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Capturing Balanchine

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Video documentation preserves history and benefits dancers

By Nancy Reynolds

The ghost of George Balanchine indisputably hovers over New York City Ballet, and one day last fall it was more than usually present. The occasion was a taping session devoted to Balanchine’s La Source, undertaken by The George Balanchine Foundation for its Interpreters Archive.

SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson worked with Garcia on the aesthetics and sense of playfulness he remembers from dancing La Source in the ‘70s with Verdy. (Photo by Costas, courtesy The George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive)

The aim of this video series is to document the viewpoints of leading dancers on whom Balanchine choreographed his ballets, capturing his intentions at the time of creation through coaching sessions with dancers of today. What Balanchine imparted to those original dancers is perhaps the closest we can come to knowing what was in his mind. And since he was famously nonverbal about the effects he wanted, the best way to pass on his ideas is in the studio, through dancing.

The videos are about process rather than performance. The dancers wear practice clothes, and the atmosphere is that of a rehearsal. Twenty-eight earlier videos, covering many of Balanchine’s most important works, are now housed in some 70 educational institutions and research repositories around the world, and as of February another seven were to be available. A selection is also viewable, by institutional subscription, in streaming video. The videos are not for private sale.

The original ballerina of La Source, Violette Verdy, was on hand for the Foundation’s session, partnered by Helgi Tomasson, who did not originate the male role but frequently danced the ballet with her in the 1970s. (Verdy is now a distinguished professor of ballet at Indiana University–Bloomington and Tomasson has been artistic director of San Francisco Ballet since 1985.) The two were among some of Balanchine’s brightest stars of an earlier era, and he choreographed several roles on each. Here they worked with Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia, present-day principal dancers with New York City Ballet.

La Source, which premiered in 1968, is unique in the Balanchine canon; he never created another work like it. Its melodious score by Delibes, composer of Coppélia, is almost too easy to listen to, with a lilting grace that can tempt one to pass it off as lightweight. Balanchine responded with an affectionate gloss on the Paris Opéra divertissements of the mid-19th century. As the French-born Verdy puts it, however, in its freedom and risk-taking it is really “France in America” 100 years later. And while its ballerina might be mistaken for a pink powder puff, its choreography—for both the ballerina and her cavalier—is intricate and demanding. In performance, a light tone must prevail throughout. As Verdy says, it’s “serious without being serious—serious fun. It’s a moment of incredibly refined French dancing—ornamented, very detailed, and with a lot of subtle nuances of charm, femininity, and coquetry.”

It is also a virtual lexicon of “old-fashioned” French style and technique. Key elements are nuance and épaulement, of which there can never be too much. Unlike the better-known Russian style, predominant in American training, which stresses croisé (crossed) positions, with the hips and shoulders “opposing” each other to create torsion through the body, French style more often calls for the body in effacé (open) positions. In contrast to the Russian school, with its jumps and arm movements reaching for the sky, the port de bras of the French is more contained than expansive, with rounded arms and the head directed into the cupped palm. The French excel in small jumps and beats and very fast movements of the feet—“perky feet,” as Verdy says. Balanchine, who valued contrapposto (opposition of the hips and shoulders), added many Russian touches.

As the cameras rolled, there was hardly a part of the body Verdy did not address. Articulation of the head and shoulders was paramount, but she also drew attention to the soles of the feet in pas de bourreé (for speed), initiating arm movements from the armpit and the “roof” of the hand (for lightness), gazing beyond the third finger of the extended arm (for a look of involvement), and overcrossing the feet on pointe (to accent precision). She was concerned with the sharpness of the fouetté (“whip”) of the body from developpé front to arabesque and had comments as well about elbows and chin. Hips should ripple in reaction to the shoulders, but not enough to shake the tutu—that would be vulgar.

Verdy also encouraged playing with musical accents, emphasizing rubato and retard. She urged contrast—a high arm complemented by a low one would be more interesting than both arms raised equally aloft. Not every step should be danced as large or as emphatically as possible; more modulation will give a richer texture. Above all, she said, one must dance with allegresse (which, roughly translated, means “joy”). That’s where the French atmosphere comes in.

One can scarcely imagine a better coach for this material than Verdy, the epitome of French style and chic as well as an artist of enormous intelligence and musicality. Now in her late 70s, she still has the most elegant arms and feet in the business.

Tomasson, the purest of classicists as a dancer, was quieter. The partnering secrets he shared with Garcia dealt revealingly with both practical matters and aesthetics. Balanchine partnering features light fingertip support, or sometimes no support at all—the woman often starts movements alone on a single pointe, trusting her partner to catch her at the last minute. Obviously, timing and a feel for the woman’s center of balance are crucial.

“With today’s rushed rehearsal schedules, young dancers often do not have time to ‘inhabit’ the style of a ballet and are inclined to fill out the choreography with generic movement, which results in a sameness in their dancing. I see myself as providing a context with which to approach a particular work.” —Violette Verdy

Tomasson underlined the ballet’s playfulness and its element of surprise. At one point in his variation the man must descend from a large beating step to the knee almost without the audience knowing it. He’s just there. In the coda, before the ballerina dives into her partner’s arms, the orchestra pauses as though holding its breath, and suddenly she’s arrived. Tomasson also called for a greater feeling of flow. “I think we ‘sang’ more in our day,” he said.

At the end of the session Verdy concluded, “With today’s rushed rehearsal schedules, young dancers often do not have time to ‘inhabit’ the style of a ballet and are inclined to fill out the choreography with generic movement, which results in a sameness in their dancing. I see myself as providing a context with which to approach a particular work. I think today we have also defined La Source within the context of Balanchine’s output.”

The coaching of La Source occurred over three intense hours, crammed with detail. The edited tape, which will include an interview with dance critic Robert Johnson, will probably run about two hours. Since the Balanchine Foundation tapes are about the insights of leading dancers on whom Balanchine created principal roles (not about performance), they include run-throughs in practice clothes of only the leading roles of the various sections. In the session for La Source, almost no movement or step—or nuance—was left undissected. For the dancers, this kind of careful, concentrated coaching is bankable gold. They danced full-out virtually the entire time. Says Hyltin, “From Violette I got an enlightening contrast to how I had originally interpreted the role. She conveyed to me that being understated in moments can be just as regal and oftentimes more effective—the idea that ‘less is more.’ This approach to dancing La Source is an idea I cannot wait to explore and incorporate not only into La Source but into my other roles.”

Says Garcia, “Working with Violette and Helgi is so inspiring. Violette gives you precise corrections that bring depth and dimension to each step, always dancing from the inside of the body, helping to reflect your soul. Helgi works on bringing that element of fluidity—arms and legs connecting—that makes dancing look easy and pleasing.”

Clearly, the videos are highly informative for the participating dancers and they also act as an aide-mémoire for those who stage the ballets. But they serve a broader educational purpose as well. All the commentary, not to mention the choreography itself, is preserved for non-professional dance students too, available in the classroom or studio. The material is there, for students of various backgrounds to absorb as they are able.

Beth Genné, professor of dance studies and art history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has used the videos both at the graduate level and in the introductory survey course. For her, “they are a new kind of educational tool that takes advantage of new technology. Students can study them the way they study texts. They are remarkably effective in conveying details of style that cannot be brought forward in any other way. And they give the students a vivid insight into the impact of the dancer-originator of a role on the choreography itself. They make Mr. B come alive in the student’s imagination—not as a remote historical figure but as a three-dimensional human being with his own distinctive personality and approach, as seen through the eyes of [a dancer] who worked closely with him on what was most important to him, rather than through the eyes of a critic or academic, who is always at a distance from the actual creative process.”

Mindy Aloff, adjunct associate professor in dance at Barnard College, New York City, finds that for her non-dance majors, curious to know how a dance is put together, the videos reveal some of the mysteries of creativity as well as the nuts and bolts of constructing a piece of choreography. For her more advanced students, they provide material for comparative analysis of how movements were danced in earlier times and now.

The videos serve dance history as primary source material. In addition they exist as a permanent record of an evanescent art.

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July 2014
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