George Balanchine’s Soviet Reckoning

Worst of all: his sister, Tamara. His voice later turned ashen when he spoke of her, in the only recording we have of his account of her tragic end. George had last seen her as a child, and, in the years after he left Russia, Tamara had grown tall and angular, with intense, skeptical eyes and none of her mother’s fragile beauty. She had become a set designer and, after marrying a German who deserted her to return to Germany, ended up working in theatre in Moscow and Leningrad. The last the family heard from her was in 1941, just days before the German siege of Leningrad began. She may have been killed during the siege, or she may have died of illness or starvation or perhaps on a train in the war zone trying to get back to Georgia. No one quite knows. She simply disappeared.

Andrei was a survivor. Like his father, Meliton, he was outgoing and prone to excessive toasts and speeches, and he had a wonderful singing voice. He won Soviet medals and honors for his Georgian-style music, and occasionally enjoyed arraying them on his jacket like a general’s insignia. At the right moment, he would strip them off, grinning, make some loud anti-Soviet declaration, and then restore them all again. He played at the margins, calculating in part that the cost to the authorities of arresting the brother of the famous George Balanchine would be too high. But in fact he also did everything he was supposed to do: led the composers’ union, taught at the academy in Tbilisi, composed music in the correct style, and won the requisite awards. So they let him play the jester—within limits. His career was celebrated, but he was rarely permitted to travel to the West. He must not defect, and he never tried.

Apollon was older and less fortunate. Arrested and indicted in 1924 for fighting in a special gendarmes unit of the White Army, he had spent years in prison, in isolation, and although he was eventually released, he was arrested again in 1942 and this time sent for ten years of hard labor in Kazakhstan. Upon his release, he became a quietly practicing priest, and kindly organized a vespers service at a local church specially for George.

George knew that his mother, Maria, had died three years earlier, but he knew little of her sad life. He had last seen her when he was eighteen, in 1922, when she left Petrograd to join Meliton in Tbilisi. Meliton was away much of the time, and she ended up living modestly on a small street in an old church converted by the Bolsheviks into apartments. The frescoes were still on the walls, and some of the nuns who had once made fresh Communion bread in the front rooms resided there, too. Often alone, she wore a brooch with pictures of Tamara, George, and Andrei, and would sit anxiously by the radio listening for word of her Georgi—would they ever let him come home? She watched the mail closely and couldn’t understand why he wrote to say how much he hoped to receive letters from her but didn’t send a return address. In a letter to Andrei, she worried that they had lost the “thread of connection to Georgi. Where is he?!” She faded away as quietly as she had lived, and Andrei arranged a small plot in a large and prestigious cemetery in Tbilisi, as befitting his stature as a famous Georgian composer.

“I would kiss you, but there can only be one hot person in a relationship.”

Cartoon by Akeem Roberts

Balanchine wanted to visit his father’s grave. Not his mother’s—she had always been a kind of spirit figure in his mind, and he didn’t need her bones. He had her snowy ethereality instead. It was his father whose photo had sat propped on his bedside table for years, and yet Meliton had often been absent as a father, and he had doted not on George but on Andrei, as his musical son and successor. The image of his father, next to his icons, perhaps wasn’t really there for comfort; rather, it was there so that George could show him. See me. Watch me. I am a musician, too. And now George wanted to see his father’s grave. Not because he loved him—seeing is not the same as loving—but because his father was music, which was what he had become, whereas his mother was the soft inner sanctum that was destroyed, or left behind, that he could get to only through women and dance. Besides, his father was his roots, his soil, and he wanted to see and smell the Georgian heritage he had claimed for so long as his own. Meliton was buried in Kutaisi, near the Balanchivadze family enclave of Banoja, some few hours west of Tbilisi, and George went there with Andrei, Apollon, and his colleague Natasha Molostwoff, accompanied by the inevitable K.G.B. posse. They departed by train at 7 A.M., and Molostwoff later recalled that their car was full of “wild Georgians,” who flocked around Balanchine, taking pictures, talking, touching, celebrating their lucky encounter with this famous artist. When they finally arrived in Kutaisi, exhausted, Balanchine insisted that he and his brothers go alone to Meliton’s grave, at the Green Flower Monastery (Mtsvane Kvavila). Their escorts waited at the tall iron gates to the cemetery.

The story of Meliton’s death, it turned out, was not simple. Andrei told George that Meliton had died, in November, 1937, of a gangrenous leg he’d refused to have amputated, and recalled finding their father lying in bed at home saying that death was a beautiful girl who was coming to take him in her arms, and that he was looking forward to it. But it was later whispered among grave keepers that Meliton had been taken away in the night and shot before being ceremoniously buried—not here, but in the “Pantheon” of famous Georgians under a large pine tree at the foot of the Bagrati Cathedral, a magnificent church turned into a museum by the Bolsheviks. It wasn’t true that he was shot: Meliton most likely died of gangrene, as Andrei had said, but the rumors were a sign of the violence engulfing Georgian life at the time, and they cast an additional pall over Meliton’s passing. It was the height of the Great Terror, led in Georgia by Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin’s cruellest henchmen and, like Stalin, a Georgian. In the year before Meliton’s death, Beria had begun purging the local Party and intelligentsia, a process which accelerated in the next two years. Thousands were killed or sent to the Gulag, including family and friends of Meliton and Andrei. In 1936, at a dinner before a performance of Andrei’s ballet “Heart of the Mountains,” Beria allegedly poisoned the Party stalwart Nestor Lakoba (who had fallen from Stalin’s favor) and then escorted him to the elegant Moorish-style opera house, where the Tbilisi élite witnessed the spectacle of his agonized convulsions as the ballet continued; he died the following morning.

Friends of Meliton whom Georgi and Andrei had met in their home as children had been victims, too. Mamia Orakhelashvili, who had become highly placed in the Party, was arrested on June 26, 1937, and tortured and shot in front of his wife, Maria. By one account, she was forced to watch as her husband’s eyes were gouged out and his eardrums perforated before his execution. She and her daughter were then arrested and sent to the Gulag, and her daughter’s husband, the famous conductor Evgeni Mikeladze, was blindfolded, tortured, and eventually executed. There were show trials broadcast by radio, and Beria’s agents had quotas and routinely slaughtered hundreds of “enemies” in a single night. No one was safe. Closer to home, Meliton’s nephew Irakli Balanchivadze was arrested later that year for “Trotskyism” and shot.

But not Meliton, who was probably too old and too studiously apolitical to matter. Official reports did not mention his gangrene and merely noted that his dead body lay in state in the main hall of the music school he had founded in Kutaisi, and that a small service was performed by a local folk choir before he was interred under the pine tree at Bagrati. Then, in 1957, in a macabre finale, Meliton’s bones were dug up and reinterred in a new, official Pantheon at the Green Flower Monastery, where he now lay near a small church used by the Bolsheviks, it was said, to store cement. His grave, unlike the others around it, was left unmarked except for a large rock and a miniature carving of piano keys. The K.G.B. didn’t give George or Andrei much time with their father, but before they left the brothers poured some wine and spilled the first glass over the grave in the Georgian way.

They also visited the medieval Gelati Monastery, high on a mountain above Kutaisi. Founded in 1106, it had been closed by the Communists in 1923 but preserved as a historical monument, because kings were buried there. Among them was the king who ordered the monastery’s construction, David IV, revered by Georgians as “the builder,” the architect of their country’s medieval Golden Age. David envisioned Gelati as a “second Jerusalem,” and it became a center of Christian culture and especially of Neoplatonism. Its misty grounds, practically in the clouds on a wooded hillside, include the Church of St. George, the Church of St. Nicholas, and the astonishing Church of the Nativity of the Virgin. This was what Balanchine came from and believed in—these were his saints—and although formal worship was not permitted and the monks had long since dispersed, he and his entourage were allowed inside the Church of the Nativity. There they found themselves under a massive arch that seemed to reach as high as Heaven, with light flooding in through the small windows onto the faded but still colorful ancient frescoes. An intricate mosaic of the Virgin and Child with the archangels Michael and Gabriel appeared high in the apse, and a photo shows George in his trenchcoat standing stoically before them.

By the time they left Kutaisi, on the night train back to Tbilisi, it was pouring rain, but Balanchine had seen what he had come for: his father’s Georgia was now his own. It felt to him primal, a Biblical land, and he even enthused to some of the dancers that after Noah’s flood there had been a flight to the Caucasus. Ancient Greece, he said, was settled by Georgian tribes, and these were his tribes, his people. Being Georgian was another way, too, of setting himself against Russia. No wonder some of the dancers were sure that he had been born there. He had told them so. At moments, he may even have believed it.

None of this seemed to deepen his relations with Andrei, who enthusiastically proposed that they make a ballet together, as they had put on shows as children. After dinner one evening at his home, Andrei hopefully played recordings of his music for George and even sat at the piano and regaled his brother with his prize-winning compositions. Balanchine sat bent, with his head buried in his hands, and said nothing. Finally, in frustration and despair, Andrei stopped and waited in painful silence, before awkwardly changing the subject. Natasha Molostwoff, who was there, was appalled: couldn’t Balanchine just say something nice, anything at all? He couldn’t.

The N.Y.C.B. performances were sold out, and on opening night the streets around the opera house were thick with crowds. A sea of people parted for Balanchine as he made his way into the theatre, as if he were some kind of Christ figure—or movie star. The police had been summoned, in anticipation of a crush of people pushing their way in, but the crowds were orderly and civil as, night after night, they pressed into the packed house. On the last night, after the final curtain fell, Balanchine stepped onto the apron of the stage to thank them all. Before the dancers boarded the train to Baku, they piled their extra tights, leotards, leg warmers, and pointe shoes into a bin and left them for the local dancers, who had none.

“Baku or bust”: for the company, Baku was a countdown. They marched through four days of performances, and on the final night a group of them stayed up until dawn dancing and playing strip poker with no heat and the hot-water faucets running full blast until the walls sweated. On December 2nd, the company packed into buses to the airport, then departed on a rickety plane for Moscow. It was snowing hard as they changed for a flight to Copenhagen, destination New York, and by this time the dancers were all chanting in unison: “Go, go, go, go!” As the jet lifted off the icy tarmac at Sheremetyevo, the exhausted company broke into cheers, relieved to, as one of the dancers later put it, “get the hell out of the U.S.S.R.” No one was more relieved than the gaunt Balanchine. “That’s not Russia,” he said. “That’s a completely different country, which happens to speak Russian.”

Soon after landing at Idlewild, Balanchine made a trip to Washington, D.C., for a debriefing at the State Department. By all accounts, the tour had been a personal and political victory, but Balanchine was unmoved. To him, the company’s success meant nothing. Instead, this was the moment when a mirror broke in his mind. He could no longer hold a nostalgic reflection of himself and an imagined tsarist past. That image, which had sustained him even as he also stood against it, no longer existed, and for all his proclamations of Americanness he was left feeling even more homeless and unmoored than he had felt before he set out. Russia really had disappeared. There was no more place to be exiled from. Exile was no longer a state of being; it was a flight—a flight into the pure glass-and-mirrored realm of the imagination, its own kind of home. ♦

This is drawn from “Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century.”

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