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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

"He loved jazz," declares Arthur Mitchell, a former Balanchine dancer best known as cofounder and artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. "That's often what's missing when you see foreign companies dance his ballets. He had an eye to see the unique quality of each dancer, and he learned to use the speed, energy, physical freedom and sense of rhythm he found in America."

Mitchell, Martins and other Balanchine specialists find jazz influences underpinning even such classical choreographies as "Divertimento No. 15" (to Mozart) and "La Valse" (to Ravel). But these influences became more overt in Balanchine's collaborations with Igor Stravinsky, another master of neoclassicism with an underappreciated love of jazz.

Legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso worked with Balanchine at American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s, before she founded National Ballet of Cuba, and remembers that the choreographer wanted her to play with the music when she danced his "Apollo." But she found the Stravinsky score "very hard to understand," she says. "So he would take my arm, mark the time for me with his fingers, and help me work it out."

Pressing Stravinsky's pulse into her veins, Balanchine made Alonso into one more convert, and she still carries his lessons with her ("Good things you don't forget"). In such encounters, he accomplished his revolution quietly, dancer by dancer, work by work, until this year, more than 100 companies worldwide have requested his ballets, according to Barbara Horgan.

Balanchine's personal assistant during his lifetime and now the managing director of the George Balanchine Trust, Horgan licenses his works and arranges for them to receive authoritative stagings. Balanchine died in 1983, and there's a touch of irony to all the current interest in his choreography, since -- as Horgan points out -- "he always said that his ballets wouldn't last 20 years after his death. And he didn't care. His satisfaction was being able to choreograph as long as he could."

Those privileged to dance for the ballet icon referred to as Mr. B still recall with wonder the speed and surety of a Balanchine rehearsal. "It was amazing to be in the room when he was creating things," says Helgi Tomasson, who went on to become artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. "He knew exactly what he wanted, and I had to concentrate to keep up with him."

"How easily the steps came to him," Alonso confirms. "But when you started performing the ballets, that's when you realized you were doing something wonderful."

Gone are the days

Today nearly all the dancers in New York City Ballet are too young to have met or worked with Balanchine, so a gulf inevitably exists between them and their predecessors. "I think about him every day," says current principal Wendy Whelan, "and I've always wondered whether he would like me and what he would say to me. It's taken me 20 years to feel that I have a real, honest grip on his choreography. And in that time, I've gone from an emphasis on athleticism to more of a spiritual quality -- you never stop growing in his work or seeing something new."

"There's a strange stigma to my generation" of Balanchine dancers, Hubbe says. "We feel that somehow we were never ordained by the master himself, and I find myself asking how to keep the works alive. How do I connect with the feelings that they have? It's such a personal thing."

Martins acknowledges that young artists face the challenge of dancing Balanchine in a new way. "They get my approval and not his, and there's a big difference," he says. "But I can't believe how good these kids are -- much better than when I danced. It's their job and achievement to perform his ballets they way he envisioned them but very seldom got to see.

"He was a true modernist, and his greatest fear was to be considered old-fashioned. So to dance Balanchine the way he wished, you have to articulate every movement with great precision but without taking away the spontaneity of the moment. It has to be alive, it cannot be merely correct. Everything has to be energized. And that kind of dancing is never dated."



Speaking of Balanchine

"Even when he was dying, he had a tiny little radio next to him in the hospital, and he was moving his fingers to the music. I asked him, 'George, what are you doing?' And he said, 'I am making steps.' " -- Maria Tallchief, ex-wife and former star ballerina

"I think when you see a Balanchine ballet, you have to be changed for the better. You just can't see something like that and go out in the world and not be inspired or blessed or enriched or willing to improve." -- Suzanne Farrell, former ballerina and major Balanchine muse

"The first time I saw his work, I couldn't sleep for several nights. He was 10 heads higher than any Russian choreographer working at that time, and everyone was shocked by the freshness of his ideas." -- Oleg Vinogradov, Russian choreographer and former artistic director of the Kirov Ballet

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