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Mr B Jennifer Homans

The story of a showman

The dancer and choreographer George Balanchine – known to his dancers as “Mr B” – saw himself as “a musician and theatre man”, a showman who had worked in opera houses and touring troupes, from the Russian czar’s Mariinsky Theater of his youth to the Paris Opera, Broadway theatres, Hollywood movies, and his own New York City Ballet, founded in 1948, which had more than a hundred dancers at his death in 1983.

He described himself as “a cloud in trousers” (after Mayakovsky’s poem) and dancers often referred to him as “the breath”, meaning spirit. For Balanchine was split between physicality (trousers) and spirit: he was sensual, a lover of fine wine and beautiful women, especially his young dancers, whom he nurtured (“he gathered and shaped them, making his own paints and pigments from their flesh and blood”) and with whom he often fell in love. According to Balanchine, “everything a man does, he does for his ideal woman.” But there was also a profound inwardness to Balanchine that made him strangely detached from the world, “like an angel who knows everything but feels nothing”.

Georgi Balanchivadze was born in St Petersburg in 1904. He was accepted into the Imperial Theater School at the age of 9. The ballet teachers liked his “slight physique, straight posture and calm exterior”. His older sister was rejected the same day. As a child, he experienced cold and starvation in revolutionary Russia: “the fear of gnawing hunger and acrid smell of dead bodies piled in the streets in those early years never really left him”. But as Jennifer Homans points out in her Baillie Gifford prize shortlisted book, the revolution that ruined his childhood also provided the source of his genius.

He fled Russia in 1924, going first to Weimar Germany (“he had a knack for swallowing dying civilizations whole and getting out”), then Paris, where he worked with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe. In 1933, he went to America where he created “a music-filled monument to faith and unreason, to body and beauty. It was his own counterrevolutionary world of the spirit.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Balanchine returned to the Soviet Union with the New York City Ballet. When a prominent Moscow critic told Balanchine he had no soul, “he sharply retorted that since Soviet critics didn’t believe in God, they couldn’t know about the soul”.

Homans trained at Balanchine’s New York ballet school, where she watched him rehearse and took classes with him. She has also performed in his ballets and attended Balanchine’s funeral at New York’s Russian Orthodox church. She spent a decade writing this magisterial biography, an experience she describes as “the greatest adventure and challenge of my professional life”.

It is a suitably weighty tome (more than 700 pages), but it is brilliantly crafted and a pleasure to read. Indeed, her accounts of his “beautiful, glamorous, glorious, strange, outrageous, at times grotesque” dances are both illuminating and deeply moving. This remarkable study takes us into the mind of one of the great creative forces of the 20th century and in Homan’s hands his life-story becomes a heartfelt celebration of the power of modern dance.

£14.95 (RRP £16.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Source: theguardian.com