"She's a snake," says former ballerina Yvonne Mounsey, describing the Siren in George Balanchine's 1929 ballet "Prodigal Son," a role that ranks as classical ballet's most fearsome dominatrix. In 1950, Balanchine restaged the work for New York City Ballet and cast Mounsey as the cool man-crusher he had created in retelling the New Testament parable about an errant youth. She was an early version of a female archetype he would return to again and again.
"The Siren is an evil, alluring seductress. She's luscious and snaky. Doubrovska told me this many times," says the ladylike, strawberry-blond Mounsey, still astonishingly fit at 89. She is reminiscing about how Felia Doubrovska -- an elegant, long-legged beauty who was Balanchine's first Siren -- coached her in the role. "Madame Doubrovska came backstage after my performances and gave me tips. She was so gorgeous. When she taught pointe class, she always carried a handkerchief. I worshiped her."
As Mounsey speaks, the Santa Monica sun pours through the high windows of the Westside School of Ballet, where she has run a dance academy for 40 years. A film crew from New York's George Balanchine Foundation is setting up equipment. They have come to videotape her memories as she coaches two dancers in the Siren's pas de deux with the Prodigal. She's passing the Siren's lore on to Melissa Barak, a sloe-eyed 29-year-old Los Angeles Ballet dancer and budding choreographer.
The camera pans Mounsey as she approaches Barak, who sits on the studio's hard floor dressed in rehearsal togs: leotard, stiff pointe shoes and the iconic vertical headdress that makes the Siren tower over her male partner. (Edward Villella was the most famous shorty to dance the Prodigal; Baryshnikov danced the role as well.) Mounsey takes Barak's hand and gently shapes the fingers into a tapered point. Think snake head, she instructs. Retrying a movement, Barak's arm sinuates upward, carving the air like a cobra rising from a wicker basket. Mounsey murmurs, "Better," then explains to the camera that "over the years, that hand got changed."
Barak is struggling slightly with the unorthodox technical demands that Balanchine makes on his Siren. A series of pirouettes initiates not from a flat foot and bended knee but from full pointes. Next, the Siren marches forward on her toes, bending and arching her torso over her moving legs. Later, she performs a daunting backward crab walk, crawling on all fours, but belly up. From this awkward tabletop position, she must stretch one leg after the other to the sky. Barak looks frazzled, and Mounsey is of little help. "Every Siren has to figure that one out for herself," she says.
Barak acknowledges that unlike her other Balanchine repertoire from nine years dancing at New York City Ballet, "Prodigal" is a rough ride for the ballerina. "There's little organic flow," she says. "It's not fluid like Mr. B.'s other works. Even 'Apollo' " -- made one year earlier, in 1928 -- "is less jarring to the body."
Coaching clearly helps. Although dance notation and traditional video are useful tools, neither conveys nuance or intent very well. Thus, the passing of Balanchine's sacred instruction to the next generation of dancers is the mission of the ambitious videotaping project that the Balanchine Foundation calls the Interpreter's Archive. It's spearheaded by former New York City Ballet dancer Nancy Reynolds.
"This is not preservation in the sense of saving or staging full ballets -- although I'm delighted if it is," says Reynolds. "It's about preserving a specific reminiscence of the person on whom Balanchine created a role. We want to capture whatever he communicated to his dancers before it's gone forever."
The foundation's videotapes are distributed to library dance archives and to major ballet companies. Asked if New York City Ballet consults them, Reynolds says, "I don't know. They have them. I don't really know who watches them." Questioned about the accuracy with which Balanchine's flagship organization has staged his works since his death in 1983, she replies, "I'm not a ballet master. And I'm not telling Peter Martins how to run his company. I'm documenting dancers who worked with Balanchine.
"Balanchine was a genius. But he was notoriously silent. So we have few pearls of wisdom. He believed that dance is not a verbal art. Balanchine was a trained dancer, so he physically demonstrated to his dancers. He also willingly changed steps to accommodate new casts. That's our challenge today."
Mounsey experienced Balanchine's maddening silence. "He gave very little explanation," she says. "There were things that I wondered, like when the Siren beats on her chest with her fist. I timidly asked him, 'What am I supposed to be doing here?' and he said, 'Just do it.' He pretty much left you alone. I developed my part with the help of Doubrovska."