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."
Michele Byrd-McPhee's uncle was a DJ for the local black radio station in Philadelphia, where she was born. As a kid she was always dancing to the latest music, including a new form of powerful poetry laid over pulsing beats that was the beginning of what we now call hip hop.
Byrd-McPhee became enamored of the form and went on to a career as a hip-hop dancer and choreographer, eventually founding the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival and directing the New York City chapter of Everybody Dance Now!. Over the decades, she has experienced hip hop's growth from its roots in the black community into a global phenomenon—a trajectory she views with both pride and caution.
On one hand, the popularity of hip hop has "made a global impact," says Byrd-McPhee. "It's provided a voice for so many people around the world." The downside is "it's used globally in ways that the people who made the culture don't benefit from it."
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
Every dancer knows there's as much magic taking place backstage as there is in what the audience sees onstage. Behind the scenes, it takes a village, says American Ballet Theatre's wig and makeup supervisor, Rena Most. With wig and makeup preparations happening in a studio of their own as the dancers rehearse, Most and her team work to make sure not a single detail is lost.
Dance Magazine recently spoke to Most to find out what actually goes into the hair and makeup looks audiences see on the ABT stage.