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Ballet School Preaches the Gospel According to Balanchine

May 23, 1993|DONNA PERLMUTTER | Donna Perlmutter writes regularly for The Times

One by one they enter the studio--these West Coast acolytes of the late George Balanchine, with every hair neatly pulled into sleek little chignons, faces smooth and scrubbed, attention taut, thoughts silently composed. Regimen-bound, each one takes a place at the barre.

It is a special, chaste, insular world they inhabit. A stranger would never know that on the Santa Monica street just outside the Westside School of Ballet, other teen-agers streak their hair with purple and wear rings through their noses and come in all shapes and sizes. Here, everything complies with the dictates of a Balanchinian brand of ballet.

Yvonne Mounsey, materfamilias of this Western shrine and former acolyte/ballerina herself, is here to ensure the master's legacy in the 10th anniversary of his death. Not only by holding forth as teacher--so successfully that three of her recent protegees have won places at the prestigious New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre--but also by passing along the gospel according to "Mr. B."

His imprint is indelible.

"We didn't know it at the time," Mounsey recalls, before giving her daily company class, "but those early days were a golden era. It was 1949 and the beginning of New York City Ballet, and we were the dancers Balanchine taught and coached. To think he made his wonderful works on us, and that it all became major dance history, is mind-boggling."

Indeed. The Russian-born choreographer--who defined American ballet in terms of speed and musicality and modernism--has been all but deified since those beginnings. And this anniversary, which Mounsey celebrates with her company's performance May 29, is being honored everywhere.

Mounsey is just one of many preaching the message across the land. At 72, however, an age when most retirees from the stage content themselves with their scrapbooks, she is going full-tilt. Tall, slender and still absurdly lithe, she exemplifies "the Balanchine look"--a physique that features the longest of narrow limbs, with a minimum of torso and a small head.

It's easy to see why Balanchine cast her as the Siren in "Prodigal Son," a role she made famous. But it's not easy to keep Mounsey on the subject of her own past glories; she prefers giving credit to others.

You don't hear her invoking Balanchine's name, yet she perpetuates his aesthetic and, like him, wants merely to illuminate the art of dance, not personalize its sponsorship.

"Much of what I try to impress on the dancers," she says, "comes from Balanchine. I remember, for instance, how he explained the finesse behind that fabulous footwork of his, and how to stress the elegance of the upper body, and how the hand should unfurl like a flower.

"The head is critically important. And when you see uninteresting dancing, it's because there's no use of it. How many times he would get the head properly emphasized by saying to us: 'Give your cheek for a kiss.' "

Despite all the Balanchine hoop-la, Mounsey points to the fact that she was Royal Academy of Dancing certified before ever coming to this country from her native South Africa. She also had benefited from study in Paris with such historic names as Olga Preobrajenska and Lubov Egorova.

In fact, by the time Mounsey joined NYCB, she had already danced leading roles with various incarnations of the Ballets Russes. She even came into contact with Antony Tudor when the British choreographer briefly tried to find a home at the house of Balanchine.

"I remember auditioning for Tudor's 'Jardin aux Lilas,' " Mounsey says. "He was deciding between me and Milly Hayden and Tanny LeClerq for the role of A Woman in His Past and, of course, he conducted a little test for that purpose."

She refers to a scene in which the Woman has her back turned to her antagonist. " 'Why did the character keep her head turned (away from him)?' he asked. 'Because she didn't want to see what was behind her,' I answered. That explanation pleased him, and I got the part."

Some of Tudor's witty mischief is itself in a piece that Mounsey choreographed for next Saturday's performance, titled "Classical Symphony (with apologies to Mr. B.)." It abounds in the kind of in-jokes Balanchine devotees will appreciate.

But mostly Mounsey puts her focus on developing the talent in the studio. "It's something beyond virtuosity that these dancers get from training," she says. "Something that inspires me to pour my heart out for them."

Anna Liceica, for instance, a Romanian immigrant who appeared one day in class, did not have the funds for continuous study. Mounsey, who "at first sight knew this girl had it," not only offered her a full scholarship, but raised money for her expenses after Liceica won a tuition-free spot at NYCB's School of American Ballet.

And then there is Christina Gibbs, who, from age 13 to 16, came every day to Mounsey from Newport (courtesy of her chauffeur-mother), also graduated to the famous New York school and just now joined American Ballet Theatre.

"It was Yvonne who molded me," says Gibbs. "She truly understands the art of the dance. My whole foundation came from her. It is, of course, invaluable."

While Mounsey eagerly displays the photos of these and other successful dancers she coached, and thrusts upon a visitor glowing notices of their New York performances, she harks back, with prodding, to another time:

"I cherished every second of my dancing career--even though I may have cried to Mr. B. for not giving me the Andante of 'Symphony in C,' instead choosing, perversely, the Allegro, which I did less well. But dancing is a now experience. And what matters is the thing happening here, this moment. These dancers," she says, grandly indicating the class before her.

Westside Ballet performs at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, corner of Overland Avenue and Culver Boulevard. Tickets: $10; children with an adult are free. Call (310) 828-6211.

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