Lincoln Kirstein, the finest historian of the dance and one of its greatest ideologues, has observed that in the 19th century what the prestige of ballet really amounted to was the reputation of the dancer; and that even when there were great choreographers (notably Petipa) and great dance scores (from Adam, Delibes and Tchaikovsky), dance was still almost entirely identified for the large theatrical public with the personality and virtuosity of great dancers. That triumphant mutation in dance taste and in the composition of dance audiences which occurred just before World War One, in response to the authoritative intensity and exoticism of the Ballets Russes, did not challenge the old imbalance of attention - not even with the subsequent invention by Diaghilev of dance as an ambitious collaboration, in which major innovative artists outside the dance world were brought in to enhance this theatre of astonishment. The score might be by Stravinsky, the decor by Picasso, the costumes by Chanel, the libretto by Cocteau. But the blow of the sublime was delivered by a Nijinsky or a Karsavina - by the dancer. According to Kirstein, it was only with the advent of a choreographer so complete in his gifts as to change dance for ever, George Balanchine, that the primacy of the choreographer over the performer, of dance over the dancer, finally came to be understood.
LRB 5 February 1987 | PDF Download