Balanchine's Ballerinas on What They Learned from Mr. B
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.
What Made Mr. B One of a Kind
Whelan began by thanking d'Amboise for the chance to "talk with dancers I've idolized my whole life." She then asked each of the women what made Balanchine unique. For Govrin, it was how he was "always asking for more." Kent remembered how he "always wanted us to 'do it faster.' " Mazzo mentioned his "innate glamour," and Ashley spoke of Balanchine as a "master pyschologist; he understood our personalities, sometimes better than we did ourselves."
From left: Kent, Mazzo, Govrin, Ashley and Whelan
Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI
On Tall Women
Govrin shared how she worried that she was too tall to dance with NYCB. Balanchine's response? "I like tall people; you can see them better!"
How He Pushed Them Past Their Fears
Mazzo said, "At Balanchine's insistence I danced Firebird. I was petrified and didn't want to do it. But Mr. B. told me I had to. The confidence after the first performance. He made you believe in yourself."
Whelan with former Balanchine stars, including Jacques d'Amboise
Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI
On Being Bold
When asked by Whelan the best advice they'd ever received, Mazzo recalled Balanchine telling her "not to be scared. Be bold." Govrin received similar advice: "Western Symphony was hard," she said, remembering that she performed it for the first time in Chicago when another dancer was injured. "Mr. B. told me to be fierce. I thought I was. Then a friend came backstage and told me I was adorable in the role. Adorable! That wasn't what I was going for."
On Messing Up
"Balanchine always allowed us to make mistakes," said Kent. "He felt that was how we eventually mastered the roles."
The Last Word
NYCB principal Daniel Ulbricht, who is closely involved with NDI, gave the evening its final punctuation. "There is no handbook for Balanchine," he said. "If we didn't have these glorious ballerinas, there'd be nothing."
Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: "I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash." The elaborate backdrops? Gone.
But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.