George Balanchine imparted to his New York City Ballet dancers both an approach to ballet technique and a philosophy of dancing. To Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols and Heather Watts, three California-born City Ballet ballerinas, he represented a mentor and guide--the primary reason, they say, for pursuing their art.
For Watts, growing up in Chatsworth, the moment of truth came at 10 when she was chosen to play a bug in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with City Ballet at the Greek Theatre. She recalls gazing raptly up at Suzanne Farrell and Edward Villella and setting her sights on joining their company.
Kistler, a native of Riverside, remembers an ad in Vogue picturing Balanchine and describing his penchant for giving his ballerinas individually selected perfume. This detail appealed to her and helped fix her mind on the company.
Nichols, born and raised in Berkeley, hardly needed any introduction to City Ballet, since her mother, Sally Streets (her first ballet teacher) had been a company member. Without ever having seen a performance, Nichols sensed that City Ballet was her goal.
Kistler, Nichols and Watts all found their way, as adolescents, to Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York, spending several summers there before embarking on the year-round study that led to joining the company.
Today, all three are principal dancers, beneficiaries of Balanchine's training and guardians of his legacy. (He died three years ago.) They are each prominently cast in the seven-performance City Ballet engagement beginning today at the new Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Nichols, 28, who joined City Ballet in 1974 and has performed many of Balanchine's most technically demanding roles, is now particularly interested in exploring the interpretive aspects of her dancing. "I try to do a little bit more with roles than I used to," she says, "to play with them a little more. Instead of holding back to do the perfect performance, it's important to just let yourself do it."
She acknowledges that the company went through an unfocused period after Balanchine's death. By now, she feels, co-artistic director (with Jerome Robbins) Peter Martins has consolidated his difficult role as Balanchine's successor and formulated his own approach to the job.
"The dancers now are a little more demanding and don't have the same views about the ballets and the way the company is run as those who were in the company with Mr. B.," she observes.
Watts, 33, notes that the lack of focus preceded Balanchine's death: "There was a long time before he died when the company wasn't really being run. The dancers didn't have a perspective on whom they were working for and why."
Kistler, 22, missed out on much of the transition due to a foot injury that kept her off the stage for two years. Balanchine had taken an interest in her when she joined the company six years ago. Right away he cast her in important parts, including two that she performs this week in "Who Cares?" and "Symphony in C."
"I'm fortunate to be where I am, and to have been here when it was Mr. B's company," she says thoughtfully. "He said very little to me about dance. The things he really told me were things about myself. What he always asked of me was just to dance. What he said is always with me, and has given me a whole lifetime of work."
Watts has been with City Ballet since 1970, and also recalls fondly the influence Balanchine had on her career. "He taught me a lot about life and about standards," she remembers. "He lived very simply, honestly and directly, and there was an innate dignity to him."
Watts had to draw on the discipline she learned from Balanchine not long ago: Soon after she turned 30 she went into a slump during which she says she questioned her commitment to dance and gave what she considers unsatisfactory performances. She credits Martins' most recent work, "Songs of the Auvergne," in which she has a leading role, with helping pull her through this period of turmoil.
"That ballet was an incredible turnaround for me," she explains. "It was the first time in years I'd been able to go on stage and just be myself. I started to have fun with dancing again."
"Songs of the Auvergne" will be performed this week, and Watts may experience a few nostalgic pangs when she looks at the 10 children who appear in it--chosen from local ballet schools just as she was more than 20 years ago. Certainly at least one of the 10 will come away as star-struck and inspired as she was, and will dream of following the route that these three ballerinas have traveled.