For some readers, George Balanchine will need no introduction. Although it has been 32 years since he died, aged 79, the choreographer has retained a god-like status in classical ballet. The founder of the New York City Ballet, Balanchine took classical ballet and expanded its vocabulary.
This month, WA Ballet will present a bill entitled Embraceable You: A Celebration of Balanchine. So it’s the perfect time to get to know “Mr B” better, whether you’re already acquainted or a Balanchine beginner. With this in mind, the company recently presented a talk by Balanchine Trust repetiteur Diana White, who provided many insights into the work and mind of Balanchine. An New York City ballet dancer for 22 years, White was employed during Balanchine’s time at the helm of the company.
One of the distinguishing features of Balanchine’s choreography is its musicality, a result of his professional-level training in both ballet and music. “Balanchine could transpose scores, he knew all the theory, he could conduct an orchestra,” White told her audience. “He had direct collaborations with several great composers, most of all Stravinsky. He also worked with Gershwin.”
Balanchine’s early career was traditional. Born in Russia, he trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg before joining the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet Company – until he became part of Diaghilev’s exciting new Paris-based company, the Ballets Russes.
Here Balanchine was exposed to modern composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Supported by Diaghilev, Balanchine’s choreographic career began. He experimented with the rules of classical ballet, looking for new ways to use pointe work and incorporating acrobatic elements in works such as Apollo (1928) and The Prodigal Son (1929).
In 1933 Balanchine was head-hunted by American dance aficionado Lincoln Kirstein to establish an American School of Ballet and an American ballet company of a European standard. The result? The School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. It was in the US that Balanchine developed the neoclassical style for which he is renowned.
Notably, this style lacks narrative, a characteristic that separates Balanchine’s work, not only from the traditional ballets of Imperial Russia, but also from the work of many of his early-mid 20th century contemporaries. As White explains, Balanchine is known for abstract ballet – there’s no story, it’s just the music and the dancing. As an audience member, you don’t have to try and understand it, it’s an experience. It’s music made visible.”
Then Balanchine takes the rules of classical ballet and bends them, almost to breaking point, to create a style that is ballet with a twist, figuratively and literally. As White elaborates, Balanchine’s style often plays with spiralling the torso, borrowing from the jazz genre to reject the regimented square hip and shoulder lines of classical ballet. No longer are the legs religiously turned out, says White. “Sometimes the dancers are in parallel position, sometimes their knees are bent, even on pointe. There’s no stop, prepare, move and pose. It’s just flow, constant flow.”
Balanchine’s move to America had a huge influence on his choreographic style. “Balanchine fell in love with the energy, the drive of Americans, the fact that everything was big and bright, and there was space,” White says. “He choreographed a ballet to the Sousa marches, called Stars and Stripes, because he said that Americans would march down the street, they had this sense of purpose and energy.”
Balanchine believed in dance as entertainment, recalls White. “Balanchine always said, ‘People don’t come to the theatre to see how miserable their lives are. They come to the theatre to be entertained, they come to be transported’.” The ballet Who Cares, part of the Perth season and choreographed to some of Gershwin’s most popular songs, exemplifies this desire, she observes. “One of Balanchine’s favourite dancers was Fred Astaire. I always tell my dancers that if they want to understand Who Cares, they need to watch Fred Astaire. It’s all about New York, that energy. It’s positive, it’s exhilarating. Who Cares is just full-on entertainment.”
Balanchine’s ballets are also known for being technically challenging. Given the high level of skill required to dance a Balanchine ballet, I’m surprised to learn about Balanchine’s personality as a director.
“Balanchine gave his dancers the freedom to be themselves within the choreography,” relates White. “Even in Concerto Barocco, which is very precise and mathematical, I want all of the dancers, including the corps de ballet, to respond to the music in a personal way. It really brings a look to a ballet, when everybody is out there dancing for joy. Balanchine gave us that freedom.” Concerto Barocco is also on the “Embraceable You” menu.
Balanchine’s approach to his dancers was also generous, says White. “He allowed us to take risks. In Who Cares, for example, there’s a jumping girl, a turning girl and a girl who does a Romantic pas de deux. If there was a ballerina who had trouble with turns, he’d put her out there as the turning girl. Even if she was falling off her turns, he’d keep putting her out there, night after night, until she got it. That was the selflessness of Balanchine… that’s why people who danced with him became such multi-faceted dancers. If something scared you, he made you face your fears.”
Embraceable You: A Celebration of Balanchine is at His Majesty’s Theatre from May 15-30.