Centerwork: Balanchine on Campus

September 30, 2012

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.