Earlier this week, I spoke with Richard Nelson, the author of "Nikolai and the Others," in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater as the audience gathered for a performance of "Ann." Among the audience that night, as it happened, were an ex-President (Bill Clinton) and an ex-Secretary of State (Hillary Rodham Clinton). Politics also pervaded my conversation with Nelson, though in a context more Truman-esque than Clintonian.
I had asked the playwright what drew him to the time and place and dramatis personae of "Nikolai" - a farm outside Westport, Connecticut, in the spring of 1948, as Stravinsky and Balanchine, surrounded by Russian friends, are creating the ballet "Orpheus." "I wanted to write a play that dealt with two conflicting forces operating on these people at that time," Nelson responded. "On the one hand, the CIA had begun a cultural Cold War to prove to left-leaning Europeans, among others, that American artistic life was rich. Artists, including those formed in Russia, were being enlisted in that effort." He continued: "On the other hand, the Red Scare was starting to heat up. People who had an association with the Soviet Union were worried about their situation in the United States." Nelson added: "One of the questions at the heart of this conflict is: what did artists lose if they allowed themselves to be supported as a part of a cultural-cold-war effort?"
The cultural context of Nelson's play may come as a surprise to theatergoers expecting "Nikolai" to furnish a standard biographical approach to Balanchine. "An audience member who arrives at the production expecting a biopic will be frustrated," Nelson commented. "The story is much more about how, over a roughly 24-hour period, the functions of daily life - eating, drinking, talking, perhaps making love - intertwine with the making of art."
All the same, the audience member who shows up with even a solid knowledge of Balanchine is likely to glean a few biographical details. "In 1948, when the play takes place," Nelson said, "it is by no means a given that Balanchine will go on to the glories that we associate with New York City Ballet. The year before, he had left America to be ballet-master at the Paris Opera Ballet, an experience that had gone very badly. Then he was offered a similar post at La Scala."
What Balanchine was seeking was not just favorable conditions in which to choreograph but resources for his dancers. Nelson explained: "They were not being paid for rehearsals and they were making $18 a performance at City Center, where they performed on Monday and Tuesday nights."
Nelson has been thinking about Balanchine for at least a decade. Before "Nikolai," he was involved in an eventually aborted project concerning the earlier, Diaghilev-linked period of the choreographer's life. "After that fell apart," Nelson said, "I kept alive in my head the idea of doing something about him."
As it turned out, "Nikolai" became part of a group of plays Nelson wrote to explore what he calls "crucible moments" in the life of artists. Two of these works have already been produced: "Frank's House," about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was done six years ago at the Goodman in Chicago and at Playwright Horizons in New York; and "Farewell to the Theatre," about the towering British theatrical figure Harley Granville Barker, was produced a year ago at the Hampstead Theatre in London.
"There's something inherently dramatic and fascinating to me about moments when people are being tested," Nelson said.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com