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Wesleyan University Press<a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0819568074/themoscowtimes">In Balanchine's Company: A Dancer's Memoir</a><br>By Barbara Milberg Fisher<br>Wesleyan University Press<br>230 pages. $24.95
Nearly a quarter of a century after George Balanchine's death, at the age of 79, his ballets are still being danced -- beautifully -- around the world, and he remains a subject of intense interest for biographers, critics, scholars, fans and the individuals who knew him, as well as for audiences. The remarkable thing is that culture worldwide has moved far away from the aesthetics and taste that Balanchine and the composer Igor Stravinsky, his closest collaborator, represented. Their commitment to the impersonal nature of classical art, their wedding of beauty with logical surprise, their obsession with craft, their appreciation of 19th-century Romantic artists as well as those from the Baroque and Modernist periods, their view of theatrical dancing and its music as a civilized entertainment for audiences of adults and school-age children, their spooky humor and severe wit, their almost mystical adherence to the sacred, their allegiance to the idea that art speaks for itself without elaborate explanation or other literary scaffolding -- how very remote all this seems from contemporary theatrical practices, both in the West and in Russia, where Balanchine and Stravinsky were born, reared and trained nearly a century ago.

Predictably, during their lifetimes their success individually and together provoked envy and resentment, and the polarization continues between their fans and detractors. These two brilliant, prolific, charismatic and long-lived artists provide huge targets, and the stream of memoirs, critical retrospectives and arguments that focus on them is not likely to run dry soon.

Still, from the shelves of books in English on Balanchine, alone, my choice as an introduction for someone who knows little about him and wants to learn what he was "really like" is Barbara Milberg Fisher's modest yet piercing remembrance, "In Balanchine's Company." Fisher -- a child of Russian-Jewish parents who were born in Ukraine and came to New York before World War I -- grew up in Brooklyn, where she studied both classical piano and ballet, and read voraciously. During the 1940s, she attended the School of American Ballet, co-founded by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein and staffed mostly with stars who had trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg or who had danced with the ballerina Anna Pavlova or Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

In 1946, Balanchine took the 14-year-old Barbara Milberg into Ballet Society, the immediate predecessor of the New York City Ballet, and the next year she became a charter member of NYCB when it made its debut at the City Center of Music and Drama, in Manhattan. She danced with the company for 10 years, performing corps de ballet and soloist parts in ballets by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Frederick Ashton and others, and she also choreographed a little bit, with Balanchine's encouragement. Among the high points of her NYCB career was her participation as a showcased member of the original cast of "Agon," Balanchine's 1957 landmark collaboration with Stravinsky; it was the last ballet she performed with NYCB. In 1958, she married a young arts enthusiast and accepted Robbins' invitation to join his own new company, Ballets: USA, with which she danced throughout Europe and, at the invitation of Jacqueline Kennedy, for President John F. Kennedy in the White House. Her last performance as a dancer was at the 1962 Madison Square Garden birthday gala for the president, now famous for Marilyn Monroe's rendition of "Happy Birthday." Fisher, the mother of three children, then followed her lifelong love of reading and enrolled as an undergraduate at City College, going on to earn her Ph.D. in English with a specialization in the 17th century. She joined the City College faculty, published a well-received study of the poet Wallace Stevens and another on pure mathematics in literature, and is now a professor emeritus, living in New York.


Martha Swope
Milberg (right) rehearses "Agon" in front of Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky in 1957.
"In Balanchine's Company," which enjoys a lovely and affectionate foreword by the dance critic Arlene Croce, who has been researching and writing her own Balanchine book for the past quarter of a century, fills in this personal material with offhand elegance and charm; in its last chapter, it also offers a lyrical analogy between Balanchine's art and that of William Shakespeare's Prospero, from "The Tempest." However, the book's unstinting focus is the author's experience of working with Balanchine during that crucial first decade of NYCB and, during those fertile and highly experimental yet also financially unstable and audience-building years, of meeting him for coffee, hosting him and his wife Tanaquil Le Clercq for dinner, and -- amazingly -- giving him unsolicited advice about how to deal with the dancers (which, alas for everyone involved, he took). Milberg danced for him when, among classical ballets such as "Scotch Symphony" and "abstract" ballet-poems such as the unsettling "Ivesiana," he was also turning out new works with actual libretti or story-like elements and reviving others: "The Firebird," "Prodigal Son," "Orpheus," "The Nutcracker," "Opus 34." She was among the first group of NYCB dancers to take Balanchine's intensive and unconventional daily-company class, and she belongs to the era when NYCB dancers had to struggle to obtain a sufficient number of pointe shoes and company management had to struggle to pay for costumes and decor -- although the dancers were always paid on time.

Precisely because Fisher was not one of Balanchine's muses, or even a principal dancer (whose responsibilities would have caused her to be blinkered to aspects of the company at large), she was at the perfect distance to observe the man at his times of stress and devilry. These she reports without apology, hostility or defensiveness, along with snapshots of Balanchine's apparently Olympian calm at moments when, as she discovered later, he was, in fact, extremely upset. She has the musicianship to render a vivid and exact picture of a rehearsal for "Agon." And she enjoys the necessary emotional detachment to speak honestly of Balanchine's arguments in the studio with Stravinsky, of an episode in which he exhibited direct anger at the dancers, of his boyish -- and somewhat reckless -- infatuation with Vespas, of his Machiavellian efforts to embarrass Kirstein, and of his willingness to take the company to the Barcelona of Franco's Spain because the raked stage of the opera house there would season them for the raked stage of the Paris Opera, where he was desperate for NYCB to make a good impression.

Fisher is not, by profession, a dance historian, and she makes a few factual errors about dance history that she did not herself experience. (Ballet Theatre never had a full-length "Sleeping Beauty" in repertory during the 1940s. Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" was not based directly on the biblical parable but rather on a short story by Alexander Pushkin that referred to it. Stravinsky's "Firebird" score as staged by Balanchine in 1949 had indeed been changed from the score that Diaghilev produced.) Her efforts to link Balanchine's art to that of great poets from the canon of English literature are also a little sketchy. Even so, she warmly and consistently animates the choreographer as a human being and a creative force, and she does so in the context of a profound love for his imagination and a sense of great privilege for having known him.

Mindy Aloff is the author of "Dance Anecdotes."

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