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Mr. B's poetic reality

Precise and spontaneous. Classical and hip. Balanchine's work is enduringly of the moment.

September 26, 2004|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

George Balanchine would have turned 100 last January, and in celebration of that centennial, this whole year in the ballet world has been a kind of jubilee, with festivals, symposiums, telecasts, tours -- even a new Boris Eifman ballet -- keeping the man's image dancing before our eyes.

But Balanchine needs no hoopla to confirm his primacy in 2004. His choreography, the troupe he cofounded, his vision of classical dance have all gone beyond triumph to become emblems of our culture: evidence that America in the last half of the 20th century could radically transform and enrich perhaps the most conservative of all the performing arts.

Balanchine's company, New York City Ballet, comes to the Southland on Wednesday for two weeks of performances that artistic director Peter Martins says will remind us of how contemporary Balanchine's neoclassic body of work now seems compared with the formerly dominant approaches to ballet that have grown increasingly outmoded.

"When I arrived in this country about 30 years ago, Balanchine's aesthetic was an acquired taste," Martins explains. "Little by little, it became accepted and sought after. Now it's much more than an accepted technique. It's become in many people's minds the way to dance."

You can explore the process in detail in the many books about Balanchine, or online, and learn how he was born Georgi Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg of Georgian parents; how his name was Frenchified by impresario Sergei Diaghilev in the 1920s, when he achieved his first widespread renown as a choreographer; and how he came to the U.S. in the 1930s, after Diaghilev's death, and began building an ensemble that would evolve a decade later into New York City Ballet.

"Serenade," his first creation in America, represents a different kind of historical document, something you might call a reality ballet. When an odd number of dancers showed up for rehearsal, that's how many ended up in the finished work. When a dancer arrived late, or accidentally fell, he incorporated those events too.

Look at "Serenade" now -- audiences will have three opportunities to do that during the City Ballet engagements in Orange County and downtown L.A. -- and the dance's documentary and imagined actions all seem to occur in a gauzy dream. You could argue that its very theme is the poetic transformation of reality. In the opening section, for instance, the women's corps stands with feet parallel (a normal, everyday stance) and then those feet suddenly, miraculously, open out into one of the stylized classical positions that Balanchine learned at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg.

Indeed, you might consider Balanchine's whole career a statement about the poetic transformation of reality. "He always said that poetry was the highest form of art," recalls Maria Tallchief, the American star ballerina who was the third of his four wives, from 1946 to 1951.

"The way he explained things to dancers -- asking us to imagine looking over a balustrade into a lake, for example -- it made you utilize your whole body, and the effect became magical. The important thing was to know exactly what he wanted, his approach to things -- the sense of poetry."

Yet the secret of Balanchine's enduring power as a choreographer, and the essence of his style, arguably lies in the expression of that sensibility through what every Balanchine dancer recognizes as his profound musicality. "It's beyond smart," says current City Ballet star Nikolaj Hubbe. "The music and steps are glued together so inevitably, there are no two ways around it. There's a completely natural, organic flow through the body, even if it's hard technically."

Former company ballerina Merrill Ashley, now on the rehearsal staff at New York City Ballet, still savors "the special pleasure you got when he thought up something that suited your body and the music so perfectly. Sometimes you couldn't believe how well the steps fit the music. Everything he did had visual poetry."

American culture's influence

But let's step back for a moment to correct a prevalent misunderstanding about Balanchine's musicality. Because he was trained as a classical dancer and worked with classical music for most of his career, it's widely assumed that he simply expanded and abstracted the heritage of Marius Petipa (choreographer of "The Sleeping Beauty" and other 19th century ballet masterworks).

That assumption, however, ignores the effect of American culture on Balanchine's style, his creative experiments on Broadway ("On Your Toes," with its groundbreaking "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" jazz ballet) and in Hollywood ("The Goldwyn Follies" and "I Was an Adventuress," movies in which he enhanced the stylization of ballet with inventive film effects). Above all, making him merely Petipa's artistic heir ignores his fascination with the syncopations of pop music.

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