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But the ballet staggered on, saved by the fact that Anatoly Lunacharsky, a playwright and novelist who became Commissar of Education, was a ballet fan.* The starveling staff of dancers danced for their Soviet suppers in the same old, Czar-favored style. But when the chance came to take a small troupe on a tour of Germany, Dancer George Balanchine, then 20, leaped at it.
Balanchine well remembers the Baltic steamer ride from Russia. Many passengers were seasick, and the hungry dancers, who included Tamara Geva and Alexandra Danilova, had plenty of food for the first time in years. "I think maybe we were seasick too," says Balanchine, "but we ate anyway." The ballet world remembers the trip because it was part of ballet's great westward movement. Like many other Russian tourists in those days, Balanchine & Co. finally got a telegram: return at once or be punished. Says Balanchine: "If we went back, we would be punished anyhowno food." He never went back.
Westward Eyes. After a summer of trouping. Balanchine managed to crack the big time. In Paris he got an audition with Impresario Sergei Diaghilev, also an emigre, who hired the troupe on the spot.
Balanchine was a good dancer, but his build was slight for a top danseur noble.
Moreover, says Balanchine now, pushing up his nose with a forefinger and displaying his teeth, "I looked in the mirror.
Some people say it was not true, but I looked like a rat." Under Diaghilev he found himself as a choreographer.
The company had drawn on the talents of such famed members as Michel (Petroushka) Fokine, Vaslav (Afternoon of a Faun) Nijinsky, Leonide (Boutique Fantasque) Massine, Bronislava (Les Noces) Nijinska. For the most part, in their choreography, they had developed luxuriant numbers flush with gestures, elaborate costumes and scenery. With Diaghilev's blessing. Balanchine launched a one-man revolution of the right: he went back to severe, classic principles. Instead of involved, fairy-tale plots, he shaved his storylines down to wisps of familiar, ancient legends. Thus began his continuing battle to reduce ballet to its fundamentals: the dance itself.
In 1929, four years after Balanchine had gone to work with Diaghilev, the master died, and his company, based on no school of its own and without a guiding hand, dissolved almost as if it had never been.* For a while Balanchine wandered, picking up odd jobs in London variety shows ("16 Delightful Balanchine Girls"), staging half a dozen ballets for the crack Danish Royal Ballet, having a whirl at running his own company (called Les Ballets 1933}. But nothing quite worked out as he wanted it to, and he turned his eyes westward again. "I really wanted to go to America," he says. "I'd seen the movies. So many beautiful girls.
Healthy girlsgood food, probably. A country that had all those beautiful girls would be a good place for ballet." At that crucial point, he met a young American named Lincoln Kirstein who had exactly the same idea.