The story concerns a Poet who appears at a Baron’s lavish party And becomes enamored of a Coquette (apparently the host’s mistress). subsequently (when the guests have retired from supper) he meets the mysterious Sleepwalker (the host’s wife), is discovered following her to her room by the jealous Coquette, and finally is stabbed to death by the enraged Baron.
—Taken from Walter Terry’s synopsis in Repertory in Review by Nancy Reynolds
Earlier this year, my friend and dancing partner of the past, Edward Villella, the founding artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, invited me to Florida to coach three of his ballerinas—Jennifer Kronenberg, Deanna Seay, and Haiyan Wu—in the role of the Sleepwalker in George Balanchine’s La Sonnambula.
This ballet (originally titled Night Shadow) and I go very far back together—in fact, back into the middle of the last century. In 1949 when I saw Night Shadow with Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin in a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production, it was a “first time ever” experience for me. Even though I’d already decided on ballet as my career and begun studying, I’d never seen a dance performance of any kind. After seeing Night Shadow, my expectations were confirmed: Dancing would be my life’s work. I was 11 years old.
Eleven years later, I would dance the starring role myself when Balanchine revived the ballet for me with the great Danish dancer Erik Bruhn as the Poet. And now Eddie was giving me the honor and opportunity to share recollections of those events with his company. I was delighted.
Today because of time and money pressures, ballets are taught as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Leisure to explore a role is a luxury. Yet stories and insights from interpreters of the past are valuable. Coaching is the transmission of ideas that bring a ballet to life, particularly when the choreographer is no longer available. Studying videotapes can help, but ideas and subtle details will be lost if video is the only source.
I was to have three days in Miami working with several casts in paired sessions. All the other dancers could attend rehearsals if they wanted to. And I was excited by the talent and dedication of the entire company. We worked in the large sunny Miami City Ballet studios, which have picture windows visible from the sidewalk. Casual strollers can watch classes and rehearsals while walking by. A generous concept.
For two hours on day one, I worked with the first cast—the lithe, lovely Jennifer Kronenberg and the romantic, handsome Carlos Guerra, her real-life fiancé. As an already deeply engaged couple, there was an extraordinary rapport between the two of them. Even before we began, I could feel their unspoken love and empathy for each other. Jennifer wore a red strappy leotard and dark-colored tights pulled to her waist. I requested that she put on the nightgown—the white silken fabric of a phantasmagorical premise, a sleepwalker on pointe—for this ballet of the night and of the realm of undefined shadows and dreams. Dreams that can hold danger and hopes that can shatter in an instant.
Coaching by illustration, I stopped the first rehearsal to demonstrate one of the critical sections. When the Sleepwalker first enters, she moves on pointe in an ever quickening pace, finishing the phrase in a diagonal run forward, looking as if she might step over the boundaries of the stage itself. The audience gasps. Over 40 years ago in Moscow, Mr. B had taken the candle from me to demonstrate this section by running towards the brink of the vast stage of the Kremlin’s New Congress Theater. While flying forward, he called out “Step over the footlights,” and did so himself. For one second, I thought Mr. B was going to die, but he didn’t—instead he gave the candle back to me. Balanchine possessed the brakes of a Rolls Royce.
While tracing the same trajectory for Jennifer and my other new Sleepwalkers, I stopped just short of crashing into the studio’s mirror. I wanted to startle the dancers. Balanchine loved to create the look of choreographic danger, synchronized with the end of a musical phrase for an intense emotional impact. His heroines often ignite our anxiety—think of the girl in “The Unanswered Question” from Ivesiana who falls from a great height; she is a sister of the Sleepwalker.
I explained to the cast how a performance is enhanced by using contrasting qualities of motion and sudden stillness. I constantly reframed my phrases to see which words most effectively transmitted my ideas. I also emphasized the spontaneous quality of the choreography—his action, her reaction.
On Day Two rehearsing with Deanna and her boyfriend Mikhail Nikitine, I ran to the side of the room to watch the moment leading up to an ever-deepening penchée arabesque from a better angle. I wanted to make sure the Sleepwalker and Poet were on an exact collision course, as the audience feels their trembling anticipation of new love and clearly sees her lips moving slowly toward his. At the exact second of the expected kiss, which, in Mr. B’s design, never takes place, her head moves behind his. The audience tingles with regret. In another instant, the Poet tries to embrace the Sleepwalker. With entwining arms, he circles her body and descends to the floor. She seems to be caught, but then she steps away with eerie precision. The music crests and falls, emphasizing the Poet’s expectancy and despair. The effect is stunning. I remember this moment so well from 1949. Rehearsing this section, Deanna Seay created a similar atmosphere with her unblinking eyes and her musicality. Enchanting Haiyan Wu emphasized the lyrical aspects of the role.
The elegy section is different. The Sleepwalker is searching for the Poet. She knows he is dead. The music has a measured solemnity. The walking, now done entirely off pointe, is a terrifying trance-like progression forward. Balanchine didn’t want this part performed on the music. The Sleepwalker’s light becomes a candle of mourning.
In the Sleepwalker’s action of stepping over the Poet’s body, there is resolution. She walks toward her chambers. The Poet’s body is lifted on high by four men and placed in her arms. She exits backwards—a spectacular and astonishing ending. The viewer questions what has transpired. As I watched Jennifer practice this moment with Carlos draped over her shoulder, I was very moved. There was a sense of sorrowful knowledge on her expressive face.
After three days in Miami Beach, I had to return home and I missed the actual performances, but I heard they were beautiful. I felt I had given my various casts enough information with which to explore the work alone, with their ballet mistresses, Roma Sosenko and Iliana Lopez, and of course with Eddie.
Information and ideas can come from unexpected places. By chance, 45 years ago, I ran into Mme. Danilova at a bus stop where she demonstrated a moment from La Sonnambula for me. All at once I understood the value of looking backward, forward, sideways, or in any direction for inspiration.
Allegra Kent, a former principal of NYCB, is the author of an autobiography, Once a Dancer.