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Dancing For Mr. B

October 11, 1998|AS TOLD TO JENNIFER FISHER

MARIA TALLCHIEF

At NYCB: 1947-1965

Famous roles: "The Firebird"; "The Nutcracker"

Now: Living in Chicago and Florida.

In the early years, I was married to Balanchine, but I was so busy working, trying to do what [he] choreographed, I was hardly aware of what was happening behind the scenes. One day, I was told that we were going to be [called] the New York City Ballet, and we had a home at City Center.

And it was really like a home--we rehearsed, we had our classes, we lived there. I remember at one point I had been away, and the ushers gave me flowers when I came back. The ushers! Who made no money whatsoever!

We were all struggling, living on a shoestring. Our only dress rehearsal for "Firebird," for instance, was at 7 in the morning, and it wasn't really even a dress rehearsal, since we did it without costumes or orchestra.

There were a lot of things we couldn't afford, but George never worried about money--I mean, that was the last thing on his mind. "If we can't have costumes, we'll dance in black leotards," that kind of thing.

I was aware from the first that I was in the presence of genius. I could see the way people became completely different when they danced the way Balanchine asked them to dance. He was taking the American way of moving--you have to think Fred Astaire, whom Balanchine really idolized.

You know, nowadays I do my exercises watching old movies, and I saw Astaire recently--he was doing a step that I think George must have seen, even before he came to America, because there's a step in the finale of "Symphony in C" that looks just like what Astaire was doing in his tap shoes. That's the way it is, isn't it? You see something, and if you are Balanchine, you can use it.

EDWARD VILLELLA

At NYCB: 1957-1978

Famous Roles: "The Prodigal Son"; "Apollo"

Now: Founding artistic director, Miami City Ballet

In the early days, the big insult people threw at the New York City Ballet was that Balanchine wasn't classical, but of course his work is classical.

You look at a ballet like "Agon," which everybody said was mechanical, and if you start dancing that sucker, you find out about the jazz elements. Balanchine was reflecting this century--all the energy, the speed, the pulse. I think of it as a new American elegance.

I'm this guy from Queens--I was in the Marines, an ex-boxer--but there were areas within the Balanchinean repertoire that were natural for me, because I was not supposed to be a prancing premier danseur. It wasn't about the swagger of the prince, it was about the gesture, the movement, understanding style and how to physicalize music.

Balanchine knew us all so well. He was like a master tailor with this incredible wardrobe--this repertoire--that was hand-tailored to the dancer in front of him. He would look at us and understand us in every way--professionally, socially, personally, the works. He would wait for the right moment, the right score, and then he designed it for you.

Today, with Miami City Ballet, what I want to do is to stage Balanchine's ballets in the manner and form that I remember. I don't say, "Balanchine would never do that," I just say, "Listen, this is the way I remember it."

You can't just study his ballets in a book or just look at them on stage, you have to truly understand the next level. I hope I'm carrying on in the tradition.

DARCI KISTLER

At NYCB: 1980-Present

Famous roles: "The Nutcracker"; "Duo Concertant"

Now: Recuperating from back surgery; she married Peter Martins in 1991.

Mr. Balanchine couldn't stand pretensions, people who make a big deal about how talented they are. You know, you have dancers who want to be ballerinas because they want people to idolize them--he really wasn't interested in that. He took all the mystery, all of the neuroticism out of dancing. What he wanted was real honesty on stage.

He was very matter-of-fact--he was running a company, he was entertaining people. He wanted you--as he used to say--just to be "in service." And he made you strive to be better, but he wasn't intimidating. He cared the most about the performance, so if you were uncomfortable, he would make you comfortable. He would come to your dressing room and do your hair or something, just touch you to say you were OK before you went on to dance.

I was probably more nervous rehearsing for Balanchine than I was for an actual performance. On stage, you already knew you had done it for him, and it was fine or he wouldn't have put you out there. And he gave you a feeling of love--you can't imagine. He made you light inside.

Dancers today don't know what they're missing without Balanchine, but that's OK--it's a different time and place now, and they have the best of him anyway--they have his ballets. If you're a dancer, he gave you the food you want to eat, what you want to dance for the rest of your life, or as long as you possibly can. You can't ask for more than that.

PETER MARTINS

At NYCB: 1967-Present

Famous roles: "Apollo"; "Stravinsky Violin Concerto"

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