Balanchine, the teacher: “I pushed everyone”

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The setting is a ballet class, and the year is 1974. George Balanchine raises his arms in exasperation at the sight of a dancer performing an incorrect step on the barre. We might not be able to see her and what she’s doing wrong, but we feel how hard Balanchine takes it. It’s not just his words – “it’s wrong” – but the punctuation of his body, emphatic, agile, alive.

Her hands slam her thighs. He raises an arm like a stiff branch to show how far a leg should be lifted. It is not high; it is parallel to the ground.

“Go quiteHe said, before lifting it a few inches. “To go up later. See? Because if you climb high, you fall.

His arm crashes, hitting his leg. Then his zinger: “Newton’s law.

The new cinema “In Balanchine’s class,” directed by Connie Hochman, focuses on teaching the groundbreaking choreographer – and how he instilled an articulate musical sparkle in his dances at the New York City Ballet. It is both exciting and heartbreaking. To love Balanchine is to love this film; to love this film is to love ballet, more precisely the genre of Balanchine and his genre of dancer: daring, fast, strong, free, in solidarity with the music. Each is different from the next. It mattered to him.

“What do you see?” he said in a voiceover. “You see a person doing it. This person, not the other. This particular person. That particular leg is raised or the neck is bent. I care about these people, you see.

Balanchine is irreplaceable. His ballets are still performed, most often by the City Ballet, the company he formed with Lincoln Kirstein, but are they performed in the same way? It is this question that makes the film heartbreaking. Each year since Balanchine’s death in 1983, his legacy has become more vulnerable. The pandemic has accelerated this.

In many ways, “In Balanchine’s Class” is a call to action, an opportunity to study what he left behind: his teaching, which was the basis for all that followed. He not only revolutionized ballet, but also made it reflect the feeling of time while giving it a sense of timelessness.

“I also feel sadness,” said Hochman, a dancer who studied at the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet when he was a child in the 1960s. “But I always like to remember Balanchine was so optimistic. . “

“He would pull his hair out sometimes to try to get his point across,” she added, “but he stuck with that because he really believed in his dancers and he loved them so much.”

Since Hochman started working on the documentary over 10 years ago, several of the dancers she interviewed, including Jacques d’Amboise, have passed away. Esteemed teachers like Suki Schorer, a former principal who began teaching at Balanchine’s request in the early 1960s and continues to do so at the School of American Ballet, are getting older. That the film preserves their voices, and many others, is priceless. (Hochman is also compiling an archive of the dozens of dancers she interviewed for the film. A selection of excerpts is available online.)

Merrill Ashley, a former director who appears in the film, said Balanchine used to say he would be remembered more for his teaching than for his ballets. “I don’t think it happened, but I think it should happen,” she said in an interview. “And I think it will be an important tool to show the world how he taught, and that it was important to him. He was a teacher. “

And he didn’t teach just through counting and imagery. What this film shows so lucidly is how his philosophy of movement lived inside his body. Rare archive footage of him teaching and rehearsing shows not only his speed and precision, but also the generosity of his own dancing body as he demonstrates what he wants. Balanchine is clear, but he is not polite. It devours space.

One of Hochman’s biggest challenges was unearthing Balanchine’s film. Classroom material comes from Jerome Robbins and Christine Redpath, then a dancer in the company and now repertoire director. Diving into the digital collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Hochman combed through the metadata. If she found something with words like “rehearsal” and “Balanchine works with a dancer,” she would write it down.

One piece of material she found is exceptional: footage from a film set for a 1981 television production of “The Bewitched Child”, or “The Child and the Sortilèges”, on Ravel. The rehearsal was filmed, which meant “hours and hours of Balanchine working on this ballet,” Hochman said. “They made a plan of the path of the dancers and the camera angles. It was wonderful.”

It’s a fantastic ballet, full of creatures and objects that come to life; Balanchine, who created the first version for the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 1925, took it over in 1975 for the Ravel Festival of the City Ballet. During a rehearsal, he asks a dancer if she “could run starting forever.” She’s not sure what he means – who would it be? – then he shows it, dashing to the ground and moving forward and backward slightly as if it were about to take off but an invisible force is preventing him from doing so.

“Something like that,” he said.

Balanchine, here and in class images, is an energetic force: the film may be blurry or grainy, but its intention is not. “Have you seen moths in your life? He asks a group before spiraling away as if it were suddenly a moonlit night. Phew! It’s so fast, so urgent. It’s all the more fascinating in the digitized films of him in class, as the flickering lights make him ghostly, otherworldly.

“It’s so magical,” Hochman said. “But when you watch it, I think on a subliminal level you feel like it barely captured what happened, because the dance is evaporating – it’s all okay, but we’ve just got this little clue. The deterioration actually adds to the meaning of it.

Why would a dancer who has never taken a course at Balanchine want to make a film about his teaching? Hochman, who joined the Pennsylvania Ballet, loved the lessons. And when the Pennsylvania Ballet performed in New York, Schorer, her former teacher, would come see her dance.

“I did a solo in ‘Raymonda Variations’ and Suki came backstage,” Hochman said. “She’s very fiery and very straightforward, and she said, ‘It was lovely, Connie, but you don’t understand. It is a question of opposition. And she started right there in the locker room trying to get me to understand what the variation was. The Balanchine dancers knew something I didn’t know. It was like a fog.

She wanted to get to the bottom of it on her own. And most importantly, she wanted to preserve the dancers’ perspectives on Balanchine and her training, and show how Balanchine cherished the individuality of her dancers.

Even if you never had the luxury of seeing the company when he was in charge (unfortunately I didn’t), “In Balanchine’s Classroom” shows that he would stop at nothing to make the dancers more precise, louder, more musical and also more themselves. “I wanted to have a certain way of dancing,” he says in another voiceover. “I want to have clean dancers. So I pushed everyone.

Balanchine studied at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Russia, from the age of 9. (He left the Soviet Union in 1924.) This classic training, Ashley said, is what he passed on to them. “When people say he doesn’t teach classical ballet, it’s just ridiculous,” she said. “It comes back to the very essence of what ballet was.

What happens when there is no one left to correct the myths? Ashley isn’t the only one worried about his legacy as a teacher and the misconceptions surrounding some of his ideas: he wanted the hand to be rounded with the fingers parted like petals, but sometimes it ends up looking like to a claw. And there’s the idea that he didn’t want his dancers to put weight on their heels when they were dancing. What Balanchine actually wanted was for the dancers to feel like there was nothing more than a lump of onion skin between the heel and the floor. “A piece of paper is all,” Ashley said. “Your heel can touch the ground, but your weight cannot be in the heel. “

While City Ballet may still look like a glorious bouquet – Balanchine used to say his dancers were like flowers blooming at different times to create a garden – it’s not hard to imagine it could transform today’s dancers into something transcendent. “This is how I see it: he chose people with strong personalities that he loved,” Hochman said. “The rigors of ballet technique could not stifle them.”

Hochman brings out some of these personalities: How did they become so dedicated? What was the spark? There is something particularly touching about Heather Watts’ story. A free spirit from California, Watts, in an interview said he called her his little flower child. She was kind of a problem – “discipline wasn’t my middle name,” she admits in the movie – but he wouldn’t give up on her.

One day, when she was late for a costume fitting, Balanchine told her it was her last chance. Around this time, she played a lead role in “Serenade” and after the performance Balanchine uttered the words that changed her focus: “You were good.”

“At that point,” Watts says in the movie, “he becomes the only voice in my head that can guide me to what I want most.”

Hochman shows that Watts (and others too) train young dancers: in passing on his knowledge that in a Balanchine ballet, there is nothing for sure. Sometimes Watts finds that the dancers she works with improve but then move to a safe place. “We must continue,” she said. “And that’s what he did with us.

Dancers today like to use the expression that the choreography is in their body. For Watts, that means trouble. “You don’t dance on the edge of a volcano,” she said. “And you don’t hold on to that note like your life depends on it.”

She thinks about the role of Dewdrop in “The Nutcracker”. In it, Balanchine challenged her to run as fast as she could, to lean as much as possible, and to fly – not to touch the ground.

“He challenged me not to touch the ground,” Watts said. “It’s exhilarating. It is an exhilarating challenge.


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