Sure, Critique Ballet and Balanchine, but Erika Lantz Does it Wrong

An earlier version of this article was far less sympathetic, but on hearing the latest episode of The Turning: Room of Mirrors, where the host Erika Lantz describes her own complicated relationship with ballet, I couldn’t help but shed a tear in solidarity. I too, like many before me, have an endlessly complicated relationship with ballet: a pastime that was so much more, but I ultimately gave up on pursuing. A source of tremendous conflict, I, on multiple occasions, both slept in my pointe shoes and bemoaned having to go to ballet class on a Friday afternoon. I thought my love for ballet was endless, but it turned out, like Ms. Lantz, my love had its limits. Even after years of moving on from technique class multiple times a week, I occupied myself with archival ballet footage online and attending the ballet regularly. Ballet, as an art form I cherish, has oftentimes made life feel richer and sweeter, and George Balanchine–the object of Ms. Lantz’s disapproval–was a key factor in my infatuation with it. I don’t remember the first time I saw a non-Nutcracker (1) performance of his, but I remember it made sense. His choreography displayed not just how the dancers ought to move, but how they wanted to as well. Even as a small child, witnessing Serenade, I knew how important this ballet was– beyond the piece itself, it was a type of creation that could connect me to older generations and a history. The movements pointed towards an enduring pursuit of excellence and a manifestation of truth. Witnessing ballet became a Murdochian experience, or even a Platonic one. But, despite the profundity these performances provided– and it really often is an altered emotional state– I would not be one of those people for whom an endless somatic artistic enterprise would a life make– it also helps that I have precisely the wrong body type, and never would’ve been technically proficient enough. This is to say, I understand exactly where Ms. Lantz is coming from. And it is precisely because of my own experience, of this enduring and utter twoness, that the lack of nuance with which Ms. Lantz has approached her project surprises me.

My discussion points for this article have implications beyond ballet, Balanchine, and this podcast, because I believe this podcast relies on contemporary tendencies rampant in media and idea exchange: namely engaging in analysis divorced of context, trying to fit talking points into a rigid dialectic, and fervent contemporaneous critiques of dated mores. The podcast, which tells the story of the co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and The School of American Ballet, George Balanchine, and his legacy in American ballet, plays out chronologically, the early episodes covering Balanchine’s coming-to-be and progression toward the formulation of his school and company, etc. From the start, Ms. Lantz has a preoccupation with age. In setting herself up for future conversations surrounding Balanchine’s notorious marriages to younger dancers– a topic that has been widely discussed, most recently in Jennifer Homan’s biography Mr. B– she recounts his first marriage at the age of 18, to a 15-year-old dancer named Tamara Geva. She doesn’t hide her disgust at the idea of nuptials at such a young age. This marriage, however, occurred at the end of the Russian Revolution, in 1922: a time of great confusion and disarray, where marriage happened earlier, life expectancy was shorter, and youth was far less prolonged than in 2023. My own grandmother, perhaps the most steadfastly principled person I’ve ever known, married at 19 and often told us that when she was our age (say 15), she was actually 27. Funny as this quip may be, she was right– my grandmother endured responsibilities no one expected of us. Societal expectations have altered greatly since the time of Balanchine’s youth, and while we can firmly look at the past with disdain, it’s only through the existence of what was, and a tremendous amount of trial and error (2) that we can take a moral stance on something like the appropriate age to marry. Similarly, using Balanchine’s first marriage as a jumping-off point for a discussion of his tendency to marry dancers years his junior doesn’t make much sense, because out of all his marriages, his first was arguably the most age appropriate.

Ms. Lantz wants to use George Balanchine as a basis for a discussion of work politics, gender dynamics, and power in the field of ballet– a field that has maintained an exclusive status even with attempts to break into mass media, like through this podcast itself. It’s not the content that leaves something to be desired, but form. Following her first season, dedicated to demystifying the legacy of Mother Theresa (I truly hope she used the work of Christopher Hitchens, as his commentary on the subject is so bitingly cunning!), the Rocco Punch Media podcast seems invested in eerie tales of true-crime and cults. While Mr. Balanchine’s followers can be likened to cult members– his dancers were positively devoted to him and did nearly anything to gain his attention and respect– the cult leader label and the crime story genre do not fit. City Ballet might have been a cult, but Balanchine was not a cult leader. Ms. Lantz’s attempt runs thin.

The podcast is comprised of a mix of interviews with former City Ballet dancers and noted dance historians. Try as Ms. Lantz might to make a case, it is obvious to the listener (or at least this one), that she is pushing an angle, firmly, so much so that she doesn’t actually listen to her interviewees. The interviews with the former dancers are particularly charged as they recount their involvement in the endlessly grueling process involved in creating Balanchine’s canonical works and his inscrutable standards. Ms. Lantz’s dialogues with two famous Balanchine dancers, Wilhamenia Frankfurt, and Stephanie Saland, a former soloist and principal respectively, are the battlegrounds for Ms. Lantz’s pursuit. Ms. Lantz offers them space to speak freely, which they do, but she consistently replies to this freedom with a tendency to mold the speaker’s commentary to what she herself wants to hear. 

Ms. Frankfurt, in episode one of the podcast, recounts a time when she had George Balanchine, her boss, to dinner as a young dancer in the company. At the age of 19, she blows her entire paycheck on an elaborate meal for the head aesthete of NYCB. What transpires is a jovial evening of lively discussion between Balanchine and an engaged colleague. Ms. Frankfurt states explicitly that the evening wasn’t sexual, that Balanchine was “gallant and a gentleman” about those matters, and that she resented the sexualization of an artistic relationship with Mr. B. Ms. Frankfurt did win Mr. Balanchine’s approval. He created roles for her– the ultimate honor for a dancer– and eventually, gave her a bottle of perfume he specifically chose for her, as it captured her spirit. A lot has been written about Balanchine’s tendency to give his dancers perfume. Contemporary analysis has called this an attempt to control: that he gave his dancers specific scents so he would know when they were walking down the halls of the City Ballet studios. I refuse to accept this interpretation, mostly because perfume transcends the somatic, and nowhere have I read that it was expected that the dancer must wear the scent. I believe it was an old-worldly romantic gesture from a highly romantic person– a notable hand movement in Apollo’s solo was sourced from a billboard for gloves Balanchine encountered on a walk home. The inspiration from the seminal work Jewels was the jewelry display cases at Van Cleff and Arples on Fifth Avenue next to Bergdorf Goodman–  given as a way to codify the essence of the dancer on stage. Many dancers have spoken about Balanchine’s roles as being “perfume-y,” for instance, Jennifer Ringer in her interpretation of one of the lead roles of “Emeralds.” (3)

 Ms. Frankfurt recounts receiving her gift of perfume while on tour in Paris. Ms. Lantz’s voiceover qualifies that only the most special dancers were given a scent and that Ms. Frankfurt knew this. The episode pans back to her interview with Ms. Frankfurt where Ms. Lantz asks how she felt about the gift. Being young and naive, Ms. Frankfurt recounts not liking the scent and pouring half the bottle’s content down the drain– she was a real brat, she says. In response to this anecdote, Ms. Lantz’s says “Well it makes sense! He was trying to control the scent of your body.” Ms. Frankfurt offers a passive “yeah,” but it’s clear the point has been missed. The two aren’t in conversation. Ms. Frankfurt, who did not have a seamless time as a City Ballet ballerina speaks honestly about her travails– the lack of awareness for the mental health of dancers at her time at the company, and Balanchine’s tendency to try to control the dancers’ social lives, worried boys would impact the ballerinas’ focus–is parsing apart a complicated relationship she had with her boss, a man she truly loved, and the insanity that she should love him so. Ms. Frankfurt speaks with an acute understanding of the strange ways of the professional ballet world, especially at New York City Ballet under Balanchine– including an obsessive focus on a certain type of physique– but she doesn’t denounce or label. Her commentary is not finite and definitive but rather unfolds as she continues to experience the passage of time since her days in the company under the leadership of Mr. B. Ms. Frankfurt is clearly conflicted about her feelings towards Balanchine: he was a man who pushed boundaries, artistically of course, but also personally, and she was the subject of inappropriate advances. And, he was also a man who took great care of her, nurtured her career, made roles for her. He didn’t understand her fully, and she felt he miscast her more than once, but she was a firm believer in his method. But this incredibly rich analysis is cut short by a medium seeking to find its place in a very a la mode scene, and a la mode format. True Crime has been a successful enterprise, and Ms. Lantz seems to be throwing her hat into the ring to produce her version of that narrative. This is only further punctuated by the use of eerie music throughout each episode (Ms. Lantz seldom uses the actual music of the ballet she discusses– it should be noted that discussions of actual ballets are a minority of her commentary), ads for other podcasts detailing actual murders, and perhaps behind the scene editing. 

 There is a moment in episode two where Stephanie Saland discusses her rebellious streak as a ballerina in the company. Frustrated by her inability to appropriately experiment and act out, she took to clubbing and substance use in her off hours, coming to class discombobulated. I took class with Ms. Saland during the most intense period of my ballet training. The fourteen-year-old in me, who was convinced I could never be as poised as Ms. Saland, was heartened to hear that she too was human. She entertained ideas of giving it all up for the normal path she abandoned in favor of the ballet career she got to have. 

Listening to Ms. Lantz’s podcast might make you believe both women gave up on ballet and denounced their years in the company as sour, but both Ms. Frankfurt and Ms. Saland continue to work in ballet, staging Balanchine’s works (the summer I took class with Ms. Saland, she staged the Terpsicore variation from Apollo on the older girls), and teaching his technique. After listening to the first episode, I looked up Ms. Frankfurt and stumbled upon her Instagram page. One of her past posts showed a photo of her on stage at the then-New York State Theater with a caption that read “I have my life because of George Balanchine.” This is not to say she didn’t experience troubling times under his tutelage, but that discourses of this nature lack absolutes. In carrying a hammer seeking to smash proverbial bottles of perfume, you may only end up in a large pile of glass, and an overwhelming aroma, Ms. Lantz!

Presently, Ms. Frankfurt has been extremely outspoken about the state of New York City Ballet under Peter Martins, George Balanchine’s successor who was notoriously rough. He retired in 2017 after allegations of sexual misconduct and physical abuse. I have no doubt he engaged in malicious behavior. Balanchine believed that the use of the dancer, body, mind, soul, etc., was fair game in the pursuit of great art. How Balanchine interpreted this versus Peter Martins is notable. Balanchine pushed boundaries, but Peter Martins, perhaps, eradicated them. Many believe Martins laid the groundwork for the photo-sharing scandal of 2018 that led to the dismissal of three male dancers. Martins was unrelentingly masculine in his leadership approach. To Balanchine, women were fair game artistically; to Martins, sexually. 

Ms. Lantz’s constant commentary of the commitment involved with being a ballerina– Ms. Saland remarks that there were no windows in the studio so as to keep out the outside world– led me to reach out to the media company asking if the host had any knowledge of ballet prior to creating this series. It is true that becoming a professional ballerina takes true commitment, but this doesn’t seem to me something that should be up for debate. Ballet is not a pursuit you can do half-heartedly, and this reality is one of the reasons doing ballet seriously is heart-breaking. Many people will realize they don’t have what it takes to commit their life to this art. I used to think this made me a bad person. That I lacked some sort of fundamental willpower that made me want to pursue other interests or live something of a normal adolescence, but there shouldn’t be shame involved with ultimately giving up the highest level of involvement in something so demanding. In the same vein, the type of commitment needed shouldn’t be slighted in its presentation so as to make the ruthlessness of the enterprise more palatable. It takes commitment and time to become an artist, and even more so to become a great one. Ms. Lantz’s critique of the all-encompassing nature of ballet training forgets one large glaring reality. There are people, true not many, who willingly, and joyously make the decision to commit themselves completely to this art form.

Ms. Lantz’s commentary doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Ultimately, what is the point of analysis if not to forge change for the future? Years after the chronology of her series, the norms of City Ballet are changing. More so than ever, some young dancers are leaving the company to pursue individual artistic enterprises (most recently corps member Jonathan Fahoury), either in dance or entirely different media. Dancers have found alternative outlets for self-expression via social media–India Bradley, a corp member with City Ballet is a particularly good example of this–she’s something of a modern-day influencer often donning the hippest of clothing at either fashion week or an art opening. More female dancers have babies than ever before, and have come back more mature and cultivated people from becoming mothers. This cultivation is almost always reflected in their dancing. Megan Fairchild is perhaps the poster child for this progress. She has been in the company as a principal dancer since 2005, and since her promotion, she has starred in a Broadway show, had three children, graduated from college, pursued business school, and published a book on pursuing ballet with a healthy and balanced mindset and lifestyle. The opportunities for dancers to exist as people and artists in the world have never been more available. Principal dancer Sara Mearns curated her own performance series at The Joyce last spring. She’s been a trainee in the Isadora Duncan company and performed at the 100th birthday celebration for Merce Cunningham at BAM. Principal dancer Tiler Peck is showing a curated evening of pieces at Sadler’s Wells this month and has consistently pursued commercial work, even starting a series of Instagram technique classes during the pandemic. Even if New York City Ballet is their primary home, the current dancers of City Ballet don’t seem to see primacy as a hurdle, but as a strengthening foundation from which to emerge and expand.

It seems that subtlety and nuance have entered the mindset of New York City Ballet in its current iteration. The company today is a much different one than what existed under Balanchine or even Martins. But none of this could be without Balanchine, and while he demonstrated unsavory parts of a complicated history, I won’t denounce him–to do so would be too easy. I’ll continue to listen to Ms. Lantz’s podcast, as I am incapable of avoiding media that annoys me, and I’ll continue to go to the ballet and love ballet, ever a more aware audience member. Pain has been felt in the halls of Balanchine’s house, but joy and beauty exist too. Neither outweighs the other. They both hang, with the tension and unpredictability of a Stravinsky score created for a Balanchine Black and White ballet at which you can’t help but marvel.

1. Balanchine, who choreographed the canonical version of the ballet, is credited with making The Nutcracker a holiday tradition for families.
2. I realize the conversation of “trial and error,” which has its basis in American Pragmatism, can be used to justify reprehensible behavior– for the sake of this article, I draw the line of this approach firmly when discussing Balanchine’s young age at the time of his first marriage.
3. This quote comes from an old Jewels promotional video that was featured on NYCB’s Youtube page and featured Jennifer Ringer, Steryling Hyltin, and Sara Mearns discussing the ballet and its three sections. It appears the video is no longer online.

Eve Bromberg (she, her, hers) is a third-year MA candidate at CUNY’s Graduate Center from Brooklyn, New York. Her thesis is titled “James Baldwin’s Black Existentialism: The Necessity and Limitations of a Dialectic of Resistance.”

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