George Balanchine Centennial

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Choreographer George Balanchine was born 100 years ago today. Judith Kampfner looks at the working methods of one of the great artists of twentieth century America.


Kampfner: He had worked with Diaghilev, Chagall, Satie, Kurt Weill. He had already attracted attention with ballets which fused his Russian classical background with French modernism. When he was invited by a rich benefactor to come and open a school and company in New York which would give him free rein for his radical ideas, he embraced the mission.

Gruen He adored America.

Kampfner: Dance Critic John Gruen.

Gruen: I think it was in 1933 when he first landed, he was asked - how do you like being in America and he replied I am happy to be in a land that produced a woman as beautiful as Ginger Rogers .

Kampfner: He loved the female form. His ideal ballerina came to have a look which defined his perfect image of American beauty. Dancer Kyra Nichols embodies it.

Nichols: Long narrow feet, long legs, long neck and small head. He liked tall girls because you saw more of them on the stage.

Kampfner: He hand picked women from his school - at a very young age - and called them his baby ballerinas .They were his muses like the city itself as John Gruen observed.

Gruen: One of the reasons why he's so unique is something America and New York gave to him. The pace and tempo of American life - he responded to it. He was impressed that people in NY walk more swiftly and move with more purpose and wanted to put that into his dances and he did.

Kampfner: Former dancer Merill Ashley says she's fortunate that she could travel across the stage so quickly. Balanchine chose to create a ballet on her - Ballo della Regina to music by Verdi With the speed came the simplicity of an uncluttered stage and basic costumes. His ballets had no plot. Less is more was a favorite expression of his.

Balanchine: Who cares about story? What's important is the dance itself. You cannot dance to words.

Kampfner: Balanchine said he wanted no mothers in law in his ballets. Classical dance had complicated relationships and used mimed gestures to tell dramatic stories. He called his dances neoclassical ballet. Though the American critics were harsh at first -he was steadfast. Balanchine created in calm and collected way. He was able to shut out all distractions. He could make several ballets at once. He referred to himself as a craftsman or an artisan And to that end he churned out 425 works over a lifetime dedicated to dance. His language to communicate what he wanted was not based in emotional characterization. Making a dance he said was like making a meal and he loved to do both He liked to use food analogies. Dancer Merill Ashley appreciated the specificity of his images.

Ashley: One step - a sisson arabesque has to look like a cork coming out of a champagne bottle and one step standing en face - he said its as hard as making a veal roast with just salt and pepper - you have to make it come out interesting. When he was annoyed with us, he'd been correcting us over and over and we weren't getting it, he'd say - I can buy your food, I can clean it and cook it and I can cut it up but I can't chew it for you.

.( laughs ) that was when he was very annoyed

Kampfner: In another break with classical ballet, Balanchine tinkered with his dances throughout his career, constantly changing and adapting them to each new dancer who took over a role. Making virtue of necessity was one of his greatest gifts.

Once when a dancer tripped in a rehearsal, he incorporated that fall into the dance.

Ashley: Right before Balanchine choreographed Agon, he saw some man limping down the street and this man had a certain cadence in his walk and Balanchine must have been having the Agon score in his head and hearing yum pump um and suddenly that limp is a real step, the men walk with a limp as they move forward

Kampfner: Agon was the last great dance he made in association with fellow Russian migr Igor Stravinsky. Premiering in 1957, it was choreographed in installments - Balanchine and his dancers waited eagerly for parcels of the score to arrive from Stravinsky's home on the West Coast. Charles Joseph has written about their relationship

Joseph: Balanchine and Stravinsky were great friends, as well as collaborators, they would spend a good deal of time together, simply cooking or visting one another at dinner. This breaking of bread and making of bread - it was something fundamental

Kampfner: And they were known to haunt Dunkin Donuts during the making of this dance. Agon is the Greek word for contest and one of the few Balanchine's dances which focuses on the male dancer. Male sparring and then bonding are the theme of this dance. Was it a tribute to a lifelong friendship? Stravinsky and Balanchine shared a love of Tchaikovsky and Russian folk dancing. And they also shared a love of jazz. Balanchine never lost his training or his Russian roots but he was open to new rhythms which had never been used in classical ballet before because he wanted to change the way dancers moved. There was a dancer who embodied what he needed. A young man from Harlem - Arthur Mitchell.

Mitchell: He'd go da dee da da - it wasn't classical dance - that's where you had the freedom - he was working from the rhythms.24

Kampfner: Balanchine was the first to break the color barrier in classical ballet in America when in the mid 50's he cast Arthur Mitchell in lead roles.

Mitchell: During those days, this was just prior to the Civil Rights, Balanchine would never say anything, he would do things I remember we were doing the Hallmark of Fame and parents said they didn't want their daughters to dance with me and Mr B said then take them out and they let me dance everything in the repertoire.

Kampfner:. In 1968 as a memorial to Martin Luther King Balanchine responded with a dance infused with religious imagery.

Mitchell: I danced the role of Dr King - it was not technical but spiritual. I knew Balanchine believed what the man was about.

Kampfner: It only had one performance. This didn't matter to Balanchine. He didn't think all his dances should survive. His dances were of the moment but some of those moments were clearly destined to last for generations. His dancers today know that like geniuses in the past, he changed an art form.

Ashley: Now it's 20 years later. It is unbelievable that I was there - it's like Bach or Mozart - it's unbelievable that those people existed and yet I'm one of those people who worked with Balanchine - it doesn't possible to me.19

Kampfner: George Balanchine was awarded the presidential medal of honor the highest civilian honor in the US. The school of American ballet and the New York City ballet company have created a diaspora of Balanchine mentors who have set up classes and companies across the country and the world. The veritable industry of dancers memoirs about him only go part way in expressing the passion of an artist who made New York City the capitol of the dance world.