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New York City Ballet

'Sunday at the Ballet with George'

A Special Celebratory Event to Honor George Balanchine's Birthday

by Tom Ferraro

January 22, 2012-- David Koch Theater, New York, NY

Preceding an all-Balanchine performance on January 22, 2012, was a panel discussion of what made George Balanchine so special featuring insights from current and former NYCB dancers. Balanchine’s dancers are all known for their incomparable skill and beauty. So exactly how did Balanchine instill such excellence in his dancers? A panel was set up to explore this question. Tyler Angle, principal dancer for NYCB, led the panel discussion with dancers Lisa de Ribere, Darci Kistler and Wendy Whelan. A group of 200 were in attendance in the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater to hear this conversation. There was a wide ranging discussion of what it was like to work with Balanchine and how he developed such masterful dancers. Some of the main observations from this panel follow.

First, Balanchine was able to choreograph so well because of his own mastery of music. His father was a Russian composer and Balanchine was trained in music as a child. Second, Balanchine also knew how to perform ballet very well and this enabled him to show the dancers what he wanted. Balanchine also pushed all of his students extremely hard. He provided no time to warm up in class; instead, he expected his students to be warm already upon their arrival. Balanchine did collaborate with his most of his dancers, so in fact they were all a part of his creations. He wanted none of his students to get any other coaching. Balanchine strongly believed that his students should have to find their own answers by working things out on their own in the studio. He felt that this helped them to develop individuality. Balanchine found his ballet inspirations from the world around him including television sit-coms and the streets of New York. The dancers on the panel all admitted how deeply they loved Balanchine as a person and a ballet master. And it was through this tremendous love and admiration that he was able to inspire their incredible devotion to excellence. No company on earth looks or dances like the NYCB.

Later in the day I attended “Who Cares?” set to16 George Gershwin American classics including “‘S Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” and” The Man I Love.” The scenery, by Jo Mielziner, consisted of a beautiful background scrim with the New York City skyline in abstract form looking like a giant bouquet of flowers with lights. Gershwin’s pop classics were performed en pointe using a combination of classical moves with jazz moves thrown in to lighten the mood. A five minute duet set to the song “The Man I Love” has got to be one of the greatest modern pas de deux ever set to pop music. It was given a standing ovation in the middle of the ballet (pure romance and love!). The show is George Balanchine’s gift to New York City and any visitor to New York who wants to feel what Manhattan is like need only see this masterpiece to understand the heart and the soul of this city.

Next was “Union Jack.” When was the last time you saw 70 dancers dressed in full Scottish military regalia go marching to drums on a ballet stage? Never you say? “Union Jack,” with music by Hershy Kay adapted from traditional British music and scenery and costumes by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, was Balanchine’s contribution to the American bicentennial celebration in 1976. He wanted to remind America of our roots in Great Britain. The first piece, entitled “Scottish and Canadian Guards Regiments,” engaged the entire company in groups of ten each. The different groups were dressed in tartan outfits based upon real fighting kilt uniforms. The movement was solemn and showed a complex geometry of marching with some clever balletic moves thrown in for good measure. The contrast between the military marching moves and the ballet moves reminded me of the way Paul Taylor wove together African drums beats and classical dance in his masterpiece “Cloven Kingdom.” The third movement was called “Royal Navy” and featured nine dancers dressed in sexy navy whites. It had lots of charm as it parodied various swimming and saluting movements. It is tough to be true to both military movements and classical ballet, but Balanchine did it with ease.

At the end of the night one could see that Balanchine was a massive talent who could produce masterpieces in a wide range of styles. Think of such classics as “Serenade,” “Agon,” and “Concerto Barrocco.” And now go and see “Who Cares?” and “Union Jack,” which are so modern, so light, and so American. Balanchine was a Russian genius who came to America and stole the show. And thank God he did.

 

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