On October 6, 1962, the members of New York City Ballet boarded a plane in Vienna, bound for Moscow, the first stop on an eight-week tour that had been arranged by the State Department. The party numbered around ninety, including the dancers, the conductor Robert Irving, two mothers (escorting underage dancers), several translators, the company doctor, and the company’s co-founder and artistic director, George Balanchine. Balanchine had not wanted to go. Born in St. Petersburg in 1904, during the reign of the last tsar, he had experienced cold and starvation in revolutionary Russia, before fleeing the country, in 1924, going first to Europe and then, in 1933, to America. The U.S.S.R. filled him with dread, and his return brought to light one of the great themes of his life: he had set his own path away from the Marxist materialism of the Bolshevik Revolution, and quietly built, in N.Y.C.B., a village of angels and a music-filled monument to faith and unreason, to body and beauty and spirit. It was his own counter-revolutionary place, an alternative vision of the twentieth century.
The dancers had stocked up on peanut butter, candy, tuna, Spam, toilet paper, and other necessities. Balanchine had also asked that they please dress well, since he wanted his company to present an elegant image. When they landed at Sheremetyevo, Balanchine emerged from the Jetway in a suit and bow tie, a trenchcoat draped casually over his arm. A full-court reception awaited him, with klieg lights, flashing cameras, Soviet officials, American diplomats, and a press corps eager to record his return. The sparring began immediately: “Welcome to Russia, home of classical ballet,” one of his hosts began, and Balanchine proudly responded, “No, Russia is home of Romantic ballet, America is the home of classical ballet,” by which he meant his modern ballet.
It was Cold War code: culturally, the war was being fought in part on the battlefield of abstraction, and Balanchine was taking a defining role. Stalin’s doctrine of socialist realism had long defined art in the U.S.S.R., and in dance this meant lavish narrative “drambalets,” often with socialist themes. Balanchine had pushed classical technique and the human body to new physical extremes, especially in his recent plotless dances, “Agon” (1957) and “Episodes” (1959), performed in simple practice clothes on an empty stage. In the U.S.S.R., such abstraction was still deemed a political threat, a slippery artistic form dangerously free of any fixed meaning that could be approved or censored. (Who could say exactly what “Agon” was about?) Balanchine flashed his American passport in case anyone didn’t get the message. But his attention was not fully there. He had seen his brother Andrei, who was standing patiently to one side, waiting.
“Andruska! It’s you,” he said, as they embraced, and his expression softened with emotion. They had not seen each other for some forty years, since the Revolution had torn their family apart. He was surprised that Andrei was so short, and it was true that Balanchine, who thought of himself as small, seemed to tower over him. At fifty-seven, Andrei was already gray, and next to his dapper sibling he appeared aged and shy, in a rumpled suit with drooping, oversized pockets (stuffed with tobacco, cigarette papers, and homemade filters composed of cotton and sugar). Although he was younger than George, he looked like an old man.
Andrei, who lived in Tbilisi, had followed the path of their father, Meliton Balanchivadze, a Georgian composer who had spent his career collecting traditional Georgian music and forging a style influenced by it. By now, Andrei was a well-known composer in Georgia, but his life had nonetheless been constrained by the harsh realities of Soviet existence—and by his brother’s American success. In the eyes of the state, Balanchine was a traitor, and a curtain of fear had fallen between him and his family. Fear, in his mind, of recrimination; in theirs, of association and disappearing into a Soviet night. Since leaving, Balanchine had received only one letter from his brother, and it had been delivered to him by a man he suspected of being an agent of the secret police. In it, Andrei had implored George to return to the U.S.S.R., but George sensed, correctly, that his brother had written the letter under duress and ignored it. Andrei had also sent a terse cable notifying him of their mother’s death. That had been the extent of their communication. It was a peculiar fact of exile and the Cold War that, in order to care for each other, they couldn’t know each other. The only protection they had was silence—its own kind of family tie.
The brothers went to dinner together at a nearby restaurant that served Georgian food. Balanchine eagerly selected favorite dishes from the menu, only to be told each time that the item was not available, so they finally settled on coriander chicken—all that was on offer that evening. The Hotel Ukraina, where Balanchine was staying with the company, had a similar empty grandeur. It was monumental, a fortresslike complex in yellow stone with eight turrets and a central tower with a high spire topped by a Soviet star. One of the “Seven Sisters” commissioned by Stalin to compete with American skyscrapers (and modelled in part on the Manhattan Municipal Building), the Hotel Ukraina was devoid of human scale, built in a style that Lincoln Kirstein, the company’s co-founder, called “Stalinoid Gothic.” Completed in 1957, it already felt old and run-down.
The enormous gray marble lobby resembled a train station, with a large restaurant emitting a pervasive Soviet smell of onions and cabbage. The thirty-seven floors and more than a thousand rooms were served by only a few very slow elevators, manned by stolid ladies in suits, and the wait could be more than half an hour to travel a few floors. The thirteenth floor was said to house the bugging apparatus for the whole building, and on each floor a uniformed matron sat at all times (with a cot for sleeping), controlling keys and entry. Once a guest passed muster, the walk to a room could seem miles long, down dreary carpeted corridors, and the rooms themselves were decorated in a worn Biedermeier style with Oriental throws. Everyone had been told that the ceilings were lined with bugging devices, and the dancers made a sport of discovering them.
They ate at the restaurant in the lobby: pirozhki, dark bread, cucumbers, pickles, borscht, chicken Kiev (“gray leather,” one of the dancers said), bottled sweet sodas, Russian ice cream. Balanchine asked for Borjomi, a sulfurous mineral water he remembered from childhood; to the dancers, it reeked of rotten eggs, but he guzzled it down. A pall of surveillance hung over everything. Their movements outside the hotel were tightly controlled, and buses carried them to rehearsals every morning, as well-wishers shouted, “No politic, no politic!” A few of the dancers ignored the restrictions and walked through the wide streets and crowded markets anyway. The requisite “interpreters” (undercover secret police) were their constant companions and occasional adversaries in chess matches, played with ice hockey blaring on TV in the background. Contact with family back home was difficult. Mail arrived erratically via diplomatic pouch, usually already opened, and making an international phone call could take hours. If the caller was lucky enough to get a connection, it was often only one-way—the person in Moscow could hear but not be heard, as operators seemed to be controlling the flow of information leaving the U.S.S.R.
On October 9th, after three days of rehearsals, N.Y.C.B. opened at the Bolshoi Theatre—elegant, Old World, plush red and gold, with crystal chandeliers—to a house packed with Soviet brass, including Yekaterina Furtseva, the Minister of Culture, a tough and cultivated woman neatly dressed à la Ninotchka, whom Balanchine grew to like. Nikita Khrushchev, the U.S.S.R.’s leader, was notably missing from his private box. As the evening began, the audience solemnly stood for the Russian national anthem, followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with Robert Irving at the podium conducting an orchestra of Soviet musicians. Balanchine had chosen a program of four ballets, all plotless: “Serenade,” “Interplay” (by Jerome Robbins), “Agon,” and “Western Symphony.” For this momentous opening night, he wore his Sunday best: a Mississippi riverboat gambler’s pegged pants with a rodeo rider’s silver-embroidered shirt and string tie.
The response to the performance, by this audience of officials, was polite but restrained, and Balanchine found himself devastated, confused, and angry that he was angry or that he cared at all. Once the official contingent finally cleared out, however, a group of students from the upper balconies rushed enthusiastically to the front and applauded the dancers. A fancy reception followed, hosted by the American Ambassador, Foy D. Kohler, at his elegant residence, Spaso House, formerly a merchant’s palace. The gracious, imperial-style rooms were crowded with dancers and the Soviet artistic and political élite—including, it was noted, Khrushchev’s son-in-law, whom Balanchine studiously avoided in order to minimize any political complications.
The next day, the production moved to the gigantic, six-thousand-seat Palace of Congresses, which had been sold out for days. It was an impressive, if cold, new theatre, a huge stone-and-glass structure originally built to host the Twenty-second Congress of the Communist Party, in 1961. The dancers were amazed to find air-conditioning, a fully stocked restaurant, and marble bathrooms with plenty of toilet paper.
“I can’t believe I’d been carrying them in my mouth.”
Cartoon by Amy Hwang
Seeing the cavernous stage, Balanchine immediately pulled the planned dancers for “Serenade,” who could barely be seen in the vast auditorium, and replaced them with taller ones. This time, and for most of the rest of the run, the Soviet people stood and cheered for the company, urging on their favorite artists by chanting their names (“Meetch-ell! Meetch-ell!” for Arthur Mitchell) and, at the end, calling for Balanchine to take a bow—“Ba-lan-chine! Ba-lan-chine! Spa-si-bo! Spa-si-bo!”—until he appeared from the wings and bowed modestly. As the Russian crew began to extinguish the lights, he gently implored the audience to go home; the dancers needed to rest.
He had to admit his immense satisfaction that audiences especially loved “Episodes” and “Agon,” his new abstract dances to largely atonal Webern and Stravinsky scores. The dancer Allegra Kent was even dubbed “the American Ulanova,” a reference to the beloved Soviet dancer Galina Ulanova. Critics were more ideologically constrained and complained that these dances were cold and lacked the warmth of theatrical dress and a human story. Balanchine patiently endured interview after interview, tirelessly explaining his approach to beauty and the human figure. His un-Sovietized Russian flowed, and, at times, even the facial tic that had been with him since childhood—a kind of nervous sniffing and nose twitching—melted away as he meticulously answered in his native tongue those who called his work mechanical, grotesque, or “repulsive.” But when a prominent critic told him that his ballets had no soul he sharply retorted that since Soviets didn’t believe in God they couldn’t know about the soul. And, when a delegation from the Ministry of Culture asked him, please, to cancel “Episodes” because “the people” couldn’t understand it, he responded, in a rare show of temper, with a Russian equivalent of “Fuck you” and walked out.
It all wore on him—the daily petty humiliation of waiting in the freezing cold while some guard, who by then knew exactly who Balanchine was, double- and triple-checked his papers before allowing him into the Kremlin or the theatre. One day, he forgot his official pass, and the guard turned him away, leaving a gaggle of frustrated journalists shouting from the other side of the barrier, a scene that delighted him by exposing the comedy of Soviet officialdom. Everything seemed grim and gray, he said—the food, the dress, the way people warily checked their every movement, even while walking down the street. His stomach clenched when an old friend invited him to his home, two cramped and dingy rooms, and proudly showed him that he had his own bathroom. Balanchine complained that the phone in his hotel room rang mysteriously in the middle of the night and that the radio would suddenly turn on. He was haunted by nightmares about losing his passport or being thrown into prison or suffocating. “A little green devil is following me,” he said, and he was not joking. He was losing weight fast and looked noticeably gaunt, and bursitis was making his shoulder inflamed and painful.
His temper flared. One night, after a bravura technical performance by Edward Villella in “Donizetti Variations,” the cheering audience called Villella back for bow after bow, until he finally performed an impromptu encore. Balanchine was beside himself with rage and stood in the wings fuming. Such a deviation from the score was everything he had fought against, and he was as angry as the company had ever seen him. As he later put it, “This is not circus.” The dancers were on edge, too: one got so drunk at a reception that he started smashing glasses and bad-mouthing “America of purple mountains majesties,” until he was escorted out and put on a plane back to the United States. Allegra Kent recalled “horsing around in crazy ways,” and other dancers remembered her performing an “improvised beatnik twist” for a gathering crowd of astonished Russians. There were whispers of dancers having affairs with their K.G.B. handlers and falling in love with Soviet musicians. The dancer Shaun O’Brien was arrested for taking pictures of pigeon tracks in the snow and held in custody for hours, where he was questioned at length about Little Rock, Marilyn Monroe—and Cuba.
Cuba. On October 22nd, in the middle of the company’s Moscow run, President Kennedy went on national TV to inform the American people that the U.S.S.R. had installed offensive nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba that were capable of reaching American cities. He coolly announced a strict quarantine of the island and the readiness of the United States to retaliate on Soviet soil in the event of a nuclear strike. When the news of this terrifying standoff reached the Embassy in Moscow, Kirstein, Balanchine, and a couple of others were informed of the situation. Kirstein and Betty Cage, who helped run the company, quickly came up with a disaster strategy. Plan A was to charter a plane; if the word came from the Embassy, the dancers could board waiting buses to the airport and take off immediately. If they couldn’t get to the airport, they’d resort to Plan B: get everyone inside the Embassy. Plan C was to then arrange a “prisoner swap” with the Bolshoi dancers, who were on a cultural-exchange tour in New York. When Kirstein shared these wildly unrealistic scenarios with the Ambassador’s staff, the response was swift: “The first thing we will know at the Embassy is that the phone will be cut off.”
For the moment, he was told, there were no plans for evacuation, and the Ambassador would attend rehearsals to allay any panic. As a comfort, the Embassy kitchen was made available to the dancers, who occupied themselves eating hamburgers and steaks, and in a touching sign of solidarity the staff at the Ukraina placed vats of flowers on the tables for the company. While N.Y.C.B. continued to perform at the Palace of Congresses, Khrushchev and other officials went to see an American singer at the Bolshoi Theatre—a way of signalling calm while still snubbing Balanchine. (Kirstein nervously scuttled back and forth.)
On October 27th, “Black Saturday,” an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over Cuba and the pilot killed. Information was not widely available, and secret negotiations were under way, but the surprise downing of the plane (by a local commander) further frayed nerves in Washington, Moscow, and Havana. By then, the United States was already at DEFCON 2, one level below war; U.S. long-range missiles and bombers were on alert; and planes carrying atomic bombs were taking off around the clock, prepared to move on targets in the U.S.S.R. In Cuba, surface-to-surface missiles and nuclear warheads were ready in the event of war, accidental or otherwise.
In Moscow that afternoon, in a separate incident, Soviet troops moved into place around the American Embassy to protect protesters who were throwing ink and eggs in a large demonstration against the imperial capitalist United States. (The protest was staged, it later transpired, by Soviet authorities, who bused in confused students and workers for the event and supplied them with posters and things to throw.) The American Embassy told the dancers to stay away and informed Kirstein that, if war broke out, it would be powerless to help them, and they would all have to use their wits to survive. Officials warned that the audience that night might rush the stage and advised the company to be prepared to immediately bring down the heavy safety curtain in the event of a riot.
That evening, the dancers, aware of some vague but imminent danger, nervously gathered at the theatre. Balanchine was strangely calm and commented dryly that he hadn’t yet seen Siberia. He never believed there would be a war, he later explained, because neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy wanted one, but there was more to his detachment than that. Russia had held a gun to his head once before, with the Revolution, and this time he had been training himself for years to expect death and to live only in the present moment. That “now” for him was one of the greatest skills in ballet. (He liked to say to his dancers, “What are you saving it for? You might be dead tomorrow!”) As the curtain rose on Bizet’s “Symphony in C,” the dancers stood for a moment in disciplined anticipation, staring into the blackened house of the theatre. Irving was poised at the podium, baton raised for the downbeat, and at that moment the audience suddenly grew larger than itself and rose in spontaneous applause. With the first note, an adrenaline rush brought on by pent-up fear and relief flowed through the dancers’ bodies, and they danced with the energy of life-giving release. At the end of the piece, Bizet and Balanchine’s exuberant and decisive close elicited rhythmic chanting from the audience, until finally Balanchine, looking small and thin, stood center stage and spoke quietly into the hushed auditorium. He thanked them all and then asked them to please go home; the dancers were tired and would be back tomorrow.
When tomorrow came, Armageddon had been averted. Kennedy and Khrushchev had reached an agreement, and late that afternoon the news was broadcast in Russia and around the world. As it happened, that night was N.Y.C.B.’s last performance in Moscow, and after the cheering and chanting at the end of the show Balanchine took the stage again. This time, he graciously invited the audience to follow the company to its next destination, which would be Petrograd, he said, deliberately using a name for St. Petersburg that predated the Revolution. Despising Lenin, Balanchine refused to use the name Leningrad for his beloved native city.
The moment they arrived and checked into the Hotel Astoria, Balanchine grabbed a couple of company friends, saying, “Let’s go to my old house”—by which he meant his aunt’s old rooms on Bolshaya Moskovskaya, across from the old Vladimir Cathedral, which he had often visited while a student at the Imperial Theatre School. The apartment building was still there, and he could see his aunt’s window, but his heart sank when he saw that the once beautiful house of worship across the street was now a factory. Worse, the mighty Kazan Cathedral, which they had passed on the way, had been converted into an anti-God museum. Still, he raced to the Imperial Theatre School, on Rossi Street—but to his companions’ surprise he stopped short at the entrance. His mind locked, and he couldn’t go inside. How would he manage the memories that were so tightly packed inside this old building? He found a small church that was still open and lit a candle there instead.
The people he had known were still alive; he just didn’t recognize them—didn’t want to recognize them, perhaps. His once beautiful young teacher Elizaveta Gerdt, for example, was now an old woman, he sadly noted. He had wanted to see the choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky, an idol of his youth, but when he saw Goleizovsky’s “Scriabiniana” performed by the Bolshoi he was so embarrassed that he cancelled the visit. He didn’t want to meet a feeble and wrinkled old man and preferred his memories of this crucial iconoclast. In Leningrad, he met a few members of his first dance company, Young Ballet, but now they just seemed to him “old and brown and bent like mushrooms. How can you feel affectionate and sentimental about a mushroom?” He did want to see Fyodor Lopukhov, whose “Dance Symphony” had been such a formative influence, but the old choreographer declined a visit. Balanchine’s obsession with aging was irrational, of course, and he was older, too, but he couldn’t stand that his colleagues, who had been so lovely and vibrant, had grown old and “dumpy,” as if the ruin of their bodies was part of the ruin of Russia itself.
The more he was fêted, applauded, and celebrated, the more depressed, self-controlled, and in charge he became. When he learned that students and artists couldn’t get tickets for the company’s performances, he arranged a free performance of his most radical works at the Palace of Culture: “Apollo,” “Agon,” and “Episodes.” He met with Soviet choreographers to discuss the principles of his art, and when the youngest among them asked for more he met them again informally at the theatre. When Konstantin Sergeyev, the artistic director of the Kirov Ballet (and an apparatchik), obsequiously presented him with a silver samovar and flowers onstage, noting that Leningrad was Balanchine’s home town, Balanchine pointedly accepted on behalf of New York and America. It all reminded Kirstein of the coronation scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible.” “Do you remember that scene?” he said to a journalist. “Ivan is on his throne. The nobles bow down before him; they heap gold upon him. And he sits there, implacable—he is absolutely implacable.”
Balanchine was also tense, moody, competitive, and despondent. When he taught class at the theatre, he seemed distracted, and the dancers watched quietly as he peered out the window in a daze, vacantly recalling how he had watched the tsar’s uniformed parades out of these very windows as a child. Ironically, the company happened to be there for the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought out the Soviet fleet, flags, tanks, banners, huge photographs of Lenin, parades, loud slogans, and carousing crowds. What Balanchine remembered of the Revolution were piles of bodies in the street, and people eating dead horses and rats. At the theatre, the celebrations were marked by the cancellation of “Episodes” because the musicians were too drunk. It was hard for Balanchine not to see everything through the lens of 1917, or else through the rose-tinted glass of the tsar’s empire, and he angrily complained that the theatre was full of dowdy working-class people who ate and drank noisily during the performance and didn’t care a whit for what they were seeing—something that was manifestly untrue. One night, he stood immobilized in the wings as the crowds chanted, and when one of the dancers urged him to go onstage he refused to move, saying, “What if I were dead?” Betty Cage thought that Balanchine was on the verge of collapse and had already arranged for him to skip Kyiv, the company’s next stop, and return to New York for a week before rejoining the company for its final performances, in Tbilisi and Baku. He needed a break. For him, Kirstein said, being in Russia was “a kind of crucifixion.”
Balanchine flew to Helsinki on November 8th, spent the night, and left the next morning for New York. Eugenie Ouroussow, a White Russian princess who ran Balanchine’s school, met him at Idlewild, and reported in a letter to her son the two “main points” he had made on the car ride home: that the company had produced an artistic revolution in Russia, and that Russia had “crushed” Balanchine. That week, he and his wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq, entertained guests constantly, as if cooking and hospitality could repair his battered mind. Barely a week later, he departed again for the U.S.S.R., bags stuffed with extra pointe shoes for the dancers.
He rejoined the company in Kyiv just in time to board the plane for Tbilisi, where, again, Andrei was waiting, this time with family in tow. It was a looking-glass moment, the life he might have had. Suddenly, he was little Georgi, and he met the relatives he did not know: Andrei’s glamorous wife, their darkly handsome sons (one named after Balanchine), and their daughter, a dancer. There was also Apollon Balanchivadze, George’s half-brother from his father’s first marriage, whom he had known briefly as a child. Talking freely was difficult. They were shadowed, and at Andrei’s apartment George nervously pointed to the ceiling, indicating that everything was bugged and they couldn’t speak. Still, in snatches and pieces, he learned the story of his family’s sad fate.
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.”