Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Balanchine as God and on God and religion

Martha Swope Photo, Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise

From Toni Bentley’s Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal (1982):
A lover once said to me, “If I could have even half the power over you that this Balanchine has….” Most women have two important men in their lives – their father and their lover. We have three. Mr. Balanchine is our leader, our president, our mother, our father, our friend, our guide, our mentor, our destiny.

He knows all, sees all, and controls all – all of us – most often by saying very, very little. He seems to believe in self-discovery, and at times this is hell – when one knows that he knows but will not tell. Trusting him forces us to trust ourselves…His power over us is unique. I doubt any girl has passed through the world of NYCB without feeling the deep influence of Mr. B upon her and upon the course of her life. He has our admiration. He loves us all. He adores our beauty and extends it out of all conceivable proportion in his ballets. What more could a girl ask of a man than such an appreciation?

…Trying to come to terms with his enigma only enhances it in the end. He becomes more, not less. He doesn’t seem to lack anything human, spiritual, emotional, or practical.… His life is our example. With dancing, he is direct and simple. He wants to see the steps, the movement, each movement, with all the energy that exists – now, now, now! “What are you waiting for? What are you saving for? Now is all there is.” “You must practice being happy, as you must practice everything, and you will be.” “If you rehearse sloppy, you will dance sloppy. You rehearse how you will do it.” “Just do, dear, just do it. Don’t worry, just do.”

Balanchine (born Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg in 1904) was a life-long believer; he’d sometimes refer to his dancers as “angels,” for they were messengers of the divine. Although Russian Orthodox, he would also attend Catholic services at times and light candles in churches, and the attempted assassination of John Paul II briefly sent him into a rage: “How could they try to kill the Pope? Awful! The pope is like Christ on earth! I KNOW who did it – the communists!” His grandfather, Amiran Balanchivadze, was a priest who became a monk after the death of his wife, and eventually bishop of Kutaisi (after changing his name, Amiran – Georgian for Prometheus - to the more Christian-sounding Anton). His father, Meliton Antonovich, was a composer and musician who collected Georgian folk songs and sacred hymns (he was known as the Georgian Glinka). His uncle was the Archbishop of Tbilisi, and would give the young Georgi small objects to bless. Below are a few quotes from interviews (Balanchine hated writing, and would always claim to know ‘only a few words.')

"I was probably a lot influenced by the Church, or our [Orthodox] Church, the enormous cathedrals, and by our clergy, the way they were dressed, you know; and they also have a black clergy, those important ones that become patriarchs and wear black…So that also to me was God. Not that it’s “God Invisible.” I don’t know what that is. God is this wonderful dress you see. Even now, always, I have to say I couldn’t just think of God in some abstract way, to connect with Him just by spirit, by mind. You have to be really mystic to sit down and meditate, to worm down in yourself. But I can’t do that. As they say, my work is with what I see, with moving, with making ballets. So too with God – He is real, before me. Through Christ I know how God looks, I know His face, I know His beard, and I know how He’ll talk, and I know that in the end we’ll go to God. You see, that’s how I believe, and I believe so fantastic…" (4)
"You see, I got a message. Each one of us is here to serve on this earth. And probably I was sent here to see and to hear – that’s all I can do. I can’t see something that doesn’t exist. I don’t create or invent anything, I assemble. God already made everything – colors, flowers, language – and somehow there had to be a Mother. The more you choose, the more amazing everything is. But I can’t explain what I do.” (4)

“Look at Jesus Christ Superstar: People say it’s very good, they thing they get something from it, but they get nothing from it, it’s miserable. That’s no way to find God – going to sleep, having a drink.” (3)
(In response to Taper’s question of how often he reads the Bible) “Always. Slowly. It tells you everything, the wars, the prophecies. It’s very interesting, the Bible. It’s entertaining.” (3)
[On A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962)] “When Bottom the Weaver is transformed into an ass, he says: ‘The eye of man hath no heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.’ It sounds silly, but it’s full of double and triple meanings. And I think that at moments like this, Shakespeare was a Sufi. It reminds me of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 2, 9]: ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.’ What Bottom says sounds as if the parts of the body were quarreling with each other. But it’s really as if he were somewhere in the Real World. He loses his man’s head and brain and experiences a revelation. And then what happens? Bottom wants to recite his dream, which ‘hath no bottom,’ to the Duke…but the Duke chases them away. And the really deep and important message was in that dream. At one point, when I was choreographing the ballet, I said to myself: In the last act, I’ll make a little entertainment and then a big vision of Mary standing on the moon, wrapped in the sun, with a crown of twelve stars on her head and a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns…the Revelation of St. John!...Then I thought that nobody would understand it, that people would think I was an idiot.” (4)
“For me Christmas was something extraordinary. Naturally, Christmas is no Easter. At Easter, the church bells pealed joyously throughout the night! Nothing is like Easter. But for Christmas St. Petersburg was all dark and somehow strange. It wasn’t the way it is now, with everyone shouting, running around panting as if it’s a fire instead of Christmas. Back in Petersburg there was a stillness, a waiting: Who’s being born? Christ is born! I’ve never seen a Christmas like we had in Petersburg anywhere else – not here in American nor in France. It’s hard for us old Petersburgers! I tried to get people in the Orthodox church in New York to take Christmas more solemnly, more seriously, with understanding. But nothing came of it. They get to church with their candles and it starts: ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho. Russian talk, gossip. It’s all wrong! In Petersburg they had the Christmas service at nearby St. Vladimir’s. And naturally in all the big cathedrals: at the Kazan, at St. Isaac’s. An unforgettable moment of mystery: when the candles were put out, the church was plunged into darkness, and the choir came in. They sang magnificently! In the Orthodox church, the service is a real theatrical production with processions and all that. The priests come out in pairs wearing velvet kamilavka on their heads, the deacons and altar boys in brocade vestments. And finally, chasuble glittering, the Metropolitan himself." (1)
“The Metropolitan came to their church on St. Catherine’s Day because the memory of St. Catherine the Great was revered in Russia. The liturgy made a wonderful impression on me when I was a child, too. The priests came out – all dressed opulently in gorgeous miters, looking just like saints. And the service itself is so touching and beautiful. The boys in the church choir sing so delicately, like angels. I always envied them. I wanted so badly to sing in a church choir…And then, after the revolution, when I was old enough, our school no longer had a church choir." (1)
[After hearing a description from Tchaikovsky’s letter to his brother Modest on church services: “I always come away with the impression of piety, splendor, and beauty. But unfortunately, every time the impression was marred by the extremely dragged-out nature of our service…there is much that is excessive, which lengthens the service with no need, wearying the most stubborn attention, cooling the most ardent feelings…”] “Of course, of course, it’s too long, too long! They wave and wave the censers. And read and read. And keep repeating the same things: “Let us pray unto the Lord” – “Lord have mercy” – “Let us pray unto the Lord” – “Lord have mercy.” The Easter service in the Orthodox Church is very long. We would be at St. Vladimir’s Church in Petersburg for four hours. I’d come at the very beginning with my aunt and mother, and we stood throughout the whole service on the stone floor. Four hours on a stone floor! (1)
“Tchaikovsky talks about preparing the chrism…[the rite of blessing the chrism] is a sacred mystery that recalls the Pentecost. We know that the Holy Spirit came down to the apostles, thereby creating the Church from them. Everyone who is christened is anointed by the chrism. It is a very important thing. And I can explain the plashchanitsa Tchaikovsky writes about, too. It’s also called Epiphatia, and it symbolizes the Body of Christ. It’s a cloth, velvet or of precious fabric, on which is depicted the body of Christ removed from the Cross. It is brought out from the altar into the middle of the church and set upon a pedestal covered with flowers. For us this symbolizes the removal of Christ from the Cross so that the people can worship Him. And naturally I remember the Vespers in St. Petersburg, the first day of Easter. At first everyone stands there, waiting. Then the priests come out slowly, the service begins. And then it gets merrier: the choir starts to sing, the altar attendants walk around. The choir sings, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” The Metropolitan blesses the people. In St. Vladimir’s in St. Petersburg, I remember, they opened up the altar. At Easter the opening of the altar is a miraculous event. Then the service is over, the doors of the altar are shut, and it grows dark.” (1)
“I do not see many people today who have real faith. Because it is very difficult. You must not only obey some rules, you must believe that the Son of God was born, suffered, and was resurrected. And believe that He rose to the Heavens. And will come a second time to earth. Religion is primarily faith, and people today are used to treating everything skeptically, mockingly. That cannot be. You can’t test faith.” (1)
“I’m sometimes asked, ‘How is it that you are a believer?’ You can’t come to faith suddenly, just out of the blue. You have to achieve faith from childhood, step-by-step. That’s how Tchaikovsky did it, that’s how Stravinsky did it. They read the Gospels from childhood, memorizing them. The words of the New Testament are rooted in all of us. We were all christened, anointed with miro, taken to church; we took Communion. You can’t plunge into faith, like diving into a swimming pool. You have to enter it gradually, like going into the ocean. You have to start doing it in early childhood.” (1)
“I am only a servant, that’s all. I am a waiter – for God. We are all servants of God, or destiny, whatever you wish to call it. I am not so proud, and I am not so great – I’m nothing but what He has wanted me to be. He has said to me, ‘You are going to teach and serve and make them dance,’ and I know that nothing anybody on earth could do could prevent me from doing what He wants me to do. And as soon as He says, ‘Fini. That’s enough for you,’ then I will go.” (2,3)

Quotes from:
1 Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky by Solomon Volkow (1985)
2 George Balanchine: Ballet Master (1988) by Richard Buckle & John Taras
3 Balanchine (1987) by Bernard Taper
4 Portrait of Mr. B (1984) by Ballet Society


Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

A lot of this reminds me of my June 26th, 2006 blog post. I couldn't help posting this since Balanchine was Orthodox:

At the present time," the Elder replied, "owing to our almost universal coldness to our holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and our inattention to the working of His Divine Providence in us, and to the communion of man with God, we have gone so far that, one may say, we have almost abandoned the true Christian life. The testimonies of Holy Scripture now seem strange to us, when, for instance, by the lips of Moses the Holy Spirit says: And Adam saw the Lord walking in paradise (cp. Gen. 3:10), or when we read the words of the Apostle Paul: 'We went to Achaia, and the Spirit of God went not with us; we returned to Macedonia, and the Spirit of God came with us'. More than once in other passages of Holy Scripture the appearance of God to men is mentioned.
"That is why some people say: 'These passages are incomprehensible. Is it really possible for people to see God so openly?' But there is nothing incomprehensible here. This failure to understand has come about because we have departed from the simplicity of the original Christian knowledge. Under the pretext of education, we have reached such a darkness of ignorance that what the ancients understood so clearly seems to us almost inconceivable. Even in ordinary conversation, the idea of God's appearance among men did not seem strange to them. Thus, when his friends rebuked him for blaspheming God, Job answered them: How can that be when I feel the Spirit of God in my nostrils? (cp. Job 27:3). That is, 'How can I blaspheme God when the Holy Spirit abides with me? If I had blasphemed God, the Holy Spirit would have withdrawn from me; but lo, I feel His breath in my nostrils.'
"In exactly the same way it is said of Abraham and Jacob that they saw the Lord and conversed with Him, and that Jacob even wrestled with Him. Moses and all the people with him saw God when he was granted to receive from God the tables of the law on Mount Sinai. A pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, or, in other words, the evident grace of the Holy Spirit, served as guides to the people of God in the desert. People saw God and the grace of His Holy Spirit, not in sleep or in dreams, or in the excitement of a disordered imagination, but truly and openly."

More accurate words have not been written to describe the crisis of modern thought. And this from an 18th century Russian merchant's son, St. Seraphim of Sarov, in his Conversation with Motovilov.

AG said...

Thank you for that. There is alot to be said about our skepticism, our lack of belief in grace and in beauty, in the incarnate God and our transcendence.

Once Eastertide begins, I will start a series of posts about art. It is fascinating how artistic movements have changed, what is now popular/funded art. Another Balanchine quote suffices: (in response to the question of what type of ballet he would choreograph if he were really sad) "I would take a man and woman and make the most beautiful pas de deux I could, and THEN go and kill myself."