writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

24 November 2003.
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff

Last Sunday and Monday (November 16 and 17), the Works & Process series at the Guggenheim Museum presented an evening dedicated to the reconstructions of two “lost” Balanchine ballets—Le Baiser de la Fée (1937, American Ballet; staged for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1940).) and Mozartiana (1945), both from Balanchine’s years as resident choreographer for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo during and just after World War II. The program was organized by The George Balanchine Foundation, an archival organization that has devoted much of its considerable energy to reconstructing and filming Balanchine ballets long out of rep, as well as to filming original interpreters of familiar Balanchine roles, many now much changed over time, in the act of coaching young dancers from the point of view of what the first casts of Balanchine’s ballets actually were directed to do.

I attended the Sunday show, and it was an evening of great beauty and illumination. We saw Maria Tallchief coach the New York City Ballet’s Jennifer Ringer and Nikolaj Hübbe in the pas de deux for the Gypsy-Fairy and the Bridegroom she steals away from his Bride, from Baiser, and Frederic Franklin coach NYCB’s Miranda Weese and Hübbe in the second of the two pas de deux from Mozartiana. Nancy Reynolds, research director for the Foundation, interviewed Tallchief and Franklin individually on their experiences with Balanchine as he worked with them at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Historic movies by the Chicago dance critic Ann Barzel, showing Tallchief and Franklin in the Baiser segment and Alexandra Danilova and Franklin in the second Mozartiana pas de deux, and a portion of a Foundation film that showed Franklin coaching American Ballet Theatre’s Julie Kent and Hübbe in the first pas de deux, were followed by live performances by the NYCB dancers of the excerpts in which they had just been coached.

The movies brought tears to the eyes. Some elements in dancing cannot be coached: Tallchief’s intensity, Danilova’s pride and theatrical intuition, Franklin’s purity. Barzel’s perseverance in working with a camera that could only operate for a minute at a time without being started up again also cannot be praised too highly.

And yet, the program inspired hope for the future. Franklin had merely two hours of prior rehearsal for Mozartiana and Tallchief merely one for Baiser. The young women they coached were especially surprising. Ringer has never, in my experience of watching her, danced that explosively; and Weese was simply gorgeous—powerful, calm, animated by an interior engine belonging to a Rolls-Royce. I was very happy to find myself seated next to Robert Greskovic, the one dance critic in New York who has championed Weese’s dancing from her earliest years, when most other critics were writing her off as cold and academic. His vision of her possibilities from the 1990s was—thanks to the showcase that Franklin’s coaching and Hübbe’s partnering provided—being realized at close range, before an audience comprised of some of the most knowledgeable Balanchineans in the world.

The choreography for both excerpts was ravishing, monumentally clear, and, to an observer in 2003, almost freakishly inventive. The invention wasn’t always a matter of novelty in the steps: sometimes the novelty was the invention of tone. A version of the fateful walk for the Gypsy-Fairy and the Bridegroom, in which the she pushes him forward while extending her arm to the tip of its steely index finger in the path where she is pushing him, can be found in the “Elegy” section of Serenade, from 1934. In Serenade it suggests impersonal fate, while in Baiser it radiates a mixture of fate, human desire, and maternal correction with an edge that can register as cruelty. When Reynolds observed during her interview with Tallchief that this moment showed the Gypsy-Fairy’s mean side, Tallchief dissented, saying that she didn’t think it was mean at all; rather, the Gypsy-Fairy was simply directing the Bridegroom where she wanted him to go. Reynolds also pointed out that Balanchine revisited the music for the Baiser pas de deux in making his 1972 Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée”; there, he assigned it to a solo for the ballet’s leading man (originally Helgi Tomasson). As danced at the Guggenheim by Hübbe, it was filled with pure step invention, whose unexpected accents, changes of level, and orientations of the body in space suggest the marriage of the supernatural and the real in a single body that the earlier pas de deux dramatizes with two.

The promenade that closes the second pas de deux of the ’45 Mozartiana—in which the ballerina gradually releases herself into a dying fall, to lie, finally, in a posture from the iconography of the Deposition across her cavalier’s thigh—was used later by Balanchine at the end of the adagio in Symphony in C, where its gravity has been abstracted and lightened. In this version of Mozartiana, it is clearly a languishing and a death. Franklin told the audience that he had seen Balanchine’s first setting of the Tchaikovsky music, the Mozartiana of 1933, for Balanchine’s little, ill-fated company Les Ballets 1933, and that the version the choreographer staged for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was very similar. (Balanchine also staged Mozartiana in 1934 and ’35, for performances by the students of the newly-founded School of American Ballet.) In a conversation a couple of days later, Franklin added that the white tutu that Weese wore at the Guggenheim should have been dark; the white one was worn by Danilova in the first pas de deux. His word for the second Mozartiana pas de deux is “somber.” Apparently, Danilova did not wear a black tutu there, as period black-and-white photographs of her suggest, but, rather, one of very deep blue. (The costume designs for the ’45 Mozartiana, as for the ’33 original, were by Christian Bérard and executed by Barbara Karinska.)

Many details about these ballets can be found in Jack Anderson’s history of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, The One and Only, and in The Franklin Library, for which I served as an editor and one of two principal interviewers (Monica Moseley, of the Dance Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, was the other.) The Franklin Library is a 60-hour, 41-transcript oral history with Frederic Franklin about his two decades with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Edited transcripts and tapes of the interviews, which were conducted twice weekly for much of 2000, will be deposited with the Dance Division, which, with The George Balanchine Foundation, cosponsored the oral history.

I’d also like to mention an observation from Bella Malinka, a member of Monday night’s audience. Malinka, the senior ballet teacher at the High School of Performing Arts between 1949 and 1981, staged Balanchine’s ballets, with his permission, for her students, who included Eliot Feld and many other dancers who have gone on to notable careers in theatrical dance. “I loved the program!,” she said of the Tallchief-Franklin evening; however, she had two cautionary notes for the young dancers, especially after seeing the historic films of Tallchief, Danilova, and Franklin, all of whom she saw perform these ballets live. “It’s important for dancers to show the end of each movement before going on to the next,” she said, “no matter how fast.” And, “the movement not only has to be finished [as a shape that can be seen], but it also has to be already on its way out of the body. One loses the center of the body before the body feels it. I once asked why a tightrope walker held a pole. It’s not only to keep balance; it’s also to serve as a cue to when the center is about to go—a cue that the tightrope walker can see before she actually feels it.”

Malinka’s second note: “Full energy has to be present in every movement, not only in the large ones but for the quietest movement to project.”

The Works & Process evening was introduced by Barbara Horgan, head of The George Balanchine Trust.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 9
November 24, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Mndy Aloff



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on November 10, 2003