Balanchine's Ballerinas: Conversations With the Muses, by Robert Tracy with Sharon DeLano. New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster. 192 pp. $24.95. In response to a question about his private life, the late George Balanchine once told biographer Bernard Taper, "It's all in the programs."
And, in a sense, the story of Balanchine is indeed retold whenever his ballets are performed by his own company, the New York City Ballet (NYCB), or other companies throughout the world.
From the 1928 Ballets Russes premiere of his "Apollo" (then "Apollon Musagete") to his last works for the 1982 Stravinsky Festival at NYCB, his dances remain a living chronicle intertwined with his life.
"Apollo" retells in pure dance the myth of the Greek god who was inspired by the muses.Balanchine, like Apollo, found his inspiration in his dancing muses -- the ballerinas for whom he created his works. The choreographer saw little separation between art and life, and his ballerinas often became his wives or lovers.
Robert Tracy has given us a compendium of 19 interviews, "Balanchine's Ballerinas: Conversations with the Muses," augmented by photographic portraits by Shonna Valeska and other illustrations.
The book amounts to a gossipy chronology that often reveals more about the speakers than about Balanchine himself.
Nearly all of the women from his career are represented, including two of his four wives -- Tamara Geva and Maria Tallchief (Vera Zorina and Tanaguil Le Clercq weren't included); plus Alexandra Danilova (with whom he and Geva left Russia) and Suzanne Farrell (whom dance critic Arlene Croce called "probably the most important dancer who ever entered Balanchine's life").
The backstage rivalries were ferocious, as was the vying for Balanchine's attention. Tamara Toumanova, one of the "baby ballerinas" of Ballets Russes fame in the 1930s, remarks cryptically about her relationships with her dancing colleagues, "I was friends with those who wanted to be friends."
Later in Tracy's book (and Balanchine's life), Suzanne Farrell comments on her return to the New York City Ballet after a six-year absence, "Those who were happy were happy and those who weren't weren't."
Throughout the book, the realities of life as a ballerina are exposed -- the sacrifices, hard work, and punishments for not giving up everything for their art.
Balanchine's feelings on marriage for his dancers are well known. He felt family life inevitably took the ballerinas away from dancing.
Of his own wives, however, he said: "These women I married -- they were all muses. They married Apollo, who inspired them to make something of themselves. And they did."
Despite the significance of the ballerinas' contributions to Balanchine's art; as recorded in Tracy's book, perhaps the last word should be Balanchine's:
"Apollo only becomes interesting when the dancing starts -- that's what it's about . . . that's what all my ballets are about! Dancing isn't about anything except dancing -- everything else is boring."