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January 24, 2023 38 mins

PART TWO - "I would experiment a little. I would go to the theater, and the lights would go down, and I would say, 'Okay, I'm going to give you my mood. I'm going to give you all these troubles, and you do something with it,' said I to the stage. And then I would walk out, and I felt like somebody had rinsed me."

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
When Elizabeth Kendall was in her early twenties, she didn't
think there would be anything for her in a balancing ballet.
And I thought it would be old fashioned because it
was ballet in the ballet in my childhood was old fashioned.
So I resisted going to the New York City Ballet
for quite some time, a sort of a decent amount
of time. It was the nineteen seventies. Elizabeth was a

(00:24):
dance writer in New York. She was young, ballet was old.
She loved postmodern, avant garde dance. She believed art should
be challenging, angry, Even good art questioned what came before
it exposed hypocrisy. She hadn't been in New York long,
and she was still finding her way as a writer

(00:45):
and as a person. She was trying to move past
a family tragedy. Her mother had recently died in a
car accident. I was the driver of the car that
killed my mother. There so a lot of stuff to bear,
a lot of healing that had to go on. But
I think a healthy psyche hills itself by numbing as

(01:08):
self as much as possible. Now, two years later, she
was in New York writing about dance another critic told
her she had to see balancing, so she finally dragged
herself to the New York State Theater to see Balancing's
Raimonda variations. Elizabeth had a press seat and a perfect view.

(01:41):
The lights went down and the music began. M h
and I just remember a unique kind of orchestral sound,
harps and flutes and strings mingling its so it sounds
a little like Heaven might sound. At first glance, it

(02:11):
was classic traditional ballet, a man and a woman dancing
a pot of da many women on point wearing pink
and blue tuttoos that flounced like clouds as they moved.
But what I saw on the stage wasn't anything like
the ballet from my young childhood. This wasn't about old manners.

(02:34):
There were these people jumping and leaping and whirling around
in formation that animated the stage as a sort of
magic box that manufactured volume and excitement. The music and
the ballet steps gloamed together to make us fear in

(02:56):
which everything was alive, and the effect it was of
three D music, music that surrounded you and you were
inside it. And I remember very distinctly feeling in the
audience this is a party, and I'm a guest. I've

(03:21):
been invited, and for some reason that thought was terribly
moving and terribly inclusive, and the thing came over me.
This is a gift, this is joy, this is celebration.
I suddenly realized not only that this was worth returning

(03:42):
to again and again because something had reached me in
the soul, but it also let me know that art
did not have to be stern and challenging. Art could
be something that was purely nourishing and purely exhilarating, that
was ecstatic and tragic at the same time. After that night,

(04:08):
Elizabeth started going to balancing ballets a lot, but I
would go back and I would experiment a little. I
would go to the theater and the lights would go down,
and I would say, Okay, I'm going to give you
my mood. I'm going to give you all these troubles
and you do something with it, said I to the stage,

(04:29):
and then I would walk out and I felt like
somebody had rinsed me. That sounds suspiciously like baptism talk,
but it's all to say that I was, in fact
receiving something that I deeply needed, and I hadn't known
what form I needed it in some kind of a ceremony,
some kind of a ritual, kind of healing from my

(05:01):
heart podcasts and Rocco Punch. This is the Turning Room
of Mirrors America Lance Part two, Ritual Healing. Balancing was

(05:25):
not a guy who put on airs. So when I
began to see the New York City Ballet, I would
sometimes run into Balancing at a fruit stand on the
street in the Upper West Side where he lived, and
I would like to give a little bow, and he
would give an exaggeratedly courteous bow because he was a

(05:45):
admirer of women. That was the extent of their interaction
until she was on assignment for the Ford Foundation. She
got the chance to interview him one on one. And
I dressed up to look nice, and there I was
presenting myself at his office at the New York State Theater,

(06:09):
and he was very courtly. He was casually but beautifully dressed,
a gentleman, and you could see that he moved well.
He was light on his feet. Elizabeth sat down with
Balancing in his office. He was interested in just having
a young, attractively dressed, bursting with nerves and vitality, person

(06:32):
of the female presentation in front of him, and he
just talked. And the first thing he said was, so,
what we have to talk about is boring, yes, And
I said, oh, Mr Balanchin, I agree, it's going to
be boring. And I don't really want to even take
your time. I don't need this interview horribly, and I
can leave. And he said, no, no, no, He said,

(06:53):
we do interview and then we talk. He really thought
about questions and answered I'd gotten to the end. I said, okay,
that's the last question. And he said, do you know
what I did in the revolution? And I said no, no,
I don't. And he said what I did to eat?

(07:14):
He said, I sewed saddles and he showed me the
sewing gestures. He sewed leather saddles together for horses. Balancine

(07:37):
started to tell Elizabeth the story of his life. He
told a tale that felt like folklore from a place
and time far from the man sitting with her in
his office in New York. In. This encounter would launch
Elizabeth down a path of deep exploration into Balancine's life.
She learned to write fluently in Russian and travel to St.

(07:59):
Pete Ersburg to piece together a picture of How this
man came to popularize ballet in America. How he created
work that would so deeply move her in a theater
in New York that it helped her heal after trauma.
This is that story. Balancine was born in nineteen o four.

(08:25):
His name was Georgie Meltanovich Balancavazza. Georgie lived in St. Petersburg, Russia.
From the beginning, he was steeped in music. His mom
played piano, his dad was a Georgian opera singer and composer.
But they had limited resources. Then the extraordinary event happened

(08:45):
that they won a lot of money, a fortune in
a lottery. Or that's the story. It can't exactly reproved.
Balancine's family rose to a sort of merchant skilled class,
one that required a certain level of wealth. So Balancin's
childhood was privileged. She had a nanny, and then the father,

(09:05):
who didn't have any idea what to do with all
this money, lost it all because he listened to people.
He gave him bad advice, and which meant that the
Balancians gave up their city apartment and had no more money.
They moved to the forests of Finland, and they settled
in a dacha or a summer house. They started to
live in the summer house year round, even through the

(09:26):
harsh winters. In this remote area. Balancin's mother worried about
her kids education. That's when she thought of the Imperial
Theater School, which included the Czar School of Ballet. It
would be a chance that a free education. The Imperial
Theater School was directly managed as part of the Tsar's household,
and the students had some contact with the rural family,

(09:51):
you know, with teas, and they would sometimes visit backstage
or whatever. At the time, being a ballerina often meant
more than just being a dance. Ballet was a very
strange beast in Imperial St. Petersburg because it was both
an art form and an erotic market for the grandees
and the nobles who attended the show and would pick

(10:13):
out their mistresses from the dancers on the stage. St. Petersburg,
in terms of its social organization, was much like Paris,

(10:34):
so it had a demi monde, which in Russian is
called half existence are half light, which means that a
wealthy man or a nobleman well born might have two households,
two lives, two sets of restaurants, two sets of clothing,

(10:54):
two banks. It was accepted to have another shadow wife.
Being a shadow wife could give a dancer status or
financial security. So Balancin's mother wanted her eldest daughter to
become a ballet star. It's funny to think of a
mother wanting her daughter to enter into this illicit other world.

(11:16):
But this world offered its own rewards. To enter this world,
dancer started training as children. Balancie's sister went into audition,
and Balancine tagged along. When they got there, though, he

(11:37):
was pulled into the audition process, and something about him
stood out to the judges. When he was walking in
a line of boys, a judge singled him out and
had him walk alone. The sister did not get accepted
into the school, but balancing did. He was only nine
years old, which was very confusing, no doubt for a

(11:58):
nine year old, because he knew how much his older
sister wanted the post and he got it, and he
didn't want it at all. He hated dancing, and just
like that, George Balancine was dropped into the world of ballet.
His mother dealing with her own disappointment about the daughter,

(12:19):
and the daughter's disappointment left him there because it was
a week before the school year started and he didn't
expect to be left, and I think that marked his
entire life. Balancane wasn't happy. He even ran away to

(12:46):
his aunt's house during his first weeks at the boarding school,
but he was returned to the school and all the
intensity that their ballet training required. The students woke early
every morning to the sound of a bell. They were
rushed out of bed. They didn't even take the time
to make their beds. That was left for the servants.

(13:09):
They'd have a quick wash and cold water, put on
their uniforms, and add another bell. Line up for inspection.
They never went out except for one hour a day.
They walked around the block. They took the walk in
two lines. There one chance to see the outside world.

(13:30):
From ten to eleven thirty, Balanciine started the day with
ballet class. Boys and girls were separated, boys on the
higher floor in front of a long wall of mirrors
opposite the bar. Balanciin said he spent a year learning
how the foot touches the floor after a jump like
a bird landing. He said After his spaty lunch, students

(13:52):
did their academic study, then dinner, followed by evening classes
ballroom dance, pantomime, posture, and fencing for the older boys,
and then after that they take music lessons. The students
could pick violin or piano. Balancine show's piano. With all

(14:13):
this work and skill building, Balancine's world now revolved around
the theater. His family had been blotted out in his
own mind. The curtain was closed on the family and
the curtain was open on the world of the theater.
Elizabeth believes he would carry this hurt from being abandoned
for the rest of his life. He himself said that

(14:35):
he felt like someone had abandoned a dog. I think
he was incredibly furious, but a child of nine can't
distinguish grief from anger. I imagine that his psyche shut
down or closed off to his family, and therefore had
to open itself to his new world, the theater and

(14:56):
the theater people. And also, in an extraordinary letter, he wrote,
I hope you understand how alone I am. Ever, since
my family left me in the school at age nine,
I've been alone. When I found that letter recently, I
realized that that feeling of having only the theater for

(15:20):
a family and a world and a tribe was deeply
at the center of him. The only connection he had
left to his family was music. That was the one constant,
that was his link to the past. He couldn't emotionally
connect anymore. They've done this horrible thing, They'd abandon him.
But music could somehow connect his whole self. I imagine

(15:45):
that that's why he had this eerie facility with matching
steps to music, because he lived those steps. They were
his language in his innermost dialogue with himself. It was
ballet steps, not words and music. Elizabeth says. Balanchine's teachers
saw him as an independent boy who was courteous, detached,

(16:08):
and eerily self confident. Although Balancing initially disliked the school,
he grew to love ballet. He had a revelation on stage,
dancing and sleeping beauty. With all of the music, the lights,
the costumes. He realized he was in the middle of
a thing of beauty. And then, Elizabeth says, Ballet almost

(16:36):
died in nine a bullet burst through the theater school
window and almost hit a student. Days later, a crowd
in military uniforms rushed through the school halls. It was
late at night. They were searching for monarchists in the dormitories,
peering under beds. The Russian Revolution had been gun in October.

(17:03):
The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took control of the country.
The Bolsheviks envisioned a world where workers would hold the power.
The Czar and his family were murdered, nobility was abolished,
Aristocrats fled or were killed. The Bolshevik Party would eventually
become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Sarist

(17:23):
Romanov dynasty was over. The Bolsheviks wanted to wipe out
any whiff of the old aristocracy, and no one knew
what that meant for Ballet. Valancine was thirteen years old.
His school closed, and life in St. Petersburg changed dramatically.
The city of St. Petersburg suffered after the revolution. St

(17:46):
Petersburg had been the capital of the Russian Empire under
the Tsar. Now, with Lenin in power, the government moved
to Moscow, essentially abandoning St. Petersburg and the resources, which
were very few after the revel Lucian all flowed to Moscow,
leaving St. Petersburg to starve and freeze. There was no heat,
there was no fuel, very little food. All rationed balancing

(18:10):
school was turned into barracks for guards. That winner in
nineteen seventeen and nineteen, it was hard to even find
bread in a shop. Thirteen year old Balanciing and his
friends stole fish at night from local barges before he
could find a job. But then came some hope for ballet.
It had to do with Lennon's Minister of Education, who

(18:30):
also oversaw culture and arts. Lennon's Minister of Culture had
a vision of all the arts existing simultaneously and the
people learning all about the high arts that they've been
deprived of, and Ballet's new meaning was up for grabs.
Balancin's ballet school reopened with a new mission, which is
to make dances for Utopia, the Bolshevik Utopia. Now, the

(18:55):
theater would welcome laborers, soldiers and sailors and to the audience.
Workers got free tickets from their factories and labor units. Meanwhile,
half the city's population was gone. They were dead from
disease or off to villages in search of food. One
Russian described people who passed each other in the gray,

(19:16):
cold city as phantoms and oblivious silence. In those conditions,
the ballet school started up again with utopian aims and visions,
utopian excitement, and no heat and no food, which can
sharpen your senses to your art and impact your health.

(19:39):
And it did both with balanchine. The children at ballet
school had boils for malnutrition and lice that carried typhus.
On cold nights, the boys and girls moved their beds
from separate dormitory rooms to the old infirmary to stay warm.
They suffered, but they bonded and they felt immersed in art.

(20:07):
After the Revolution, all the social meetings of the art
fell away, and they concentrated on the pure art, on ballets,
just as a pure art. Since the seventeen hundreds under
the CSAR, ballets performed in Russia had been filled with
romantic storylines in royal courts or epic tales of castles,
princes and maidens. But that was going away. Now. They

(20:30):
had a little trouble making new ballets because what were
they going to be about? It was also new Now
ballet could be both grand and intimate and revealed the
private emotions of people in a way that it never
had been before Balancing was a teenager. Now he grew
his hair long and wore eyeliner to make his eyes

(20:52):
look soulful. He also started to experiment with his own choreography.
And what it did I think for Balancing was it
broke any lingering narrative associations that the steps held, So
you know, an Arabist didn't automatically mean a noble shape.
It could mean anything that the choreographer wanted it to mean,

(21:13):
same with all the other steps. They were severed from
that art. That was the czar's family's favorite art. So
it impacted him on an artistic level deeply. It was
making an art knew he was in on the ground floor.
But there was one tradition Balancing would never do away
with worshiping the ballerina. Growing up in the school, he

(21:37):
lived in the world of the ballerina, the world of
these girls and women who men watched with awe. Those
little boys in the school were conditioned to worship the
presiding ballerinas of the day, just like the nobles and
the grandees and the businessmen in the front row worshiped them.
Then Balancing realized when he was an adolescent that there

(21:59):
were some of his own classmates who were beautiful and
worth falling in love with, and he fell in love
with a young woman in the class below him, named
Tamarava also known as Tamara Jeeva. She was thirteen when
they met. At the time, the school had a faction
of traditionalists, and they warned her against balancing and his

(22:20):
weird choreographic ideas. But when Balancine approached her and asked
if she wanted to work with him, she said of course.
He started to choreograph for Tamaraw and she began to
dance his pieces. One of the first she danced with
him was a potada. Potada means step of two in French.
It means a duet, usually between a man and a woman.

(22:41):
This duet ended with what Tomorrow called a revolutionary moment.
Balancie knelt, she stood on one foot on point, She
held one leg in the air behind her in an arabesque,
and she balanced herself by pressing her mouth against his.

(23:10):
Tomorrow later said this moment was considered terribly erotic. She said,
every time balancing choreographed, he tried to see how much
he could get away with. He never seemed to doubt himself.
She wondered if his religious belief made him feel he
was destined for greatness, like he was channeling God. Balancing

(23:31):
and Tamaraw decided to get married. They were young. There
are different reports on exactly when it happened, but Balancing
was probably eighteen and Tamara fifteen. They performed in little
theaters together. They got paid in food more than money.
And then when Balancing was just twenty years old, he

(23:53):
and Tamara had a chance to leave Russia, and it
was ballet that would let them do it. Around tomorrow,

(24:21):
Jeeva and George Balancing met a croupier, a guy who
worked the gambling tables at a local casino. His name
was Vladimir. Vladimir made a lot of money working at
high stakes table and he convinced the government to let
him finance a European ballet tour. They got out of
Russia by asking permission to go give a tour in Germany,

(24:41):
and they got out. Jim steak In is a historian
who studied balancing. Once they got to Germany, they got
picked up by Saras Diogolov, the really creative impresaria that
founded the Bally russ and Paris Diagolov had created one
of the most influential ballet companies ever, the ballet for
twenty years. The ballet roofs really defined the new face

(25:04):
of ballet. Diagolev worked with famous composers like ravel Stravinsky, Debutsy, Prokofief,
and Sati. Painters like Matisse and Picasso made sets. Coco
Chanelle was one designer who created costumes. Balancine walked into
all of this as a dancer, but soon Diagolev let

(25:25):
him choreograph to Balancine started to play with and push
the old school Russian style he had learned growing up.
Balancine took that technique and made it new. He would
introduce more acrobatic moves and loved making giant daisy chains
out of his dancers, utterly untraditional moments where people look

(25:48):
like they're swimming in midair, like they're doing somersaults, Like,
oh my god, what is that. I've never seen that before.
Balancine was finding his legs as a choreographer, and then
came diago liv the head of the ballet. Russ died,
the stock market crashed, World War two began to eventually

(26:10):
heat up in a very real way, Balancie needed to
figure out what to do next. The answer came in
the form of a wealthy American enter Lincoln Kirstin. This
young American who's really interested in art. Lincoln Kirstein came
from a family with money. He was in his twenties
and obsessed with all kinds of art. So when he

(26:31):
met Balancing on a trip to London, he was enamored.
Balancie had a nickname when he was a youngster. He
was called the Rat. He kind of had like a
kind of a snaggle tooth. He wasn't like a movie
theater actor kind of iconic beauty that way. He was
on the shorter side, a man of few words. It

(26:51):
seems he was very social. He loved to cook. Even
in his twenties. Balancie used creativity, which Link and Kristine loved.
Because he wanted to do something big, he invited Balancing
to join him in the US to build a ballet company.

(27:13):
Lincoln Kirstine decided that he was going to make it
his next big project to create a dance school and
company in America that would synthesize the best of the
Russian ballet traditions. The Italian and French traditions and make
it a thoroughly American enterprise. They would start a school

(27:37):
to train American dancers. Tuition would be free so that
students could be admitted based on quote their perfect possibilities.
In exchange, students would agree to appear exclusively in school
performances for five years so they wouldn't get snapped up
by Broadway or Hollywood. Once they were trained and balancing
could make his experimental ballets. He arrived in New York

(28:00):
and started by teaching dancers his previous works or making
versions of them, but he had to make something original.
In four it was time to choreograph a new piece,
his first in the United States. The music would be
Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, Balanchine told Kirstine the day of

(28:22):
the first rehearsal, his head was a blank. Pray for me,
he said. They started off with their usual dance class,
and then Balancine gathered the dancers who were there that day,
seventeen of them. He lined them up by height, then
started to arrange them on the floor. It was a
sunny day, one dancer said. Balanchine started slowly to compose

(28:45):
a hymn to ward off the Sun. When he was
done arranging, the dancers were in an unusual pattern, later
called the orange grove. Two diamonds side by side. Yeah,

(29:12):
the opening is a magical moment in theater. The music
starts before the curtain rises. When the curtain does rise,

(29:35):
you see this orange grove of dancers on stage, but
they're not dancing. They're completely still, and they each have
one hand raised up like they're trying to shield their

(29:55):
eyes from the sun. They hold that position for a
mysteriously long time. Through eight measures. More than a minute

(30:16):
has passed. The music sores, but the dancers still haven't moved.
Then finally they move, but just a little. They start

(30:43):
to move one hand, almost in slow motion, as Balanchine said,
the wrist breaks as if the wrist were tired, and
the hand comes down, and then they move the other arm.
They bring their arms together in a circle, and that's
when the feet pop open. To make first position, they

(31:05):
push their feet to the side into ballet turnout the
most basic position of ballet. It's almost like the first
exercises of a ballet class slowed down. You would think
it would be boring, but instead it feels profound. It's
like you see seventeen dancers wake up their bodies to
dance for the first time, like they're learning in front

(31:27):
of you that their bodies can hold music. They start
with the most basic shapes of ballet, a line, a circle,
a flowing arm that's just beautiful over the daisy choreographed.

(31:51):
The rehearsal process was ragtag. Balancing. Didn't know how many
dancers would show up, so he choreographed for whoever was
there one day, for seven, teen, the next day, nine,
then six. Historically, when you'd choreograph a ballet, there would
be a libretto or a description of what would happen
in the ballet, the plot, and this time there wasn't anything.

(32:14):
There was just the music the dancers. In balancing, Balancing
let his dancers inspire him. He created the first pose
when he saw a dancer who shielded her eyes from
the sun. When a dancer ran in late, he made
it a part of the ballet. When a dancer fell,
he wove that into the ballet, spun off into beautiful, swift,
wild dance. He has them swooping information in circles, in squares,

(32:43):
closing opening, rushing around You cannot see this marvelous work
without falling under a spell, because the music has such
a sweep and urgency, and so does the dancing. The
dancers at rehearsal came from such varied styles and backgrounds
that this was how Balancing could mold them as his dancers,

(33:06):
making his shapes his unique style. It was a way
to make dancers with disparate trainings and backgrounds all feel
like they can be part of a harmonious, beautiful whole.
He called it Serenad. Serenad would become a pillar for

(33:31):
Balancing's dancers when they'd returned to again and again, that
ballet is this important symbol of his arrival in America
and his starting this new chapter in his artistic life.
And it is a gorgeous ballet. It's one of his best.
It's like a desert island ballet, if you could even
have a desert island. It is this beautiful ritual. It

(34:03):
does feel like a ritual. And as the ballet unfolds,
it has images that feel full of meaning, like myths
layered on top of each other, tropes and narratives you
can't quite grasp. The story of the ballet doesn't really
have a story. It has many stories, but I think
the stories are kind of buried. We have images that

(34:26):
are very powerful. As a dance historian, len Garifola knows
that Balancine is famous for making ballets without narratives. His
ballets are about movement and the music. But she sees
something more, what you might call a private resonance or
a personal echo. This is something deeply personal, and she

(34:48):
sees this in Saranad. There's one moment that always moves
her in a deep, even terrible way. What happens in
that moment is that there is a man with two
women dancing together, and it's clear that there is a
profound feeling among all of those three people love eroticism,

(35:13):
but that there's also danger. Someone is going to be
left behind, and he's going to make a choice. They
danced furiously, then one of the women falls back into
his arms, but he doesn't lift her up again. Instead,
he lowers her, slowly, inching downward until she's flat on

(35:37):
the floor. She reaches up to him, but he stands
up and the other dancer leads him away. He has
made his choice. The moment when the man walks off,

(36:00):
the other woman is terrible. It never ceases to touch me,
with the sense that the man is very much a
stand in for balancing, and also the sense of the
trail and abandonment. He moves on and leaves the other
weeping on the floor. Next time, on the Turning, there

(36:53):
are no windows. We don't need windows because the outside
world doesn't matter. M He was God in the theater,
ever observing, ever present. Are you a patriot? Are you
a citizen? Are you willing to do whatever I ask
you to do? The Turning is the production of Rococo

(37:21):
Punch and I Heeart podcasts. It's written and produced by
Allen Lance, Lesser and Me. Our story editor is Emily Foreman.
Fixing and sound designed by James Trout. Jessica Carissa is
our assistant producer. Andrea Swahe is our digital producer. Fact
checking by Andrea Lopez Crusado. Special thanks to Elizabeth Kendall,

(37:44):
Jim stike In, and Lynn Garafola. Their books on this
topic are fascinating, so go check out their work. Our
executive producers are John Parratti and Jessica l Part at
Prococo Punch At, Katrina Norvelle and Nikki Etre at iHeart podcasts.

(38:06):
For photos and more details on the series, follow us
on Instagram at Rococo Punch, and you can reach out
via email The Turning at Rococo punch dot com. I'm
Erica Lance. Thanks for listening.
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3. The Dan Bongino Show

He’s a former Secret Service Agent, former NYPD officer, and New York Times best-selling author. Join Dan Bongino each weekday as he tackles the hottest political issues, debunking both liberal and Republican establishment rhetoric.

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