Balanchine Then And Now
Pacific Northwest Ballet
2 April 2012
by Dean Speer
We are so fortunate to have in our very midst someone who worked closely and personally with the great George Balanchine during his lifetime...and while he was in the midst of a golden era of creativity – Francia Russell. Russell, who along with her husband, Kent Stowell, co-directed Pacific Northwest Ballet until their retirement from that busy and demanding life a few years ago.
Both stay active in the ballet, particularly Russell who is kept busy by the Balanchine Trust staging his ballets for companies globally.
Russell is a adroit speaker and savvy observer who is very quick on her feet and who appears to enjoy publically presenting her considerable professional and personal knowledge and stories.
Paired with PNB Artistic Director, Peter Boal, the two contrasted and compared differences in Mr. Balanchine’s ballets and explored with us why and how many of these changes came about, using archival footage and company dancers.
A good example was the male Melancholic solo from “The Four Temperaments” where they first had Benjamin Griffiths show the original version and then Matthew Renko who demonstrated a later version. Then, and this was most interesting – they danced simultaneously, we could easily see what these difference might be. I found myself preferring the older version – it actually seemed more contemporary and unusual to me. Arms across the body as opposed to more open. The later version impressed me as being more rounded, less edgy, yet still dramatic.
We were then treated to a film clip of Russell as one of the three muses in “Apollo” with the legendary Jacques d’Amboise as the title character. She commented that this was a ballet that she always enjoyed performing – from beginning as an attendant in the birth scene to being a muse.
Herself at the creation and as a part of it, Russell told us of her inclusion in the iconic “Agon” and how, first as a member of the corps and then later as a soloist, she was able to learn and perform many of the parts. Maria Chapman and Lesley Rausch performed a duet, and as earlier with the men, did it one time through from the Russell era and one time through as now done by the New York City Ballet.
Insider information included how one female dancer, due to both preference – apparently did not like to make leaps -- and a foot problem – how humanely Balanchine would customize certain sequences or individual steps to accommodate such things, or how he might change something if he felt there were artistic reasons.
Griffiths next did the male solo from “Square Dance” which is a later addition done for Bart Cook who taught it to Boal, who has since passed it along himself. It’s a very introspective dance. Probably the biggest difference from the original of the ballet is that a square dance caller was used – which some companies sometimes still use today.
“Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” is a dance that Balanchine made in 1960 for Violette Verdy and d’Amboise and has been a popular dance – to do and to view – ever since. The film clip shown was a clever montage of the coda with various casts over the years, from the original to fairly contemporary, including Peter Martins and Baryshnikov. Very charming.
We couldn’t get enough and the hour and-a-half spent enjoying this demonstration in PNB’s made-to-order ballet studios absolutely flew by, concluding with Russell summarizing what she felt where some of her mentor’s qualities and attributes – how he liked to work hard yet enjoy himself and life outside of ballet, talking about people and politics and how she fully credits him with bringing her back into the ballet through his [strong] suggestion that she teach, learn his ballets and stage them and be a ballet mistress at NYCB. Her talk of her early days of teaching, his observing her do this and his invaluable feedback, allowed us to feel like we were there and, importantly gave us insight into the staging and preservation of Balanchine’s art.