Remembering Balanchine

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This George Platt Lynes study of George Balanchine with School of American Ballet students was on the cover of the School’s brochure scant years after I entered, and I’ve always loved it. (The boy is 10-year-old Edward Villella.)

Only in our dreams would Mr. B. feel the need to work with dancers at our level. This is what I remember from one time that he did.

In a slightly different form, it appeared in the Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1983, just after Balanchine’s death..

Remembering Balanchine

The last thing we expected George Balanchine to be was funny. Actually the last thing we expected him to be was visible. In 1945 as a student at the School of American Ballet, you could count on an occasional harrowing glimpse of Lincoln Kirstein in the elevator to class, well over 6’4” tall and austere, and that was bad enough.

Mr.B. was legendary but largely unseen. I was sure he’d look like one of those George Platt Lynes photographs in Dance Index, with his necktie thrown dramatically back over his coat. Classmates thought he’d look imperious, since half his photographs were taken with his head back like a greyhound. But although we felt his presence at the School we almost never saw him during those long afternoons while we spattered the wooden floorboards with drops of sweat and prayed that somehow, some way we would learn the combinations. Not only learn them but begin to dance them.

Occasionally, a girl from the most advanced class would to drop into C class to work on technique; dancing what we were only holding onto with our fingernails. The one we used to stare at most, covertly, trying not to show our fascination, seemed as close to perfection as we could imagine. She had extraordinarily long legs and arms and she tied her hair back neatly with the narrowest pink satin ribbon, the color which exactly matched the pink flush her cheeks took on as the class work grew progressively harder. It gave her the effect of a porcelain doll, a comparison we suspected she had already noticed, but there was nothing doll-like in the way she covered the diagonal distance of the practice room in three long, low leaps.

There was yet no New York City Ballet company to aspire to, although we had no way of knowing how close on the horizon it was to being born. It seemed as though nothing would change, that classes from these fierce Russian emigres, Anatole Ouboukhoff and Pierre Vladimiroff who gave their directions in French strained through Russian, or from Muriel Stuart who was English and kindly and had toured with Pavlova, would continue forever; that we would learn or not learn each succeeding level of difficulty in a sort of dream-like continuum.

But it all changed one November afternoon. A large group from class, as well as soloists taken from the professional class, were quietly notified: there was to be a school performance at Carnegie Hall with Leon Barzin and the National Symphony Orchestra. Mr. B. would choreograph a Mozart Symphonie Concertante, a Stravinsky Elegie for viola and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka.

And so we began to work with Balanchine. And with our pink-cheeked idol from professional class, Tanaquil LeClercq, who we found was only a year older than most of us, and not aloof but intent. She and another dancer the physical opposite of herself were to do a pas de deux. Most of the rest of us were involved in the Mozart Symphonia Concertante, forming a living background for the serious action, standing, kneeling, posing, changing arms, counting, changing arms again. All in an atmosphere of the greatest concentration. There were, you can be sure, no hysterical mothers, and no worries over costumes either. We were to wear our hideous blue regulation leotards and tie our hair back neatly. And that was that.

But we could watch. So we would line the floor, our backs against the cold mirrors, sit quietly and try not to be noticed while we watched them practice. Balanchine would get two or three dancers into a tangle, their hands linked in a long continuous movement until he ran out of human slack, and had to unknot them as you would unknot a snarled chain. And at these moments we discovered his oblique humor.

Tamara Toumanova had been through New York just then, with, among other things, a peculiar ballet done to the music of Chopin in which the pianist was on stage with her and she was his muse. A white, romantic ballet, it had been choreographed to feature one of her particular aptitudes, spectacular balance. At one moment of inspiration she balanced en pointe at his shoulder, balanced and balanced while the music filled and swelled and repeated and went back and over again until, finally, she had her fill of inspiration and got on with the rest of the dance.

And on this particular Saturday morning on Madison Avenue in this dingy, sacred school, Balanchine, working with three other dancers, had left a fourth girl on pointe as he wandered off a little to the side, head down, to figure out what in heaven’s name he was going to do next. Our eyes were riveted on her. She held her pointe, held it and held it. He had not told her to move. She began to sway. Our heads swayed slightly with her. Finally, noticing his entire room moving like palm trees in a wind, Balanchine looked up and saw her predicament.

“You can come down now, Toumanova.” The corner of his mouth twitched very slightly.

The night before the performance we lined up for one last costume check. Something distressed Mr. B. Scissors were brought. And he personally cut lower the decolletage of each dancer he felt needed it. Twelve year olds, I seem to remember, were not in that group, nor weed-like 14-year-olds either.

To tell the truth, I can’t remember much about that evening. What we had to do we did sturdily enough; it was cold but we barely felt it. A whole orchestra sounded rich to us after a rehearsal piano, and the night was over entirely too quickly. The School gave us each nosegay bouquets. Years later, after a dozen moves I finally lost mine. And cried.

But I remember vividly the morning I read that Balanchine had married Tanaquil. A classmate called me and her sigh was unenvious. “She married him for all of us,” she breathed. And so she had.

This piece came about through the generosity of Martin Bernheimer, the towering Los Angeles Times Music Critic and my next-office neighbor at the paper. When Balanchine died, Bernheimer remembered that I’d had something to do with ballet, or Balanchine or whatever in my past, and asked if I’d write something in the way of an appreciation.

Sometimes panic steadies you. It did me, that day, as I clung to the thought that personal wasn’t necessarily negative.  Besides, it was all I had to bring.  After it ran, panic came back when a warm note arrived. Toumanova had so enjoyed the piece, “Would you like to have tea one day, just me and Momma?”  I declined, polite but aghast.  All I could think was, Didn’t she realize that the joke, more or less, was on her? 

Perhaps. But it was Balanchine’s joke.
 

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Balanchine, Robbins and the Egg McMuffin

PNB Soloist Benjamin Griffiths (left) and Artistic Director Peter Boal. Photo © Angela Sterling

To watch a dancer pass down the details of a signature role, gesture to gesture, body to body can be like watching the flow of electricity. Or an excessively polite family squabble, “On the diagonal? Really??” It can be generous and at the same time carry the faintest sheen of regret. It is never dull.

Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s far-seeing artistic director, has been very, very good about coaxing formidable veterans of New York City Ballet to Seattle to coach PNB’s rising tide of dancers in “their” roles. And about letting the public in on at least one of these afternoons, as history and memory collide.

The sessions that hooked me, permanently, came last year, for a PNB staging of Balanchine’s Jewels. Over the course of a month, Boal lured Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul for Emeralds; Edward Villella with Rubies, and for Diamonds, the irrepressible Jacques d’Amboise, who worked in the plaid shirt and hiking boots he wore the next day on the trails of Mt. Rainier.
Utterly different styles, same knock-out effect.

Of course these dancers would help pass the torch. Peter Boal is one of their own, a full-on NYCB creation. He’d entered the School of American Ballet at the age of 9; he retired after a 22-year career in the company. As one of their Principals, Boal was both a supreme classicist, known for his “transcendent” Apollo, and a dancer with an intriguing experimental side. He was also a deeply gifted teacher. To imagine him shaping his own company? Heaven.

(Not to appear intentionally stupid, I do know the forces that really shape any dance company: its board of directors. I’ve followed company/board imbroglios my long life long, and I still understand their dynamics the same way I grasp the bitcoin. PNB’s board seems elastic enough to embrace Boal’s forays onto the truly cutting edge as well as to appreciate what it means to have the NY Times doughty Alastair Macaulay call today’s PNB “one of the world’s foremost Balanchine companies.” Bravo. Bravos, actually..)

Balanchine hung on to few works from his very early Diaghilev days, primarily Apollo and Prodigal Son. And when he set Prodigal for NYCB, in 1970, he chose Jerome Robbins as the Prodigal and Maria Tallchief for the Siren. (Those of us who saw that pair can still feel the scorch.)

After Balanchine’s death in 1983, when it fell to Robbins to coach a new Prodigal, he picked the young (and even younger-looking) Peter Boal, as his headstrong innocent. Now, with Prodigal Son on PNB’s 2015-16 opening program, it was Boal’s turn, in a mirrored classroom, with a small audience, to tutor two Sons and two Sirens. And also to revisit, dryly, some of the heart attack moments from the Jerry and Peter show, all those decades ago.

Robbins had plunged into their session abruptly:

What did you have for breakfast?”

In the pause that followed, Boal picked honesty as the best route around a non-sequitor.

“An Egg McMuffin.”

Robbins’ eyes swept the heavens. This was going to be worse than he’d imagined. Much much worse.

“What did THE PRODIGAL have for breakfast? What time did he WAKE UP? What time did his FATHER wake up? What did his FATHER have for breakfast? What have you heard about the SIREN over the mountains? How much MONEY do you have?”

Okay. That was Robbins’ approach: dancers as actors (and not incidentally athletes), directors as Intimidators in Chief. A prickly approach, but one that worked for him from ballet to Broadway and back to ballet again.

Not Boal’s style. In soft shoes, soft pants and a T shirt, he works quietly, giving a reason as he corrects. The Prodigal passes a large wine jug to one of his two friends. “He just bought it, it’s heavy,” Boal says. Now it is, so full it almost sloshes. He changes the angle of the Son’s face just slightly; now it shows his father – not his friends – that he’s leaving.

One of the Sirens enters, at the mercy of her yards-long red plush train.
“I’m not an expert on Sirens,” Boal says, “but. . . “ he had been able to watch an 8-hour tape from WNET of Balanchine working on Prodigal with Baryshnikov. “They began in English, then quickly switched to Russian, which I don’t speak, but it was. ..” He shakes his head at the memory.

In any case, as he works with one Son and one Siren, and she buries his face in her chest, Boal fixes the boy’s expression to show the audience that this gesture was not the Son’s idea.

He moves along to the overwhelming ending, although the tall dancer playing The Father hasn’t been called for this session. Boal fills in. “I could never play the Father, “ he says, sotto voce, “I’m too short ” Still, what crosses his face as he sees his destitute, humbled, grief-wracked Son, is everything we need to know about forgiveness, majesty and wisdom. And Peter Boal.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.