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."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"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.