You might not know much about dance, but chances are you’ve heard of George Balanchine. “In the U.S., there is ballet before George Balanchine and ballet after George Balanchine,” host Erika Lantz says toward the beginning of The Turning: Room of Mirrors. Produced by iHeartPodcasts and Rococo Punch, The Turning’s second season is a window into the otherwise windowless world of ballet. “We don’t need windows, because the outside world doesn’t matter,” former dancer Stephanie Saland says at one point about the David H. Koch theater, which houses the New York City Ballet. “We are not part of the outside world.” Through a series of intimate interviews with dancers, mostly about their experiences working with famed choreographer George Balanchine as young women and girls, Lantz cranes for a glimpse into American ballet’s inner sanctum.
The dancers’ accounts of Balanchine range from admiring and nostalgic to confessional and at times somewhat fearful. For the first few episodes, though, Lantz mostly checks her opinion at the door, instead allowing the people she interviews — ballet dancers, but also music and dance scholars — to shape the listener’s perception of Balanchine. She understands that he was a complicated man, and that any account of him will necessarily be nuanced and at times contradictory.
By the end of episode four, Lantz starts to show her cards a bit more. Through most of the podcast’s first three episodes, she tries to offer an honest yet balanced portrayal of the choreographer. But in “The Muses,” there is a distinct tone shift when Lantz tells the story of former ballerina Suzanne Farrell, who was cast out of the New York City Ballet after refusing Balanchine’s marriage proposal. Farrell was 23, at the height of her career, and Balanchine was in his 60s. Her entire world was in his hands, and he tossed it away like a pair of old shoes.
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“No other company in America would be able to hire Suzanne Farrell to dance,” author Jim Steichen says. “For fear of incurring the ire of Balanchine.” It’s an infuriating moment in the show, and while I was turning over Farrell’s story in my mind, the epic tale of Balanchine’s own life and work lost some of its magic, incredible as it is. Lantz seems to feel similarly, and Steichen, too. “A lot of people have criticized me for kind of parsing it out and writing about it,” he says about Balanchine’s treatment of Farrell. “I don’t know how you can call that anything but a misogynistic abuse of power.” Here, Lantz starts to parse out her own thoughts on Balanchine’s treatment of women, and it’s less forgiving than what some of his former students have to say.
Still, it’s not yet clear what Lantz makes of everything she’s learned about Balanchine so far. There’s a touching moment when she describes the opening of Serenade, a ballet that Balanchine choreographed in 1934 to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. For the ballet’s opening position, each dancer has one hand raised up in front of them. “Like they’re trying to shield their eyes from the sun,” Lantz explains. It was a pose Balanchine incorporated after seeing one of his dancers shade her eyes during a sunny rehearsal day. At the beginning of Serenade, the dancers hold that first pose for over a minute, and when they do begin to move, it’s gradual. Just the basics at first. “It’s almost like the first exercises of a ballet class, slowed down,” Lantz says. “It’s like you see 17 dancers wake up their bodies to dance for the first time. Like they’re learning in front of you that their bodies can hold music.” Listening to Room of Mirrors feels a bit like this, too. The show opens with the squeaking, decisive sounds of pointe shoes stretching and striking the floor, maybe warming up or practicing steps. To make sense of the dance world — the hold it had on Balanchine and his ballerinas, and the hold they had on each other — Lantz begins with the granular, and gradually works her way out. Like the beginning of Serenade, it’s a slow build, but an entrancing one.
Kat Rooney is a writer based in New York. You can reach her at [email protected]