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Balanchine's Mystery Woman

The dancer who might have set the course for 20th-century ballet

George Balanchine Trust

What makes a great artist great? This is the question that biographies of such figures hope to answer. The question takes on a particular charge in relation to the artist’s formative years. Prompted to look for clues to what we already know is to come, we encounter the past in two layers, seeing the not-yet artist through the lens of the full-fledged one. This is the experience offered to readers of Elizabeth Kendall’s book about the origins of George Balanchine, which makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this elusive, self-mythologizing artist, considered by many to be the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century. Refusing to remain content with the few comments that Balanchine made about his early life, Kendall provides a wealth of new details about the man before he became “George Balanchine.” He was born Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze in 1904, and Kendall traces his trajectory from a fractured Russo-Georgian family through his dance training in St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theater School, his first choreographic experiments of the early 1920s, and his departure from Russia for Europe in 1924. Soon afterward he joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, where his identity as George Balanchine was established and his career as a choreographer began in earnest.

But Kendall’s book promises us more than a portrait of the artist as a young man. It also attempts to tell the story of a woman whom Kendall ambitiously dubs the “lost muse.” She was Lidia (Lidochka) Ivanova, Balanchine’s fellow classmate and a budding prima ballerina. She died in 1924 in a boating accident just before her scheduled departure from Russia along with Balanchine, his then-wife Tamara Geva, and two other dancers, Alexandra Danilova and Nikolai Efimov. Kendall boldly proposes that Ivanova served as the original model for Balanchine’s many muses—that long line of beautiful, otherworldly ballerinas who filled his personal and professional lives up through his death in 1983. By bringing Balanchine’s “lost muse” to light, she suggests, this book opens up a “possible new approach
to Balanchine himself.”

To provide the explanatory key to the great artist’s life—this would seem an unsupportable burden to place on any person. It is especially so about a person about whom we know so little. Even after Kendall’s exhaustive quest, Ivanova remains a cipher—as she is pictured on the book’s jacket, an almost invisible blur hovering at upper left, upstaged by Balanchine’s crisp, elegant visage. Ultimately Kendall’s desire to make “Lidochka” (as she familiarly calls the ballerina) essential to Balanchine outpaces her ability to do so. Though the book begins with an admirable goal—the recovery of a woman from mere footnote to important chapter in the history of ballet—to a great degree, it recapitulates the process that made Ivanova nearly disappear in the first place.

Illustration by Boris Pelcer

Balanchine’s and Ivanova’s personal histories converged in the Theater School, where they began studying ballet in 1913 and 1914 respectively, at the ages of nine and almost eleven. The moment of their entry into this august institution was pivotal, both world-historically and in the development of the art to which they devoted the rest of their lives. Kendall traces the fate of the Theater School, the feeder for the storied Maryinsky Theater, through the enormous political shifts that took place around it in the early twentieth century. These artists came of age amid revolutionary cataclysm. Since ballet often is equated with czarist culture, it would seem anathema to Bolshevik ideology, but Kendall convincingly shows how relevant the art remained after 1917. As the ballerina Vera Kostrovitskaya eloquently put it in her unpublished papers, “Our dream was to cover the Field of Mars in the center of Petrograd with several jetés.”1

Kendall throws open the Theater School’s doors and introduces us to its “cast of characters,” a group so large that a list is provided: ballet masters and mistresses, choreographers, dancers young and old, administrators and bookkeepers, priests and governesses—all of whom responded variously to the revolutionary turbulence. In some ways, this complex and fascinating institutional history feels like the true core of Kendall’s book, its most significant contribution. And because they existed at the margins of this institution, Balanchine and Ivanova, Kendall’s twin subjects, seem almost arbitrary points of entry into it. One wishes for more information about the many vibrant characters surrounding Balanchine and Ivanova rather than biographical material about them that in some places feels thin.

This is not to detract from Kendall’s meticulously researched account of Balanchine’s family history and early life, drawn from archives in the United States, Russia, Georgia, and Finland. We learn a great deal about Balanchine’s father, the slightly megalomaniacal Meliton Antonovich Balanchivadze. Born in a tiny village in western Georgia, the elder Balanchivadze made his name in Tbilisi as a singer and choir director, specializing in folk songs. In 1889, the aspiring composer left a wife and two children to study music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. But 
Balanchivadze kept one foot in Tbilisi, establishing a salon devoted to Georgian culture with evenings of dance, music, and poetry reading. His efforts typified the regionalist, ethnographic impulse then dominating the intelligentsia across the empire. Kendall mentions the so-called Moguchaya kuchka (“Mighty Five”) composers who fused international symphonic traditions with vernacular music; this trend also extended to the visual arts, informing a neo-primitivist movement that included Wassily Kandinsky, Natalia Gontcharova, and several figures associated with Mir iskusstva (“World of Art”), a forerunner to the Ballets Russes.

Balanchivadze’s activities in St. Petersburg also included the creation of a new family with the mysterious Maria Nikolaevna Vasilieva—
a woman listed as a craftswoman on her children’s birth certificates but whom Kendall characterizes as an educated, ambitious social climber.2 A providential lottery ticket obtained in 1901 allowed Vasilieva and Balanchivadze to take a fashionable St. Petersburg apartment and later a dacha in Finland, where they raised Tamara (born 1902), Georgi, and Andrei (born 1905). By Kendall’s account, Balanchine was a sad and quiet boy, overlooked by his parents in favor of his siblings. Even his fateful initial visit to the Theater School in 1913 was an afterthought, arranged on behalf of his sister, whose application was unsuccessful. The poignant end of this chapter in his life occurred when Vasilieva informed Balanchine that he had been accepted, and then abruptly departed for Finland, leaving the nine-year-old to board in. 

Kendall supplies some of the connective tissue to these events with logic and conjecture, owing to the dearth of information available about years that Balanchine seems to have preferred to forget. In contrast, she must almost totally imagine Ivanova’s childhood, admitting frankly that “finding out about Lidochka’s family was one of the challenges of this book.” Winningly, Kendall invites us into her process of research: she started with a photograph found in St. Petersburg’s Theater Museum labeled “Ivanova parents,” then cross-
referenced archival details to track down one of many Alexander Alexandrovich Ivanovs. (The military regalia he wore in the picture narrowed it down only to eleven.) Like Balanchivadze, Ivanov advanced his social status around the turn of the century, rapidly rising through the ranks of the army from cannoneer to officer. Not surprisingly, Kendall could not as effectively trace Alexandra Ivanovna Balashova, Ivanova’s mother—we cannot even be sure of her name, since “the handwriting on the relevant document is blurred.”

After sketching out these few known facts, Kendall launches into a confusing sequence relating Ivanova’s early passion for the violin, purportedly inspired when she saw a poster on the street of the Czech performer Jan Kubelik. The doting Ivanov, in Kendall’s telling, does all he can to foster the girl’s talent. But this is not a story drawn from Ivanova’s life. Kendall found it in a novel, Konstantin Vaginov’s Bambochada, from 1931, which may or may not be loosely based on Ivanova. (Vaginov had social connections that may have included her father.) Even readers sympathetic to Kendall’s plight—facing the paucity of concrete information about the real “Lidochka”—may find her method difficult to swallow.

Kendall stands on firmer ground when she follows Balanchine and Ivanova into the Theater School, immersing readers in the day-to-day life of a young student. Founded in 1738 by Empress Anna Ioannovna to continue the Westernization begun by her half-uncle Peter the Great, the Theater School was directly tied to the court: supported by its munificent patronage and modeled after its hierarchical structure. The school was also shaped by the military discipline inculcated by its nineteenth-century benefactor Nicholas I. Kendall tells of drab uniforms and dormitories, cold showers and quick meals, and a famously rigid training regimen. Only after years of barre and floor exercises in gender-segregated classes could students progress to real performance—a path of advancement visible in ballerinas’ practice costumes, graduating from basic light gray to pink and finally, for future stars, classical white. Yet even before 1917, the Theater School was not static, and the period of Balanchine’s and Ivanova’s apprenticeships was marked by major changes. The death of the influential ballet master Marius Petipa in 1910 ended the fifty-year dominance of his style, which is now regarded as balletic “classicism.” Simultaneously, the emergence of modern dancers such as Isadora Duncan, who attracted a huge following during her tour of Russia in 1905, put pressure on 
ballet to modernize.

As Kendall also shows, each ballet master and ballet mistress put their stamp on a generation of students. This flexible aspect of the institution comes out in Kendall’s descriptions of Olga Preobrazhenskaya, under whose tutelage Ivanova and later Balanchine thrived. Recently retired from the stage (where she had been overshadowed by Mathilda Kschessinska, the era’s foremost ballerina), Preobrazhenskaya devised a unique teaching methodology corresponding to the “effortless musicality” of her own style. She liked “natural” (or softly curving) arms, which she encouraged students to think of as “the equivalent of words.” She sometimes read steps aloud rather than modeling them on the body and, unusually, incorporated danced improvisation into her classes. These descriptions show not only how Preobrazhenskaya shaped Ivanova and Balanchine, but also the subtle ways in which ballet modulated over time, responding to historical events and bearing the imprint of its practitioners, even as it remained in its fundamentals the same.

The revolutions of February and October 1917 precipitated a larger rupture with the past, and raised the question of where ballet would fit in the new social and aesthetic order. Again, some readers may be surprised that the aristocratic art of ballet was not simply discarded as outmoded by the partisans of 1917. In part, ballet was “saved” by the efforts of individuals inside its ranks and in the newly reorganized state apparatus—chiefly Anatoly Lunacharsky, the head of Narkompros, or the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, a ministry that included education and the arts. Lunacharsky believed that ballet was equipped to “handle serious philosophical questions,” and this was key to the Theater School’s survival. Making an empire into a socialist state was a messy business: more often than not, it involved compromises with existing social, economic, and governmental structures. Kendall furnishes a tiny but wonderful example when she notes that, like many bureaucrats, the Maryinsky’s bookkeeper began typing “b.” (short for byvshee, indicating “former”) in front of “Imperial Theater School” on its official letterhead. 

But the hardships of revolution did pose an existential threat to the Theater School, even as it also offered the institution—and its students, including Balanchine and Ivanova—a chance at self-reinvention. (For dancers connected to the czars, such as Kschessinska, it meant the expropriation of her home and her jewelry.) Not only were basics such as pointe shoes, make-up, and costumes in short supply, but the food shortages of the post-revolutionary period made it difficult for dancers to keep their instruments in good working condition. Lacking wood for stoves, they practiced and performed in rooms so cold that their breath could be seen. In one instance the ballerina Elena Smirnova danced Petipa’s The Fairy Doll wearing leggings, a sweater, and a shawl. Through all this, activities at the byvshee Theater School evinced a utopian “anything is possible” attitude. Particularly affecting in this regard are Kendall’s descriptions of ordinary workers and soldiers occupying the czar’s loge, chewing on sunflower seeds, and reading explanatory leaflets; or the meeting of theater artists in April 1917 to elect their own mini-soviet, and their draping of the Maryinsky’s facade with red banners in honor of International Workers’ Day; or the fact that ballet performance increased under the 
Soviets—from forty ballets a season to sixty or seventy—and the offerings included pre-revolutionary works as well as modern ones on political themes. The trappings of ballet were rooted in aristocratic culture, but not the art itself. 

Balanchine and Ivanova remained in Petrograd during this chaotic period. (Though Balanchine’s father implored him to join him in Menshevik Georgia.) Kendall even gives us the number of Balanchine’s exit passport, granted in October 1918 but never used. While we do not know much about Balanchine’s political commitments during this period—Kendall does not unearth anything new in this regard—he tellingly chose to remain in revolutionary Petrograd and to participate in the remaking of the Theater School according to the communitarian spirit of the day. It is easy to imagine, at the very least, that both he and Ivanova found the mixture of artistic opportunity and aesthetic experimentation appealing enough to withstand the ravages of daily life and the political convulsions. The reforms of the Theater School included the election of a students’ committee and coeducational rehearsals, giving students more power and new approaches to their craft. Both Balanchine’s and Ivanova’s first big breaks came in a student-run show of 1920, a strikingly varied evening of ballet and agitprop. Balanchine danced a character role—Pierrot, the perpetually sad clown—in a divertissement from The Fairy Doll. Ivanova received a part with far greater status: she partnered with Mikhail Dudko in a pas de deux from a new work, Adagio and Waltz. She was only about fifteen years old at the time, but critics saw “full-blooded poetry” in her still-maturing body.

In that same year Balanchine also tried his hand at choreography. (His spindly legs limited his dancing to relatively marginal roles.) He crafted a pas de deux for comrades Olga Mungalova and Piotr Gusev titled Night—a non-narrative, overtly erotic work that fused Petipan classicism with the reform style of the Ballets Russes choreographer Mikhail Fokine (itself influenced by Duncan’s modern dance). Fascinatingly, Ivanova also seized the opportunity to choreograph, working with Balanchine to create a solo, Valse Triste, on the theme of death—perhaps an homage to Fokine’s famous Dying Swan of 1907. Working alongside male dancers, Ivanova also created her signature “masculine” performance elements: a leap in which she indecorously split her legs wide, and athletic cabrioles that brought the weight-bearing leg high up to meet the other in the air. Employing this technique for subsidiary roles in CoppéliaThe Sleeping Beauty, and Le Corsaire, Ivanova became a celebrity to Petrograd audiences, who collected her souvenir pictures and stood up when she passed in the street.

Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) encouraging “state capitalism,” initiated in 1921, introduced a dizzying array of private and semi-private venues for dance. The ex-Maryinsky, ex-Mikhailovsky, and ex-Alexandrinsky were joined by smaller, nimbler organizations: rival studios such as the Second State School of Ballet (nicknamed BaltFlot for its improbable financing by the Navy’s Baltic Fleet) and cabarets such as the cheekily named Birzha (“stock market”). Dancers such as Ivanova and Geva hurried from one stage to the next without changing costumes, just in time for their entrances. Importantly, Kendall places these new conditions, which allowed Ivanova’s rise to stardom, in the context of the NEP’s ambivalent attitudes toward women. The revolutionary woman was enjoined to work shoulder to shoulder with male counterparts—but the NEP also needed women to be consumers of the commodities on limited offer. Kendall asks how the traditional ethereal ballerina—or the sexed-up version on NEP stages—fared under the pressure of these conflicting ideologies. (Here again the visual arts provide useful parallels, such as Lubov Popova’s design for what Christina Kiaer calls the “Constructivist flapper dress.”) For aspiring choreographers such as Balanchine, this fertile period offered several models of revolutionary ballet that combined vanguard aesthetics with radical politics: the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Alexander Tairov, Kasian Goleizovsky, and Fedor Lopukhov, figures whose influence on Balanchine’s work generally has been overlooked.

Balanchine and Ivanova, along with a small group of their peers, joined the enterprising spirit of the NEP with the creation of the Molodoi balet, or Young Ballet, in 1922. Militantly democratic, the group permitted dancers to pick their own pieces to perform, and allowed Balanchine to stage his first large-scale work, Marche funèbre, in 1923, in the former city Duma. Accompanied by the famous movement of the same name in Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, this neo-Romantic piece pointed to ballet’s past and prefigured its future incarnations. It centered on a corps of six ballerinas who enter on pointe, heads tipped to one side (a motif that recalls Nijinsky’s famous Sacre du printemps, also used in Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, which premiered the same year). Clad in simple black and gray tunics and little black caps but—daringly—no tights, the ballerinas formed a circle and dropped to one knee. Three men entered carrying a female dancer (alternately played by Geva and Nina Stukolkina) lying like a corpse, whom they lowered to the ground. Enter Danilova, touching each 
dancer in succession, as if bringing them back to life, until finally they collectively drifted offstage. After this short piece, the hall fell silent, then stamping, whistling, and clapping increased in volume until the company performed the piece again.

Kendall’s final chapters weave together two very different, and perhaps wholly incompatible, stories. On the one hand, she tells us what happened to Balanchine after the première of Marche funèbre. Soon after Petrograd became Leningrad, Balanchine became one of the capital’s most sought-after choreographers until he abandoned Russia for stages in Europe and, after 1933, in the United States. Kendall reads his career as a continual revisiting of elements in that early work—the plotless but richly symbolic scenario, the abstemious refusal of elaborate sets and costumes, the use of the ballerina both as active agent and passive object. In so doing, Kendall (like most writers on Balanchine) skips over his experimental years with the Ballets Russes—his anti-classical, narrative, elaborately designed works—in favor of the “great” abstract pieces of mid-career.

Kendall pairs this long narrative, covering almost six decades of Balanchine’s life, with the paltry information we have about the final year of Ivanova’s. She spends nine pages sifting through conflicting accounts of her death, hinting at several possible conspiracies but never arriving at a clear explanation. Worse, she tries to convince readers that Ivanova remained a productive force on Balanchine’s work over those six decades, influencing ballets from Apollo (1928) to Serenade (1935), La Valse (1951), The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1975), and many more. The argument strains credulity. In spite of itself, Balanchine & the Lost Muse confirms what Linda Nochlin argued a long time ago: that if there have been no “great” women artists, it is because “greatness” has been defined primarily in masculinist terms, premised upon social institutions and expectations that tend to place men in the role of artist-genius and women in the role of artistic muse-material. That is why Ivanova and her ilk disappeared from the historical record, though it is hardly the only reason that Georgi Balanchivadze became George Balanchine and then the legendary Mr. B. 

Juliet Bellow is assistant professor of art history at American University and the author, most 
recently, of Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Ashgate).

  1. Many details in the book come from Kostrovitskaya's personal archive of letters and other writings, now held in the Central State Archive of Literature and Art, St. Petersburg (TsGALI).  According to Kendall, these papers contain multiple versions of many of the events related, suggesting that Kostrovitskaya's account may not be a source of wholly reliable facts.

  2. Apparently, Kendall found a discrepancy between Balanchine's christening document, which listed his mother as unmarried, and his official state birth certificate used to gain entry to the Imperial Theater School, which listed his parents as married.  She offers as one explanation that the documents may have been doctored, for no records exist to document Meliton Balanchivadze's legal divorce from his first wife or his marriage to Maria.