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Jennifer Homans. Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

Searching for Mr. B

Jennifer Homans on her new book, Mr. B: George Balanchine's 20th Century

Jennifer Homans, The New Yorker’s dance critic, has written a must-read biography, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century. While plenty of ink has been spilled about the iconic choreographer, what makes Homans’s work distinct is her ability to get inside his head and capture his spiritual and personal life in graceful, poetic prose. Reading this monumental work felt like a full-bodied experience.

Mr. B follows Homans’s Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, an indispensable reference book for anyone who cares about ballet, viewers and performers alike.

Homans’s dance education informs her daunting knowledge about the artform. She trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts and the School of American Ballet in the 1970s, which she was admitted to at age 16. She finished high school “by correspondence.” In her words:

“I loved to dance, and I was fascinated by Balanchine’s technique and ballets, but I also studied Graham (with Kazuko Hirabayashi), Jazz, Flamenco, anything I could find—and there was so much in New York at the time! I went to performances every night, mostly City Ballet, but also ABT, the Philharmonic, more.”

Published by Penguin Random House

Homans describes herself as “completely taken with how to dance; how to move and move people the way I was moved.” She was serious from the get-go, and studied with Stanley Williams, Suki Schorer, Muriel Stuart; Felia Doubrovska, Andrei Kramerevsky, Antonina Tumkovsky, Natalia Dudin, Alexandra Danilova, Melissa Hayden, Maria Tallchief, and Suzanne Farrell. 

Homans first danced professionally in Chicago with Maria Tallchief and with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, before settling in Seattle at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. There she danced Balanchine, Robbins, Childs, and other contemporary choreographers. Later, she worked with Jacques d’Amboise at the National Dance Institute. She knew d’Amboise well, and came to realize that her performance background was a great education, much of it centering on Balanchine.

Ballet is an unforgiving art. Nevertheless, Homans always made time for writing. An avid reader, she came from an academic family at the University of Chicago and would amuse herself when she “was dancing by keeping a notebook, and even reviewing books (mostly about politics . . . it was fun).” She showed early signs of her current métier—

“When I attended performances, I took notes long before I was a critic—it was a way of thinking and understanding what I was seeing. There was always a connection in my mind between writing and moving. In graduate school I studied modern Europe, but I went to dance class to help me write papers. I kept a pen and paper under the barre and would think of things while dancing and scribble them down.  Dancing helped me solve intellectual problems, somehow.”  

Homans provides pithy advice for young writers: “Read great writers.”

And yet. Homans shares in an Author’s Note that dancing came to her as a revelation, “blissfully free of words, a world of body and music that seemed to say things that words could not.”

Mr. B grew out of Homans’s work on Apollo’s Angels and from her own education, which is to say, she’s been thinking about Balanchine all her life. “Balanchine was why I danced. On a personal level, I was also trying to understand why he had been such a powerful and enduring figure in my life.” Because Homans is not alone in the way Balanchine affected her life, this book begs for a wide readership.

Homans watched Balanchine rehearse at the School of the American Ballet and occasionally at the theater (especially when students were used in performance). She took his class once, saw him around, and frequently went to ballet between 1976 and 1983. She “trained with his former dancers, and got to know them too, which was important for absorbing something about the feel of their lives— and his.”

Mr. B is a doorstopper of a book in the most affectionate sense of the word. At over 700 pages (including close to 100 pages of notes and bibliography), the depth of Homans’s research overwhelms. In her terms, this project was “the greatest adventure and challenge of my professional life.” Her investigative work for this astonishing volume took ten years.

George Balanchine watches rehearsal in New York, 1960s. Photograph by Ernst Haas

George Balanchine lost most meaningful contact with his family in 1913 when his mother precipitously enrolled him in the Imperial Theater School. He was nine, and for the rest of his life this was  an abandonment that he never overcame. His young life was shattered shortly later by the Russian Revolution. From his sheltered—albeit lonely—dance studies where he was coddled with a warm bed and three meals a day, he was forced to beg for food and shelter on the streets of St. Petersburg as the Bolsheviks seized power. To understand the full extent of Balanchine’s childhood deprivation and trauma during the Russian Revolution, Homans learned about “starvation, TB, polio, mad cow disease, and other ailments that afflicted his body and threatened his life.” She retraced his childhood paths through St. Petersburg and followed him to Georgia, his mythic homeland, which he only saw for the first time in 1962, well into his adulthood.

Crucial parts of Mr. B are devoted to Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy American, who was at Balanchine’s side almost as soon as Balanchine fled Russia as young man. It was Kirstein who recruited Balanchine to come to America, and who time and again promised to keep Balanchine’s struggling company afloat. Kirstein’s faith in Balanchine went against all odds and was sometimes the only thing holding the company together. Homans shows that Kirstein’s story is almost as much a part of Balanchine’s as Balanchine’s own.

In addition to visiting archives in Russia, Europe, and the Americas, Homans reflected Balanchine’s capacious curiosity and intellect by diving into a huge range of literature, music, and art: “Sufism and mysticism, Plato, Galen, Spinoza, Goethe, Cervantes, and Hoffman, to mention a few favorites, along with Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Mayakovsky, Blok, and Bulgakov—and the Bible.” She found herself “immersed in art from icons and religious and Renaissance painting to Malevich, Beckmann, Dali, Gross, Matisse, Picasso, Derian, and Tchelitchew—many of whom Balanchine knew and worked with.” Among many other things, I was fascinated by Homans’s descriptions of Russian religious icons and how they colored Balanchine’s vision. Throughout the book, Homans uses iconography to describe aspects of Balanchine’s personality and choreography.

Homans’s doggedness was no different with music that undergirds Balanchine’s work. The choreographer was an accomplished pianist and a lifelong student of music. For him, music was the “holiest of holies.” Music took Homans from “Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky through to Stravinsky, Hindemith, Ives, American jazz, and the experiments of Xenakis.” Balanchine’s “compositional sophistication in piecing together scores from a variety of musical sources made understanding his theatricality a fascinating and daunting task.”

An impressive aspect of Homans’s research is her interviews with an enormous group of working and retired dancers. Over two pages at the back of the book, she cites a collection of dancers’ personal archives she consulted, and close to 200 dancers with whom she conducted interviews. No wonder I felt so close to Balanchine reading this book.

To compile these interviews, Homans made a long list, arranged by age. She reached out to people, one by one, “starting with the oldest and working my way backwards.” It was necessary to interview some people several times, and the interviews were usually long. She “wanted to know who they were, where they came from; about their families and (of course) their experiences dancing.” She notes that “Balanchine often knew these things—he took the time to find out about each dancer that interested him—and I wanted to immerse myself in their lives.” Homans transcribed her notes or recordings herself. “It was labor intensive and very important for the book. Balanchine once said to his first biographer, Bernard Taper, ‘say more about the dancers,’ and I took that to heart. After all, without them, his dances didn’t exist.”

Homans’s writing is gorgeously styled and clear. She has a special gift for transmitting the gauzy evanescence of ballet. Ballet is a fleeting, impermanent artform, and her ability to get it on the page is magical. She notes that there are many dance writers whom she admires, but that she has been most influenced by fiction and historians, especially art historians and literary scholars.  

Over the past few years, Homans has spent lots of time reading Russian literature and following Balanchine’s tastes. She’s looking forward to starting on a shelf of contemporary fiction she’s been amassing. “But as I finished this book, I read lots of Edith Wharton and Henry James, most recently The Golden Bowl. Astonishing writing.”   

Jennifer Homans is not sure what comes next, but she’s germinating ideas. Whatever she commits to paper will surely delight readers.