Balanchine’s Life-Affirming Life*


Jay Rogoff

   I count as one of the great privileges of my life seeing the late ballets of George Balanchine immediately after their creation for the New York City Ballet, which he co-founded with Lincoln Kirstein in 1948 and directed as ballet master until shortly before his death, in 1983. It thrills me to recall the transport of watching, for the first time, Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972), which ranges from erotic surrender to folksy exuberance; Chaconne (1976), whose Romantic ethereality evolves into an equally heavenly—and equally eccentric—neoclassical order; and Mozartiana (1981), which establishes an opposition of religious devotion and worldly participation, only to reconcile the two. Balanchine made human interior life, its love, longing, and even fulfillment, imaginatively available to dancegoers more acutely than any other choreographer, and he did it, for the most part, without resorting to the conventions of narrative ballet established in the nineteenth century. Instead, his ballets push beyond entertainment and delight to explore the innermost secrets of the human heart and psyche, an achievement that ranks him among the greatest artists. Having seen these masterworks when new lets me imagine how it must have felt to watch Cosi fan tutte or The Tempest when Mozart and Shakespeare first conjured them up.    Jennifer Homans, in her big new biography, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century, impressively documents the creative life of that century’s greatest choreographer, perhaps the greatest dance maker of all time. She shows where he came from, hereditarily (his father was a well-regarded composer), historically (he came of age during Russia’s revolutionary period and in 1933 arrived in New York, where he founded, with Lincoln Kirstein, the School of American Ballet), aesthetically (the dynamic formalism and minimalism of the Revolutionary artists had a lasting effect on his dance aesthetic), and psychologically (Balanchine’s separation from his family as a ballet student and his growing up in the theater world enabled his aesthetic genius while limiting his emotional life—ironic for the man whose dances most sublimely express the inner life of feeling).    On Balanchine’s early life, Homans owes a heavy debt to Elizabeth Kendall’s 2015 book, Balanchine and the Lost Muse, whose scrupulous research first uncovered his illegitimate birth and documented how, in poor health, he barely survived and artistically thrived during the revolutionary years in St. Petersburg, playing piano in movie houses and scraping together what little he earned to present his dances in nightclubs, living rooms, anywhere he could gather an audience to watch him and his young colleagues perform. To Kendall’s groundbreaking work Homans has added her own archival digging, as well as interviews with members of Balanchine’s family. She has relied also on diaries, correspondence, and extensive interviews with former dancers and colleagues, including the famously tight-lipped Barbara Horgan, Balanchine’s personal assistant for three decades and the executor of his estate. Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels, her excellent 2011 history of ballet, has produced as exhaustive a biography of Balanchine as we will likely see, a version of his life that addresses his complex personal contradictions while occasionally interpreting the evidence in idiosyncratic ways.    Homans sets Balanchine apart from other geniuses because of his art’s dependence on others’ bodies—especially women’s—for its realization. “He lived through his dancers,” she writes in her introductory chapter. “He was not like Mozart or Einstein or Picasso, working alone to change the way people hear or think or see. He needed dancers and a whole theatrical enterprise, but dancers above all.” But does any artistic genius work alone? Picasso invented Cubism alongside Braque, working together in the studio, fussing with each other’s canvases to such an extent that he couldn’t always tell who had painted which. Mozart, in devising his arias and ensembles, certainly weighed the vocal capabilities of a specific opera company and shaped his melodies so his Fiordiligi and Dorabella could most expressively embody them. In the same way, Shakespeare’s language demanded human voices wrapped in human hides and needed the likes of Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, and a prodigiously talented teenaged boy to bring alive, respectively, Hamlet, Falstaff, and Rosalind.    Still, as Homans insists, choreographers require people as their medium more thoroughly than other artists: we can read Shakespeare’s texts or study Mozart’s scores as incomplete versions of their works, but we cannot know the dance from the dancer. Balanchine’s “gift didn’t exist without them,” and Homans emphasizes their utility and their sexuality: “He had to have them, and he gathered them and shaped them, making his own paints and pigments from their flesh and blood, meticulously reading and sculpting their minds and bodies.” This overwritten passage, one of several that tarnish Homans’s book, perpetuates the myth of ballet master as predatory monster, violently crushing and remaking his ballerinas and callously using them to create his art.    Balanchine has been both praised and reviled for insisting “Ballet is woman,” and in recent years, especially after accusations of sexual misconduct (later dismissed) forced NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins’s resignation and ended the tenure of some of the company’s leading male dancers, Balanchine’s treatment of women has come under increased scrutiny. Homans walks a fine line between apology and condemnation, gathering evidence for what earlier biographies have missed, that in the 1930s, when he was in his thirties, Balanchine seems to have had a series of sexual affairs with his young dancers (Homans quotes Lincoln Kirstein’s unpublished diary to reveal that one, Holly Howard, “was rumored” to have had four or five abortions while dancing in Balanchine’s first US company, the American Ballet); she also reports that in the 1970s, a handful of former NYCB members became his sexual partners as well.    These were not the women he married. Rather, Balanchine fell in love with dancers beautiful and skilled enough to become his muses and inspire the creation of new ballets. The problem, as his third wife and NYCB’s great ballerina of the late 1940s and 1950s, Maria Tallchief, told Larry Kaplan for her 1997 autobiography, is that he had little patience for the emotional needs and domestic responsibilities of flesh-and-blood women. “I don’t need a housewife,” Homans quotes him as saying, “I need a nymph who fills the bedroom and walks out.” Tallchief, who describes in her book how, in the early years of their marriage, Balanchine drilled her over and over in the basics of his technique, confides that not much went on in the bedroom, either. Homans finds the pattern repeating in all of his marriages, although Orel Protopopescu’s detailed 2021 biography of his last wife, NYCB ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq—a book Homans lists in her bibliography but does not cite—rescues Balanchine from the charges of personal and artistic tyranny over Le Clercq that Homans levels against him. Homans claims that, of his wives, only Vera Zorina (the Norwegian-born Eva Brigitta Hartwig, whose Russian stage name reflected a bygone ballet convention), his wife in the late 1930s and early 1940s and star of several Broadway and Hollywood musicals Balanchine choreographed, caused him mental anguish by her departure. Homans emphasizes that she was likely the least talented dancer of his wives, implying a failure of inspiration as well as of romance and domesticity.    The greatest of his obsessions, of course, was with Suzanne Farrell, who through the 1960s resisted both his marriage proposals and, according to her autobiography, which Homans admits we have no reason to disbelieve, his sexual advances. But Homans offers a peculiar interpretation of Farrell, calling her “spoiled” and “manipulative,” and hinting she exploited her sexual reticence to tease Balanchine into making roles for her and promoting her through the company. This interpretation seems unfair, and nothing suggests that Farrell, in her late teens, was so coldly calculating. Balanchine became obsessed with her because of her ability and her potential, and he helped nurture her into, arguably, the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, a performer whose daring, sense of balance, musicality, timing, and execution have had few rivals.    That he loved women as dancers before he loved them as people makes him an unorthodox, and perhaps a mistaken target of the #MeToo movement, which, thirty and more years after his death, has charged him with sexual predation in both the ballet studio and his personal life. But Balanchine was a complicated blend of angelic visionary and flawed human, far from the typical show business predator—he was no Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump. He did not set his sights on a beautiful young woman and develop her career because of lustful design; rather, he saw her special gifts as a dancer, favored her as someone who could inspire and fulfill his choreographic visions, watched her begin to fulfill her potential as a performer, and only then pursued her romantically.    While this modus operandi absolves him of predation in the usual sense, it also seems profoundly sad that he could appreciate a woman not for her human personality, but for what she could achieve as an interpreter of his choreography. Perhaps this obsessive narrowness of his vision, of the life he lived, made him the great choreographic genius he was, while at the same time, Homans suggests, limiting his humanity to the imaginative world of dance. She cites the diary of Jacques d’Amboise, NYCB’s great male dancer of the 1950s and 1960s and a Balanchine intimate, as calling the ballet master, upon his death, “a giant of Dance who really didn’t care much for anybody,” a statement perhaps influenced by d’Amboise’s disappointment at not inheriting NYCB, despite Balanchine’s frequent hints. Homans calls this judgment “both true and not true. He did care, sometimes too much, but he drew the line at art. Which meant that in the end … his life was not them but them on the stage. Love mattered more than ballet, but not in his life, or at least not in the life he had led.”    Yet dancer after dancer has echoed former NYCB principal Heléne Alexopoulos’s statement comparing Balanchine with his successor, the brilliant dancer and accomplished choreographer Martins: “With Peter, you learn how to dance; with Balanchine you learned how to live.” Ballet meant the world to him, and he made it mean the world to his dancers. As Toni Bentley’s 2022 Serenade: A Balanchine Story, an exceptional mélange of memoir, dance history, and criticism, makes clear, Balanchine, perhaps more than any other ballet master, saw his dancers’ capabilities and nurtured them to their full potential. Had he not, they could not perform the beautiful complexities of his choreography that made his ballets so expressive. Homans confirms this from the dancers’ perspective: “they liked to say he knew them better than they knew themselves.”    The predatory Balanchine myth often cites his two mantras, “Don’t think, dear. Just do” and “Just do the steps, dear” (he called everyone “dear,” female or male), as evidence that he considered his dancers as unthinking bodies, the mere raw material of his ballets. Many NYCB members, however, have testified just the opposite: he enlisted their imaginations in his choreography and promoted to soloist and principal those dancers who most readily inferred or deduced his goals in particular ballets and understood what he was up to, choreographically and musically. Throughout NYCB’s history, dancers in effect became his collaborators, not only Farrell, with whom choreographic practice became a living workshop, but Le Clercq, Diana Adams, Violette Verdy, Allegra Kent, Edward Villella, Peter Martins, and many others. “Don’t think” he reserved for the technically capable dancers, usually corps members, who formed a necessary part of his company but lacked the intuition or intelligence to appreciate a ballet’s larger vision. The related notoriety of his insistence on thinness, leading to charges that he fostered an anorectic culture of ballerinas, also appears to have been misinterpreted by dancers and dance fans in the same way as “Don’t think.” Homans emphasizes that he “never wanted his dancers rake thin, and his chosen ballerinas were often voluptuous and womanly, even in their most slender states… . But the controlling idea of ‘seeing’ through flesh exerted a powerful and often destructive hold on their minds.”    Certainly Balanchine was a taskmaster, a benign dictator who would “shake up the dancers to make sure they were still awake,” although could any dancer really dope off while performing his choreography? Homans at one point even describes him “sticking his foot dangerously out onto the stage to make sure a dancer was alert.” This claim goes undocumented, and it’s difficult to imagine Balanchine risking injury to his company members—they were, as Homans knows, his medium. Worse, it caricatures Balanchine as a capricious puppet master who enjoyed making dancers follow his merest whim, as in the following anecdote:

One night he whispered “Do mistake waltz, dear,” to Christine Redpath just before she went on stage—referring to the hilarious “mistake waltz” in a [Jerome] Robbins ballet [The Concert] in which a dancer mixes up all her steps, creating havoc through the ranks around her. Redpath’s fellow dancers were appalled (What the hell were you doing out there?), but she just said, Mr. B told me to do it, and that was the end of that.

In this account, Balanchine sounds arbitrary, even unbalanced, and Redpath like a mesmerized chattel, unquestioningly bound to his will. But Redpath told me some years ago that this balletic lampoon unfolded at a performance of The Nutcracker on New Year’s Eve, a night on which the company traditionally played jokes on the audience, such as launching into Swan Lake in the middle of the Waltz of the Flowers. In her interviews with Homans, Redpath can’t have omitted that clarifying detail, but Homans has seen fit to. Far from imposing a ridiculous order, Balanchine gave Redpath a holiday present, enlisting her as a partner in mischief, and in turn granting the audience the gift of seeing the Waltz of the Snowflakes become the Mistake Waltz.    Carelessness mars some of Homans’s passing references to other arts. In describing architecture, for instance, she labels as “art deco” several buildings constructed decades too early, including the apartment building where Balanchine’s family lived when he was a child. The Eliseyev Emporium, a sumptuous department store constructed in 1903 on St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, is decidedly not art deco but art nouveau; neither is Staten Island’s French Renaissance-style 1906 Borough Hall, where Balanchine and Vera Zorina married in 1938, nor Tbilisi’s 1896 opera house, an orientalizing Moorish Revival affair where NYCB performed during its 1962 Soviet Union tour. She oddly cites Venice’s radically trapezoidal Piazza San Marco as the chief inspiration for Lincoln Center Plaza, whose elegantly classical proportions, with three modern theaters surrounding a pavement of concentric circles intersected by radii, clearly derive from Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome.    Homans flubs literary references as well, mistakenly identifying Ezra Pound’s affectionately derisive name for Kirstein’s journal, Hound and Horn, not as Bitch and Bugle, but, incongruously, Ditch and Bugle. And in explaining that Balanchine loosely based his lost 1952 comic insect ballet, Metamorphoses, on Kafka’s novella—a claim new to me, although it did feature Todd Bolender as a homely beetle pursuing Tanaquil Le Clercq as a diaphanously winged butterfly—Homans describes the ballet as ending “like Kafka’s story, with an exuberant dance, except that this was no intimate family circling,” making one wonder what Kafka translation she could possibly have been reading.    Surprisingly, though, Homans also commits many gaffes while discussing Balanchine ballets. Some are minor slips that an editor should have caught. Diamonds, the concluding ballet of Balanchine’s three-act Jewels, has four movements, not three, and Tricolore, a 1979 tribute to France whose choreography Balanchine delegated while recovering from a heart attack, was not “made a few years earlier” than the Anglophile Union Jack of 1976, nor could it have been created “for the French bicentennial,” celebrated six years after Balanchine’s death. More startling, however, in Balanchine’s 1954 Nutcracker, the ballet that changed American Christmas forever, she claims, “the courtship between Marie and Fritz is a sexual awakening,” a suggestion of sibling incest that appears nowhere in the ballet and would boggle even E. T. A. Hoffmann’s imagination. The courtly tweener match actually involves Marie and the Nutcracker Prince, and Marie’s awakening is less sexual than romantic: in nursing her wounded Nutcracker, she achieves an emotional maturity that enables her to help defeat the Mouse King and join her Prince in the Kingdom of Sweets.    Some of Homans’s mistakes have greater consequences. A musical error regarding the 1934 Serenade, Balanchine’s first American ballet, results in her misrepresenting the ballet’s musical, choreographic, and affective structure. At the opening of this signature work, among the most beautiful dances Balanchine created, to Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the curtain rises on seventeen women in ankle-length, Romantic tutus under blue moonlight, arranged in a double-diamond pattern with one woman participating in both diamonds. They stand with their feet unballetically in parallel, right arms raised, as if saluting the moon. In unison, they slowly lower that arm, bring it to the forehead, then over the left breast. They lower their heads and pose with both arms rounded at their sides; suddenly—flick—their feet open out into first position. They step sideways into second, then close into fifth, the tensed spring for any step the dance might demand. Balanchine’s opening architecture—“like orange groves in California,” he once said—and the swirling, continuous motion that followed it, made the corps the center of interest. For his young American dancers he had made the first democratic ballet.    Homans describes this initial sequence as unfolding to “the slow ascending notes of Tchaikovsky’s opening theme,” but the famous music actually opens with a descending figure, matching the choreography’s descent down the women’s bodies, our attention following gesture and music down to those feet, at which point, with brilliant logic, everyone can begin dancing. This emphatic, living descent prepares for its bookend, at the end of Tschaikovsky’s Elegy, the ballet’s finale, which unfolds to a simple, rising, two-octave major scale, with the choreography likewise aspiring to the infinite. One of the women has danced an intense encounter with a mysterious man, shadowed by a mysterious woman, who protects and possesses him. They slowly exit, leaving her on the ground, abandoned, we feel, not merely by him, but by Love itself. In fact, at one point during this final movement, our heroine, supine, reaches upward to the man hovering over her while his accomplice stands behind him, waving her arms to give him wings in a momentary, animated tableau of Canova’s marble Cupid and Psyche. Three men, practically invisible, lift the bereft woman vertically until she stands shoulder-high, then slowly transport her upstage to our left, where she opens her arms to embrace the cosmos. The women behind her rise on pointe and likewise open their arms, as the curtain falls. The risings in the music and Balanchine’s gestural language make Serenade’s little apotheosis as sublime as anything in dance.    Of Serenade, Homans notes, “It is often said that this opening sequence is symbolic: women becoming dancers. But in practice, it feels more like dancers becoming spirits—and witnesses to their own transformation in the dance to come.” It’s true that Balanchine made them his own American, story-less version of Giselle’s Wilis or Swan Lake’s enchanted birds, but if they are already spirits, what are we to make of the ending’s stunning enactment of death and transfiguration, one of many Balanchine would put in his ballets? Although they begin as women, the music and choreography animate them in a Michelangelo-like moment, as in Balanchine’s 1928 Apollo, when the young god and Terpsichore, his chosen muse, touch index fingers while looking away from each other.    Homans’s discussion of Apollo claims Balanchine’s 1979 revision eliminates “the first and last sections,” but it cuts only Stravinsky’s opening music, not his ending. Balanchine, she suggests, “no longer needed or liked the mimed birth and death scenes, which looked old and dated,” accurate only as far as the discarding of Apollo’s birth and infancy in the prologue. She rightly sees the revision as Balanchine’s excision of old-fashioned narrative: the final stripping away of story and all the Gesamtkunstwerk trappings that characterized Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, where Balanchine chafed at being just one cog in a complex machine. But since a god has eternal life, Apollo has no death scene but an apotheosis. In the original version, Apollo leads his three muses up a spidery staircase representing Mount Olympus and, attaining the top, summons the sunrise. Balanchine rechoreographed the finale to culminate in what had been the penultimate tableau. In profile, the muses lean against Apollo’s back, each extending a leg backward in low, middle, and high arabesque to suggest the rays of dawn: they become the sunrise. Balanchine transformed the already-spare Apollo into grand ballet for four dancers.    While Homans doesn’t always give individual ballets the space they deserve as great modernist works of art, she devotes several pages to dances she sees as landmarks. Her long, excellent chapter on Agon, the revolutionary 1957 Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration, astutely claims that the ballet made Stravinsky’s music “more complete” and “at times competed, agon-style,” with it. She offers wonderful insight into the role of the women in the ballet: “They are on pointe, but their toe shoes are not used to emphasize the ethereal and are instead made to dart into the floor, propel the body, mark time, extend the leg not up but down into the ground, weight slung low, or precariously suspended. They are instruments of mathematical precision, of logic and calculation, not of emotion or feeling.” She is also right that in addition to this emphasis on gravity that would rival the methods of any modern dance choreographer, Balanchine has made the ballet “joyful and fun,” but in the sense of Nietzsche, whose work, Homans reveals, Balanchine read. Agon is the most fun you can have in ballet without smiling. (The extent and influence of Balanchine’s literary and philosophical reading, especially Nietzsche and Spinoza, comes as a great gift of Homans’s research.)    Homans also correctly bucks the party line on The Four Temperaments, the 1946 modernist masterpiece to a Hindemith theme and variations that she sees, accurately, as inaugurating a new era for both the choreographer and the art of dance. Its entry in Balanchine’s Stories of the Great Ballets, written by Francis Mason but approved by Balanchine, acknowledges the ballet’s inspiration in the ancient theory of the humors but also claims that “the Greek and medieval notion of the temperaments was merely the point of departure for both composer and choreographer.” But Homans sees the work as “a clinical dissection of the human body… . a physical and musical portrait of extreme emotional states, bodies in a state of anxiety and pain… . The body,” as she says, “dismantled like a machine.” To see The Four Temperaments was “like watching an inner world of unstable fluids ungoverned by the bony spine of anatomical and classical form.” Recent NYCB performances by a series of extraordinary dancers have clarified how the humors provide a foundation for the movement in this way. In the Melancholic variation, brittle Anthony Huxley, cold and dry, continually attempts to rise but crumples back to the earth, looking up at something fearful about to crush him. Tiler Peck dances Sanguinic with warm, moist expressiveness, leading confidently with her hips and flashing her fierce extension when Tyler Angle carries her in low lifts. Adrian Danchig-Waring gives the most brilliant interpretation of Phlegmatic I have seen. Unlike most of his predecessors, who mechanically manipulate their pincer-like arms, he understands Phlegmatic as cold and moist, his entire performance suggesting a man weighed down by an internal ocean. His pincer-arms recall Eliot’s pair of ragged claws in silent seas, and when he reaches down, grasps his foot, and raises his leg before him, the limb’s slow upward float amazes him.    The analytical approach Homans identifies, the body as a collection of parts, emerges from The Four Temperaments’ beginning, the three-part statement of Hindemith’s theme in three brief, increasingly eccentric pas de deux. Balanchine introduces a vocabulary of non-balletic gestures: supported bent-knee pirouettes that flex more radically with each iteration; right-angled “Egyptian” arms that alternatingly flip up and down; men manipulating women so their hips thrust out and in; the women supported in sexually suggestive, mechanical-looking splits upon the men’s thighs. These and other anti-classical motifs exude a startling, gawky beauty and establish The Four Temperaments as a ballet about difficulty—the difficulty of inhabiting a human body that must function in a material world. Variations on the motifs ripple through the ballet, returning in full force in the fugal finale, all twenty-four dancers reprising them in different combinations, resulting in a hypnotic, grimly mechanical vision. Suddenly the music shifts from minor to major, and the dancers, each reaching out an arm, line up in horizontal alleys, along which the men race with their partners in low lifts, lofting and catching the women as the curtain falls. Our physical existence does not damn us to determinacy, the ballet tells us. We can aspire, we can achieve, and we have ballets like this to help us. As Homans writes, “External form could even harmonize a fractured inner life… . It didn’t erase a person’s faults or dull her anxieties, but it did hold out the promise of a more ordered soul.”    Homans ends Mr. B with a moving, detailed description of Adagio Lamentoso, a ritualistic pageant devoid of balletic vocabulary and populated by angels with towering wings. Its only performance ended the 1981 Tschaikovsky Festival, and she sees this elegy for Tschaikovsky as Balanchine’s final vision of his own death. Focusing on his many stagings of his demise, however, gives the book’s narrative arc a slightly misleading culmination, since Balanchine, in his late ballets, loved life as much as he was obsessed with death. Adagio ended with a young boy blowing out a candle, leaving the New York State Theater in absolute blackness (even the Exit lights were covered). The ballet Homans discusses most intensively before this moving finale—the work that gets her last word—is Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertanze, from 1980, a sublime work for four couples. In describing its ending, which alludes to but in no way dramatizes the madness and death of Schumann and the final grief and isolation of his wife, Clara, Homans calls it an enactment of Balanchine’s “most constant theme: the thin line, like the membrane of an eye, separating visible from invisible, life from death, here from there,” and suggests that, especially as his health failed and his death approached, his choreography increasingly consisted of such denouements.    But in moving from tragic Schumann to the tragic catastrophe of the Tschaikovsky Adagio, Homans’s conflation of life and theater leads her to skimp another 1981 ballet, Mozartiana, which opened the Tschaikovsky Festival and stands as Balanchine’s last great vision of love and community. With her emphasis on how Balanchine’s mortality inspired his last ballets, she neglects this life-affirming masterpiece, which, after praising its opening movement, La Preghiera, she calls “fragmented and fitful.” (She also wrongly calls it “a restaging of his 1933 Mozartiana,” an entirely different ballet to the same Tschaikovsky score.) Mozartiana demonstrates that even near the end, death was not the only thing on Balanchine’s mind.    For Mozartiana Balanchine used Tschaikovsky’s Fourth Suite for Orchestra, based on Mozart themes, but as with a number of his other ballets, like Serenade, he changed the movements’ order. Instead of the carefree Gigue, the ballet begins with the suite’s third movement, Preghiera, or Prayer. In its iconic image the ballerina, accompanied by four young girls, twice strides slowly downstage on a diagonal like the penitent Magdalene, plaintively extending her hands outward and skyward, pressed palm to palm. Next, the Gigue could not be more secular, a virtuoso male solo, crammed with leaps, entrechats, and fast and fancy footwork, that finally smooths out and relinquishes virtuosity, as though the jester in a narrative ballet suddenly realized that the only story is the great tale of our lives. The ballet offers the challenge of integrating private faith with public joy.    After the politely exuberant Menuet for four women, the last movement’s theme and variations does just that. In this extended pas de deux for the ballerina and her cavalier, virtuosity comes roaring back, expressing the delights a harmonious society—or ballet company—can nourish. A thrilling set of alternating solo variations keeps building, the cavalier scissoring in swift, precise entrechats, the ballerina kicking her palm, thrust high overhead, or anatomizing the whipping turn called the fouetté, starting luxuriously slowly, then rapidly accelerating. At last they partner up for the long final variation, led by the solo violin, a series of extraordinary lifts, partnered leaps, turns, and entwinings, virtuosity with its secrets laid bare. The variation ultimately sweeps us into a daring vision of mature sexuality—“the lineaments of gratified desire,” as Blake wrote—when, in its closing moments, the ballerina stands behind her partner, drapes herself in a backbend over his outstretched arms, and, her head upside down, looks out at us in satisfied consummation.    Mozartiana’s brief finale brings the whole cast on stage for the first time—four girls, four women, the Gigue soloist, and the lead couple—and ends with a festive unison dance that expresses the harmony made possible when our integrated selves join in defining our nature. Just as much as the running lifts that end The Four Temperaments, Mozartiana, Balanchine’s final masterpiece, affirms life in a ballet that pays tribute to the potential and satisfactions of being human. Through dancing bodies, we glimpse the eternal in his final celebration of what he believed in fervently—the great I Am.

* Review of Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century (New York: Random House, 2022).