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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Passing Down the Legacy

"Balanchine: Passing Down the Legacy"
A panel discussion with Suzanne Farrell, Gloria Govrin, and Francia Russell. Moderated by Sheryl Flatow
Performing Arts Library
San Francisco, California
March 2, 2004

by Alison Garcia
Copyright © 2004 by Alison Garcia

The San Francisco Performing Arts Library is observing Balanchine's centenary by holding several events featuring former and current NYCB alumni in discussions regarding various aspects of Balanchine's life and work. On March 1, Suzanne Farrell made a solo appearance at the library with Sheryl Flatow and Brad Rosenstein as interlocutors. On the following evening, she sat down to a full house with Gloria Govrin, now associate director of the San Francisco Ballet School, and Francia Russell of Pacific Northwest Ballet, with Flatow again moderating. The topic was "Balanchine: Passing Down the Legacy," a subject of especially acute interest at the present time. It was a lively discussion all around. The subject of what it was like to dance for the master arose from time to time, but the three panelists spoke chiefly from their present perspectives as coaches and teachers.

Flatow started things off with a question about "Balanchine technique" versus "Balanchine style." The panelists generally preferred the latter term, with Govrin pursuing the theme that what distinguished Balanchine's teaching from that of others was not so much in the substance of what he taught as the manner in which he taught it; "[It was] basic technique, only more," she observed. "He gave us permission to go beyond what we thought we could do." "It was a question of emphasis," Russell elaborated. "He would never have defined it as Balanchine technique." (She did, however, praise Suki Schorer's book of that title later in the evening.) A lengthy discussion of Balanchine in the classroom followed, with Russell noting that, although much has been made of Balanchine using class as a laboratory, he "never asked for choreography in class; his classes were based on building technique." Less heralded aspects of Balanchine's teaching, such as his treatment of épaulement, were explored—the most notable comment being that he did not isolate the upper and lower body and the extremities from one another.

Specific ballets and their interpretations did come up. Flatow raised the subject of Concerto Barocco and how the ballet's performance style has changed over the decades. Russell said, "I don't claim to stage definitive versions—only what was taught while I was there." All three agreed that stylistic emphases will change depending upon the ballet master or mistress, in the same way one conductor's Beethoven cycle will differ from another's. In a discussion of Apollo, and Jacques d'Amboise's performances in that ballet, particularly his skill in portraying the boy Apollo. Farrell thought that, as male dancers have become more technically proficient, "they don't want to be awkward." Flatow said that, during an interview she conducted with d'Amboise, he suggested that Balanchine deleted the birth scene in later years because his leading Apollo was Peter Martins, who was already plenty godlike to begin with. (Nobody picked up on this; it was the only time during the event that Martins was mentioned.)

Russell observed that Balanchine was apt to leave the room to get some coffee when the men rehearsed their variations—which got a chuckle from everyone—but he worked "intensely" in Russell's word, with d'Amboise on this ballet. Russell commented that when Farrell came to Seattle to set Mozartiana on Pacific Northwest Ballet, she did not impose her wishes or her interpretation on the PNB ballerinas, but encouraged them to be themselves and find their own way. Farrell added that although she has staged the ballet regularly, she has never been able to replicate the physical proportions—big woman, smaller man—presented in the pairing of her and Ib Andersen in the original cast. Such things aren't the essence, she continued; what's important is what's inside the dancers: "You have to get it out of the person and encourage them to be brave."

Flatow's concluding query was perhaps an obvious, but still important one: Was Balanchine concerned about the survival of his ballets? Russell: "He did care, but he didn't want to think about it." Farrell, maybe a trifle sharply: "Of course he did." Govrin pointed out that many ballets had been lost during Balanchine's own lifetime. Regarding methods of preservation, Russell was practical: "We have to use whatever we can," she said concerning working from video, but everyone agreed that it was essential for older generations to pass on their knowledge to the next. Soon after, Flatow drew the discussion to a close—San Francisco Ballet had a performance that night down the street —and took a few questions from the audience.

The series of Balanchine-related discussions continues next month with Kyra Nichols and Sally Streets (April 7) and Lew Christensen and a trio of San Francisco Ballet ballerinas: Jocelyn Vollmar, Nancy Johnson, and Sally Bailey (April 12).

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 11
March 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Alison Garcia




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