Centerwork: Balanchine on Campus

Teaching the master’s work at colleges brings its own challenges and rewards.


Juliana Rodzinski of Vassar Repertory Dance Theater in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Madeline Zappala, Courtesy Vassar © George Balanchine Trust.

Last winter, Juliana Rodzinski performed George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux after being coached by one of the choreographer’s muses, Merrill Ashley. But Rodzinski isn’t in a professional ballet company, affiliated school, or even a university dance program. She is a Russian Studies major at Vassar College.

Traditionally, enrolling in a liberal arts institution meant hanging up your pointe shoes to pursue your education. But in recent years, Rodzinski’s experience has become more common. Colleges like Vassar, Harvard, and Prince­ton—better known for their academics than their ballet degree programs—have all staged Balanchine ballets, giving more college students the chance to dance these iconic works.

To acquire the rights to these ballets, the schools must go through the Balanchine Trust, a legal entity that was established in 1987 to preserve the choreographer’s legacy. Just like professional companies that wish to license his ballets, colleges submit DVDs of the proposed dancers to be assessed by the trustees. If approved, the university pays an undisclosed honorarium to the Trust to have an authorized repetiteur set the work. (Repetiteurs work under a separate contract.)

“If what the school is requesting seems suitable, then the Trust will say yes,” says Ellen Sorrin, director of the Balanchine Trust. “Our desire is always to say yes; we think that teaching in schools and universities is a wonderful exercise.”

Yet this exercise presents certain challenges. Some of these schools don’t have dance departments, and the students’ technique isn’t always up to par. “At the college level, many dancers have left behind pointe work for several years and gone from taking daily ballet classes to weekly and monthly ballet classes,” says Heather Watts, the former New York City Ballet star who has staged Balanchine works at Harvard and Princeton. The lack of male dancers or women trained in partnering can be other limitations. There are also serious time restraints. While Watts has taught semester-length courses, most stagers spend only a week or two setting the ballet—rehearsing around the students’ academic schedule—and then return the week of the performance to refine it.

Under these circumstances, some ballets work better than others. Serenade was made for students, Watts points out, so sections of it are natural building blocks; if full-length dances aren’t feasible, the schools can license excerpts. Repetiteurs also have the freedom to accommodate the dancers’ abilities within the context of the choreography. “Sometimes you have to change a step or two,” says Merrill Ashley, who worked with Rodzinski at Vassar and taught Valse-Fantaisie and sections of Who Cares? at Indiana University. “We don’t do it lightly, but you know Balanchine changed things to not have it be obvious that people are struggling.” As Sorrin puts it, “We have a certain standard when staging for companies, and people who stage at schools understand they have to temper that to give the students a fulfilling experience rather than a frustrating one.”

The repetiteurs focus on stylistic elements. But they aim for understanding, not perfection. “You show art students the great paintings in the Louvre; you don’t expect them to paint the great paintings in the Louvre,” Watts says. “I show them everything I know about Balanchine and we dance it however we can dance it.” She recalls that when Balanchine taught class, his example was not the most gifted dancer but “the worst dancer who was willing to do the biggest, fastest glissade in the world. Balanchine would say he showed the idea of it the best,” she says. “I’m teaching them about Balanchine—his process, his aesthetic, and mostly his belief system, which is, Do more, don’t be meek, don’t be mild.”

Still, Watts and Ashley are impressed by how much the dancers improve. “I always walk in and say, Oh dear, this may be over their heads,” Ashley admits. “But they finish doing a respectful job and it’s really gratifying to help get them there.” The students commit to the work intellectually, as well, and emerge with a deeper respect for Balanchine. “When you’re part of his ballets you see the intricacies of the choreography better, you understand the musicality better, you appreciate the subtle wit in a way you never would if watching a video or even a live performance,” Ashley says. “There’s such a tradition behind it, and it’s good for them to feel that connection.”

In the semester-long course Watts co-taught with senior lecturer Rebecca Lazier at Princeton, which had classroom and studio components, they helped the students draw even broader connections. “We lay down Balanchine in the context of the time,” Watts says. “If we’re looking at Agon, we’re talking about civil rights. Stars and Stripes—it’s the Cold War and super-patriotism. When I teach the ballets, we never learn just steps.”

There’s no question that this immersion in the repertoire enriches a liberal arts education. “It is a gift to get to dance Balanchine,” says Watts. “And the receptive nature of the dancers is kind of magical.” Rodzinski experienced that while watching New York City Ballet principals perform Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux a few months after her school show. “I heard the notes in my head before they even started playing and was able to know how they were feeling and appreciate it 10 times more from the audience,” she says. “And it made me realize how much the art of dance means to me and how I’ve benefited from it in my life.”

The hope of the Balanchine Trust and its repetiteurs is that students will carry this passion for the art form with them out into the world.

Watts saw that happen literally at Princeton—she spotted her students performing the dances they learned around campus “like a flash mob.” To her, it was the ultimate form of validation. “When I see them doing Agon in the parking lot, I’m like, ‘I did a good job! You love Balanchine as much as I do!’ ”

Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe.

The Conversation
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?


Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Tan Li Min working with Queensland Ballet dancer Lou Spichtig. Photo by Jovian Lim, Courtesy Cloud & Victory

Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.

Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.

She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.

Keep reading... Show less
Alia Kache in rehearsal with Ballet Memphis. Photo by Louis Tucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis

The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.

Keep reading... Show less
Maddie Ziegler will play one of the Jets. (photo by Lucas Chilczuk)

This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:

We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.

Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.

Keep reading... Show less
Youth America Grand Prix alumna Michaela DePrince. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP

Since its inception in 1999, Youth America Grand Prix has grown to have an outsize impact on the ballet world, with more than 450 alumni now dancing with 80 companies across the globe.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Jesse Obremski captivates as a freelancer for many NYC–based troupes. Photo by Roi Lemayh, Courtesy Gibney Dance Company

At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by @FullOutCreative

Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.

In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been on a crying jag since I sprained my ankle for the third time. It kills me that I can't dance my favorite roles. I'm also disgusted with myself for being a crybaby.

—Maggy, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michael Parmalee/FX

It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.

But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.

"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox