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Short Takes

All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine
By Terry Teachout
Harcourt, 185 pp., illustrated, $22

This is more a personal appreciation of the artist than a biographical study of the man, choreographer George Balanchine. Terry Teachout begins with his first experience of a Balanchine ballet, a performance of ''Concerto Barocco" in 1987 to which he brought few expectations and from which he emerged having ''witnessed a miracle." The unadorned dancers on the bare stage were not engaged in a naive pantomime of a story. The music was the story. This was ''sound made visible, written in the air like fireworks glittering in the night sky."

Balanchine, born in Russia in 1904, studied ballet at the Imperial Theater School as a teenager. In Paris, he was offered the chance to dance and choreograph with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. In 1933, he met the wealthy, eccentric Lincoln Kirstein, who brought him to America, where together they founded the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. For the next 50 years, Balanchine created an oeuvre of utterly original plotless dances. Teachout's conclusion seems undeniable: Balanchine ''was not merely the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century, but the only one to have left behind a body of work that deserves to be remembered in the same way we remember the work of Matisse or Stravinsky."

By Imre Kertsz
Translated, from the Hungarian, by Tim Wilkinson
Vintage, 288 pp., paperback, $13.95

Like Gulliver among the Yahoos, Georg doesn't recognize that the hideously shrunken and shaved ''convicts" at Auschwitz and Buchenwald are his own kind. Transported in one day from a work program near his home in Budapest to Auschwitz, the 14-year-old Jewish schoolboy must learn fast.

After three days in Auschwitz, where he sees the chimneys and smells the odd sweetness, he is sent to Buchenwald and then to a work detail in Zeitz. Young, strong, curious, willing to learn, he survives for one year the starvation diet, filth, disease. Despite everything, he thinks, ''I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp." After his release, he recognizes that living through the camps came naturally. His completely unsentimental story ends with this oxymoron: ''For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. . . . I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps."

Nobel Prize recipient Imre Kertsz, who survived Buchenwald, focuses on the first day of transformation, on the details of the arrest: the stopped bus, the customs post, the gendarmerie, the train. Each event follows in a logical, orderly, and sane fashion. Only the final destination --Auschwitz -- is insane.

How I Became Stupid
By Martin Page
Translated, from the French, by Adriana Hunter
Penguin, 160 pp., paperback, $13

French teenagers apparently love this pretentious little novel. Dutch and German high school students even gave it an award. Antoine is a young man suffering from being too intelligent, too understanding, too compassionate. He laments, ''Those who think there's some sort of nobility in intelligence clearly don't have enough to realize that it's a curse." To ease the burden of his too-refined consciousness, Antoine considers several strategies.

First he decides to become an alcoholic. Researching in the library and at the bar, he discovers that his body is too sensitive to tolerate alcohol. He considers suicide and a lobotomy, finally settling on a Prozac-like drug called Happyzac. Under its influence, he undergoes a complete makeover, becoming immediately chic and immensely rich. When this life becomes burdensome too, he returns to his former self. Then in a sudden shift of fate, he finds a soul mate -- Clemence. She is similarly cursed with intelligence and critical judgment. His problem is solved. It makes you proud to be an American.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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