Or, Researching George Balanchine
  • Jessica L Wilkinson

New York, 2015

Trailing through the stratosphere to the hard city

of solitary icons and step-backs.


Slack tourist. I take no photographs of Deco detail

or low light smeared across the broken sidewalk.


When mornings come, I count the numbers down

Columbus to 65th Street, cross the Plaza


into Lincoln Centre’s archival fold. Winter still, in late

March. And through the trees, you can see


a two-part hefty figure, built up from one

small piece of bone.* I wonder on its shape,


that first clue toward an outcome. How to gather

flesh around a concept so defined it points to


living? I carry my own small clue; a postcard, picked up

years ago, for free, at the entrance to a local café.


And now, enrolled in a library’s quiet order

I hunch over folios and folders, for leads


toward a human form.




North East to repeats of Cheers and clam chowder,

my days are spent dry-mouthed in Houghton’s


Reading Room, as underwhelmed librarians fetch

orders from the list of MS Thr 411: George Balanchine’s


personal papers.* I type out private signals from abundant

correspondence, arcing back to John and Jackie, Jimmy Carter,


Gene Kelly. There are 2822 folders of accumulated evidence:

clippings and cuttings and transcripts of interviews, medical


reports and photographs and medals and certificates.

I open hammy love poems scrawled in red, and limp jokes


lost on a stranger, observe the urgency in a grocery list:

milk, cig, cat food. These are my photographs, snapped


quickly, with a cough: a clumsy collage of headshots,

upended from an envelope — George at different ages


but always that inscrutable stare; a tarnished key

in its leather pouch, along with currency and strange receipts;


and item no. 2822, an accordion that can’t be played.



Copenhagen-St. Petersburg-Paris

Bodies can travel through spaces unexpectedly,

can collide with a resonant wound. In Copenhagen,


language-astray, I lug my suitcase miles across the city

to a flat beside the Peblinge Sø, adjacent to a mural


of a bowhead whale trapped in netting. George’s

recurrent bad luck in this city. I visit the local theatre,


watch a ballet he inspired, and another

where a young girl screams, just once.


In St. Petersburg, I spend days in bed, shut out white nights

with the heavy curtains. My muscles ache, my nose


runs right on into Paris, where the sun is bright and hot;

I hide and eat cheese in the shade, hold my breath over


bad plumbing. The Pompidou reveals exquisite Arp, Chagall,

Matisse; Miró’s Portrait of a Dancer nails its turn, leaves me





New York, 2018

Mr. Balanchine once said, a good cook must not rush,

needs patience. Three years on low heat, the bone


has gained some flesh, articulates new bones, more flesh.

I return to the archive to add sinew, organ, skin — to push


the poem towards a pulse. In the plaza, Moore’s

Reclining Figure sashays in the heat of June. All my purpose,


honed on tending traces of the moving body, memories

stored in muscles that are primed to flex and glide across


a kitchen or a parquet floor. In four more weeks, my arms

are full at port de bras with recipes for dance; the steps


evolve experiments, resolve as lines along an arabesque

penchée, circled ‘round a ronde de jambe, crooked at an


elbow, jazzed. Only now, that postcard, picked up

on a whim, attracts new shapes and angles and vibrations


all those lines, collected, merge into poems, pull tight

from the core to form a book I hold in my hands.


Mr. Balanchine sniffs over my shoulder on his way past,

and he says “No monuments. Only butterflies.” 


I hear a grand piano starting up somewhere

in the distance, open my arms, and move on.




* Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure’ in two parts, built up from a small piece of bone.
* George Balanchine archive, 1924-1989 (MS Thr 411). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library.