s book is a biography of George Balanchine, one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, written from a dancer’s point of view. You won’t find a deep analysis here, but you’ll find most of Balanchine’s ballets, his collaborators, and the turbulent events of his life.

He was born in Russia in 1904. He matured with the 20th century. The Russian revolution found him a student of the St. Petersburg Ballet School. During the first years after the revolution, the young Mariinsy Theatre dancer performed and choreographed as much as he could. The trend continued after he left Russia.

He worked in Europe, and later in America, and always hungry for new jobs, he would stage dances for ballets and operas, music hall and drama, movie and circus. Once, he choreographed a show for a bunch of dancing elephants in tutus. Whatever the job was, he would take it.

He created a new ballet style, but his life, like any trailblazer’s, wasn’t easy or simple. Shearer peppers her book with the names of dancers, artists, composers, and impresarios who came into Balanchine’s sphere, worked with him or for him, loved him or hated him. For the readers unconnected with the theatre world, such writing wouldn’t be very interesting. For me – it was fascinating, especially the first Russian period in Balanchine’s life.

I became a ballet fan when I was in university in Moscow. I never danced myself but I went to as many ballets as I could afford, and I read books about ballet. Every name Shearer mentions in her book was familiar to me, like a snippet of gossip about an old acquaintance. I inhaled those stories.

I know less about the European ballet history, so the later period of Balanchine’s life contained more names I didn’t know, and as a result was a bit drab.

On the whole, if you don’t like ballet or are not interested in it, don’t read this book. It would bore you to tears. If you do like ballet, it would be an engaging read, teeming with names of most famous theatrical people of the 20th century, with tons of little facts and quirky speculations. An absolute must for every ballet fan.