The Drama's in the Dance
"Bringing Balanchine Back"
by Lisa Rinehart
In 2003 it was hastily decided the New York City Ballet would be part of the White Nights festivities celebrating the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. With only two months to prepare for the trip, it was a leap of faith on management’s part to allow filmmaker Richard Blanshard along to document the event. After all, the company had not been seen in the city of Balanchine’s birth for 31 years and Russian audiences are famously discriminating when it comes to dance. What would the Russians think of dozens of leggy, neo-classical dancers trotting about on the hallowed boards of the Marinsky Theater? What would American dancers, too young to have known Balanchine, make of the beautiful city he came from? And, how would this unwieldy group of performers, pianists, technicians, ballet masters and therapists, get themselves organized for the grueling nine day schedule planned?
Blanshard tries valiantly to coax some drama from these questions, but the film never takes off as a gripping story. Russian audiences are neither shocked by, nor ecstatic at, the company’s repertory of Balanchine, Robbins and Martins. In reaction shots, theater-goers look strangely lethargic in comparison with the dancers’ giggly pre-performance excitement. Kirov dancers invited to take class with the company are impressed with the dancers’ speedy footwork, but dismayed by their arms. Missing boarding passes, language snafus, and impromptu orchestra rehearsals are stressful and sometimes even funny, but they aren’t really the stuff of epic theater. And, lest we forget the film’s premise, amid shots of imposing statuary and delicate fountains, Blanshard thumps us on the head with repeated reminders that “this was where Balanchine walked, and this was what Balanchine touched.” Such reverence is well meaning, but irritating.
Short interviews sprinkled throughout the film liven things up a bit. An amusingly wry Peter Martins, presumably when asked in St. Petersburg if the tour is fun, sighs heavily, saying,” Fun? We just have to get through these performances with as few disasters as possible. We’ll have fun when we get back to New York.” And former principal Alexandra Ansanelli is eloquent when, after a disappointing rehearsal and subsequent cancellation of one of her performances, she flashes a brave smile and explains with remarkable poise that she’ll have to pull herself together and deliver a good performance of “Western Symphony” because the audience deserves her best. Such is the drama of a touring ballet company.
The film, however, succeeds admirably as documentation of a refreshingly disciplined New York City Ballet performing live. Hollywood cinematographer Dick Pope really knows how to film dance. He shows us the entire stage when necessary (critical for the brilliant geometry of Balanchine’s dances), but zooms in at key moments without destroying the flow of movement. The film is chock full of wonderful footage from classics such as “Serenade,” “Symphony in C,” “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” and “Western Symphony.” Indeed, the segment featuring Jock Soto and Wendy Whelan in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” so expertly captures two performers at the top of their game that it, alone, is worth the price of admission.
Blanshard wanted to capture an historic moment with this film; wanted to document, in the words of the film’s producer, “the return of the child to the home of its parents.” It’s a noble sentiment, but not one that percolates with much excitement. In fact, the film’s heart is the dancers themselves. With each performance, these dedicated artists invigorate Balanchine’s masterworks with their youthful energy and exuberance, creating them anew. Whatever its heritage, this particular child left its parent in the dust long ago.
Volume 4, No. 2