George’s Angels

Remembering my time with Balanchine’s dancers

Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

Fifty-one years ago, to be exact. I met a blond angel at a health food store on the Upper West Side. The angel smiled at me. I smiled back. She was a dancer, a soloist at George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. She was startled when I recognized her stage name, Deborah Flomine. She was even more startled when I talked about my favorite dancers—Allegra Kent, Jacques d’Amboise, Eddie Villella, and Patricia McBride, all of whom she’d danced with at Lincoln Center and other venues around the world when the company went on tour.

You weren’t supposed to meet a stranger at a health food store who could examine one of Balanchine’s ballets with all the incandescence of an x-ray machine. I was Debbie’s dark angel, I suppose. I must have reminded her of Nureyev, with my high cheekbones. We fell in love. Eventually we moved in together, into an apartment house on West 67th Street originally built for artists—it had magnificent studio space with northern exposure. Our landlady offered us a reasonable rent because she liked having a “young couple” in her domain.

Unluckily, we lived on the same block as Balanchine, or Mr. B, as all his dancers and everyone else called him. He was famously possessive of his female dancers and didn’t like them to have boyfriends. Marriage might come next, and then a baby, and that could mark the end of Mr. B’s interest in that dancer’s career. A marriage might be forgiven, but a baby was most often a kiss of death.

And so, we were mortal enemies at first sight, Mr. B and I. He was never overtly impolite, though he would smile at Debbie and merely stare at me with his mournful eyes. His nose would twitch like a rabbit. I’d had the same nervous twitch as a child. I couldn’t even tell Mr. B how much I admired him and his ballets. Before I met Debbie, I’d had a girlfriend who was a balletomane. We went to the ballet as often as we could, depending on our pocketbooks and the program. My favorite pas de deux was “The Man I Love,” performed by Patricia McBride and Jacques d’Amboise in Balanchine’s homage to George Gershwin and the Jazz Age, Who Cares?  The splendor and sheer sexual joy in the fluid courtship of the couple’s fast and slow steps perfectly matched the syncopations in George Gershwin’s music. Words weren’t necessary. The dance steps were far more lyrical than the lyrics Ira Gershwin had written.

I felt that the passion the two dancers had delivered onstage belonged wholly to me. As Jennifer Homans writes in her monumental recent biography of Balanchine, Mr. B, the choreographer and his dancers struggled with the perpetual question: How “to live in the real world when the unreal world of the stage was so much more alive?” The dilemma was mine, as well.

As a novelist, I believed in the almost mystical magic of words, that the meaning of a sentence was derived from its music, and here was an art form that robbed me of my own delight. Balanchine’s ballets, the steps themselves, were more musical than anything I could ever write. I would have gladly watched Jacques and Patricia do “The Man I Love” every day for the rest of my life. Robert Sealy of Ballet Review seemed to agree. In March 1970, he wrote that the dancers, in their own angular, cat-wary way, provided us with “the memory-burning dance of a lifetime.”

I loved Eddie Villella’s leaps, Jacques d’Amboise’s poise, Patricia McBride’s elegance and versatility en pointe, but the dancer who moved me the most was Allegra Kent. She was a wild child, utterly unpredictable. Allegra had three babies, not one, and still she danced for Mr. B. I first saw her in Bugaku, which was a courtship dance inspired by seventh-century Japan. There’s no corps de ballet onstage during the iconic pas de deux, only two dancers: a nobleman and suitor-husband, played by Villella during the performances I attended, and his concubine-wife, played by Allegra, dressed in tights and a kind of white bikini under the kimono that she sheds. And their ritualized romance occurred right onstage. Their bodies twisted and contorted, and it seemed as if Allegra had vacated her own psyche, as if she had fled from us and was performing in a dream state; for a moment she had made the invisible visible, and we were peering at an angel rather than a dancer in Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Mr. B was a great believer in angels, who were plentiful in the Russian Orthodox Church in which he was raised, but much rarer in Manhattan. Indeed, Allegra was possessed, a demonic angel who wrapped herself around her suitor-husband with all the fervor of a sexy python.

And then there was Agon, perhaps Balanchine’s greatest work, set to a score by Igor Stravinsky. It’s a “leotard ballet,” in which the dancers perform in practice clothes on a barren stage, engulfed in a panorama of blue light. The word agon comes from the Greek—it means “contest” or “struggle.” The ballet consists of four men and eight women who dance with an almost inhuman, mathematical precision. They could be icons or angels in distress. No narrative or costumes surround them, nothing but blue light. In the ballet’s single pas de deux, Allegra danced doll-like with Arthur Mitchell, the first Black member of the company. Allegra seemed made of rubber as Mitchell manipulated her movements. We were in a landscape we’d never seen before, where motion itself made its own music. As Homans writes in Mr. B: Agon was more than a dance ‘to’ Stravinsky’s music. [Balanchine’s] ballet was a musical composition unto itself—a composition that at times competed, agon-style, with Stravinsky’s own score, which was stronger and more complex with the dances than it was alone.”

Through Debbie, I got to know Allegra, a voracious reader who developed a fondness for my fiction. I interviewed her at the very end of 2022, nearly 40 years after she had retired from Balanchine’s company. She talked about working with Mr. B, how the choreography “flowed out of him. It just seemed to arrive. He was a true magician. … He put us into another realm. We entered that realm because of him.”

Balanchine loved to build his ballets around the female form. Male dancers, however graceful, were “second-class citizens,” according to Homans. In the years before I met Debbie at a health food counter, Balanchine was bewitched by Suzanne Farrell, another long-legged beauty with a demonic quality to her dancing. He was 41 years older than Farrell. He began mounting ballet after ballet for her. “Balanchine disappeared into Suzanne,” as Homans writes. In 1969, he divorced his fifth wife, “Tanny” Le Clercq, one of his finest dancers, who had contracted polio while the company was on tour. He’d choreographed Don Quixote (1965) for Farrell, playing the half-crazed Don to her Dulcinea. His performance was heartbreaking.

He wanted to marry Suzanne. But in 1969, she married Paul Mejia, one of Balanchine’s protégés. When Mr. B found out, he banned Mejia from the theater, and when Suzanne told Mr. B that she wouldn’t dance without Mejia, he stripped her of her roles. She fled to Europe with Mejia and joined another company. Balanchine was bereft. And seeing me on 67th Street with one of his soloists must have deepened his despair.

After Stravinsky died in 1971, Balanchine mounted a festival at Lincoln Center devoted to the composer. Stravinsky had been like a spiritual father to Balanchine, or an older brother perhaps. Mr. B hadn’t come from an aristocratic line, like Stravinsky or Vladimir Nabokov. He was raised in an impoverished household and was plucked into St. Petersburg’s imperial ballet school at the age of nine. He rarely saw his parents again. It was the grueling, military-like training he received in St. Petersburg that drove him to train young dancers at the School of American Ballet.

Balanchine claimed to have talked to Stravinsky every night while he mounted new ballets for the festival. Mr. B liked talking to the dead. Once, while the company was performing at the Salzburg Festival, Mr. B told his dancers, “Last night I spoke to Mozart.” “Then,” Allegra Kent recalls, “we started laughing. And then we started crying.” It was like an epiphany that they all felt and believed. The dance steps he created “flowed out of him like Mozart’s music.”

Thanks to Debbie, I attended every performance of the Stravinsky festival. The men whirling about and the women dancing en pointe were indeed a band of angels. “The pointe shoe has its own particular music,” Allegra told me. “It lifted ballet into another realm. Pointe shoes are the slippers of the imagination.”

I believed every word she said.

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Jerome Charyn's most recent novel is Ravage & Son. A new novel, A Dangerous Diva, about Maria Callas, will be published in 2025.


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