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Words on Dance - 'Celebrating Mr. B'

Panel Discussion with Maria Tallchief, Helgi Tomasson, Merrill Ashley, Allegra Kent, and Mikko Nissinen

by Francis Timlin

April 19, 2004 - Herbst Theatre, Veterans Building, San Francisco

On Monday, April 19, 2004, the Herbst Theatre at the Veterans Building in San Francisco was filled with an audience primed and enthusiastic for "Words on Balanchine: An Evening with Allegra Kent, Helgi Tomasson, Merrill Ashley & Mikko Nissinen."

The evening began with a short video recapitulating ten years of "Words on Dance" presentations. Producer Deborah DuBowy welcomed the audience and explained the absence of Maria Tallchief, who was scheduled to be one of the panelists, due to her husband's gravely ill condition. She then introduced San Francisco Bay Guardian critic Rita Felciano, who provided an historical overview of Balanchine and highlights of the careers of each of the panel members.

Serving as moderator, Mikko Nissinen posed the question, "How did you meet Mr. Balanchine?"

Allegra Kent responded that she was in the school at SAB, but never formally "met" him until after she was in the company.  Merrill Ashley said that he and Diana Adams had "looked her over" as a possible Candy Cane for Nutcracker while at the School of American Ballet (SAB). She recalled that Mr. B. was always very matter-of-fact when working with children.

Helgi Tomasson recalled that he came into the company along with Peter Martins and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. Early in his career, he had studied at SAB for six months or so. Nine years later, he came back in response to a telegram asking him to come and "take a few classes." He did not realize that he had been named a member of the company until he was told by fellow dancers.

The first of several film clips was shown, featuring Maria Tallchief in "Sylvia Pas de Deux"; Allegra Kent in "Apollo"; and Violette Verdy in "Ravel Sonatine."

The next question to the panel invited comments to the statement that Balanchine was inspired by the individual qualities he found in dancers and that he used his dancers as creative tools.

Merrill Ashley, speaking of "Ballo della Regina," stated that while the ballet was intended to be virtuosic, that it turned into a choreographic collaboration. Mr. B was interested in making the choreography fit each dancer. Hence, "Ballo" is lyrical but fast. She feels that Balanchine seemed to understand the personalities of his dancers.

Helgi Tomasson described the process of creating the solo that was his in "Baiser de la Fee" for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. He described it as one minute and twenty seconds that became progressively harder. Balanchine set it on him once and told him to practice. He did not see it again until the dress rehearsal.

Ashley added that Mr. B. always worked fast. "Ballo" was done in less than a week. Mr. B. could look at a dancer and know what would suit them best.  Allegra Kent spoke about "The Unanswered Question" from "Ivesiana" and the creation of her solo as a woman who was often out of reach and somehow in another realm. Balanchine allowed for a lot of creative interaction with the dancers. To a certain extent, the dancer defines the form of the piece.

The second film clip featured Merrill Ashley in "Ballo" and Allegra Kent in the second movement of "Symphony in C."

Ashley described the Balanchine style as a highly streamlined way of moving that required being in time with the music -- always listening to the music.  Kent indicated that "La Sonnambula" required her to walk *off* the music in an ethereal glide. Balanchine liked the look of danger and had a keen sense of dramatic theatricality. Nothing was safe or boring or predictable.

Video clip number three showed Helgi Tomasson in "Baiser de la Fee" and coaching San Francisco Ballet principal, Gonzalo Garcia, as part of the Balanchine Legacy Project.

Commenting on the Legacy Project, Ashley said that it is a hard job to try to pass along the legacy, but many Balanchine dancers feel the impulse to do so. She continued by saying that Balanchine's classes were very hard, calling them an "extreme experience." Class was never a "feel good" experience; class was his laboratory.

It was pointed out that San Francisco Ballet principals, Lorena Feijoo and Gonzalo Garcia, will be working with Merrill Ashley on "Ballo" and performing as guest artists with New York City Ballet as part of its Balanchine Celebration.

Mention was made of Balanchine's involvement with Broadway shows and the fact that the money to commission Hindemith's score for "Four Temperaments" came from money he had earned from his Broadway work.

Regarding his longtime collaboration with costumer Barbara Karinska, Allegra Kent indicated that Karinska seemed to be able to read Balanchine's mind, especially with a costume such as the one for "Bugaku," which she described as the sexual initiation of a virgin steeped in japonoiserie.

The last film clip showed Merrill Ashley in "Agon," and Allegra Kent in "Bugaku," coaching Janie Taylor and Albert Evans (NYCB) in 1999.

Helgi Tomasson agreed with Balanchine's dictum about "a school first," stating that the basis of a company needed to be a school to develop and feed talent into the company.

At this point, questions were taken from the audience.

The first questioner asked about Balanchine's relationships with dancers and what, specifically, makes his dancers so loyal.  Merrill Ashley responded that while Mr. B. was not a cult leader, he made you want to be in his presence to hear what he had to say. Dancers knew that he could bring out something better in each one of them. Nothing was arbitrarily chosen or done. He made the dancers believe that what he was doing was right.

Helgi Tomasson stated that it was a privilege to work with Mr. B. "Agon" feels so logical when you are performing it.  Allegra Kent added that it was because he was so musically logical.  Tomasson said that it was exciting to be part of Balanchine's creative process. He stayed at NYCB because of him.

Ashley said that she never thought about working with Mr. B. as "history in the making." She was inspired to just work in the moment.

A questioner asked about what level of company should perform Balanchine work.

Helgi Tomasson explained that the Balanchine Trust evaluates the level of each company and recommends easier works for less developed companies.  Merrill Ashley stated that dancers learn a lot from doing Balanchine works, and companies thereby get stronger, with the works serving as a catalyst for growth.

A third questioner asked about Balanchine's use of dancers in ensembles.

Helgi Tomasson said he thinks it is embedded in Balanchine's vision of how to use the music.  Merrill Ashley said that Mr. B. was a great admirer of Verdi and learned a lot from studying the way Verdi used the chorus in his operas.

A final question, directed to Allegra Kent, asked her to expand upon the statement in her book that dancing was a means for her to express herself without revealing her thoughts.  Kent responded that her mother liked to talk a lot and dancing was her way of expressing something without having to talk in competition with her mother.

While many in the audience would have liked to continue much longer, after 90 minutes it was time to adjourn the formal program to the reception hall, where the informal discussions continued for some time.

Edited by Jeff.

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