In his book George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, Robert Gottlieb notes that esteem for Balanchine has only continued to grow since his death: “As the work of his immediate predecessors and near contemporaries — Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, et al. — seems to recede into history, Balanchine is more and more left standing alone.” Audiences today are accustomed to describing a number of Balanchine ballets as masterpieces, but the reverence hasn’t always been unanimous. While perusing Nancy Reynolds’ invaluable book Repertory in Review, I found nine negative early reviews (excerpted below) of some of Balanchine’s most beloved works.
Note: My intent isn’t to critique these critics but merely to share their points of view, since one rarely hears anything like them nowadays. I have little doubt that one day I too will dislike dances that prove to be important and influential.
Apollo (1928, New York premiere in 1937)
“Apollo never will, in all probability, be popular. For [Balanchine] it has enormous personal importance. Perhaps it should be revived from time to time, since historical milestones in the ballet are evanescent; but to ask us to admire it for its intrinsic values is another matter. It still seems a very young and dated effort.”
— John Martin, The New York Times (September 9, 1951)
Prodigal Son (1929, New York premiere in 1950)
“There are portions which are deeply touching, superb in their inventions; there are others which are appropriately and believably erotic, and there are others which must be classified as unadulterated foolishness, dramatically and kinetically. Unfortunately, the foolish or the dull passages predominate.”
— Walter Terry, New York Herald Tribune (February 24, 1950)
“The ballet seems dated. The reason has nothing to do with years, but rather with the underlying concept. It is a piece of theatrical deception. On the surface it is the very essence of lyricism. There is a little theme of youth, awakening, and unrequited love woven with the utmost delicacy through one of Balanchine’s typical music visualizations. But if you probe beneath the movement to weigh the theme and its relative importance to the ballet, you have the feeling that Balanchine takes very serious emotions and uses them as a convenient excuse for his pretty patterns. The result is cold and strangely naïve.”
— Doris Hering, Dance Magazine (January 1949)
The Four Temperaments (1940)
“It is rich and flavorful music and handsome choreography, but the two work more than a little at cross purposes. The ballet misses fire, in spite of its many brilliances of composition, chiefly because Balanchine’s choreography echoes only the form of the music and misses its texture and perhaps even its content to a degree. The music is neo-Gothic, and though Balanchine has put the danse d’école through all sorts of imaginative deviations, they all fall quite within the classic frame.”
— John Martin, The New York Times (January 7, 1959)
Concerto Barocco (1941)
“The first and third movements [of the score], with their baroque lightness and gaiety, stand the addition of movement well; but there are some doubts in the case of the Adagio, since the music is so complete that even the addition of artistry and immaculate taste seems forced.”
— Georg Zivier, Die Neue Zeitung, Germany (September 1952)
Symphony in C (1947, New York premiere in 1948)
“Balanchine has once again given us that ballet of his, this time for some inscrutable reason to the Bizet symphony. Up to the middle of the third movement, he had used virtually all of his familiar tricks, some of them charming, some of them forced, and some of them slightly foolish. One thing he can almost be guaranteed to deliver, however, is showy material for his ballerinas, and here he has certainly not failed.”
— John Martin, The New York Times (March 23, 1948)
The Nutcracker (1954)
“The work has never before been seen in New York in its entirety, and Balanchine has restored cuts that have been made in practically all the previous productions elsewhere. Even in this full form it is scarcely a full-evening ballet, but rather a generous three-quarter program. But this is quite long enough. Indeed, unless you are one of those who find delight in watching children perform, you may find it advisable to arrive at the City Center along about ten o’clock, when the adults take over.”
— John Martin, The New York Times (February 3, 1954)
“Balanchine’s choreography, built up on complex and frequently changing counts, is closer to mathematics than to art. The soloists and corps de ballet show amazing cohesion in overcoming the difficulties of the music and choreography, but the composition, addressed as it is to the mind, leaves the heart cold.”
— Rostislav Zakharov, Pravda, Russia (October 14, 1962)
“Turned out to be paste. This was disappointing in every way, as it was just three typically Balanchine opening ballets strung together to fill — well, almost to fill — an evening.”
— Craig Dodd, Dancing Times (September 1969)
All photographs by Paul Kolnik.
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