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.
Dancers remember New York City Ballet's historic 1962 tour.
Allegra Kent at curtain call with Balanchine, St. Petersburg. Photo by Bert Stern, Courtesy Stern.
Fifty years ago New York City Ballet toured five cities in the USSR—Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Kiev, Tbilisi, and Baku. By any definition it was a historic trip, marking the company’s first appearance in the Soviet Union, the first time most Soviets had seen any Balanchine ballets, and the first time Balanchine had returned to his homeland since his departure in 1924. There was no compromise in the choice of repertoire: The company performed Agon and Episodes, in addition to Serenade, Symphony in C, Western Symphony, Concerto Barocco, and other Balanchine works, as well as two ballets by Robbins: Interplay and Fanfare. Considering that most of the Russian repertoire consisted of full-evening story ballets, these choices were daring indeed. Plotless ballets were new to audiences in the Soviet Union. Perhaps in deference to their tradition, Balanchine brought three story ballets of his own—Prodigal Son, La Sonnambula, and La Valse. (He had wanted to bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but was told that for the Soviet children, appearing with Western dancers would be “corrupting.”) Lincoln Kirstein, general director of NYCB, was said to have been both surprised and jubilant at the Russians’ overwhelmingly enthusiastic response.
Herewith, some reminiscences of five dancers—three American, two Soviet—who were witnesses to that history.
Arthur Mitchell, founder, Dance Theatre of Harlem; former principal dancer, NYCB.
“In 1962 everyone was very nervous because it was the first time Mr. B had been back since 1924, and there was a rumor going around that if Russians who had left returned they would be put in jail. Mr. B, although not a depressive person, was very internal, so everyone said, ‘Arthur, go sit beside him because he likes you and you make him laugh.’ When we got there, I could see that he was nervous—not nervous like frightened, but very introspective. We were concerned because we knew he was under a great deal of pressure. You could see it wearing on him.
“We were all revved up because it was the first time the Russians had seen the company, and because of the adoration and love that we all had for Mr. B. We all worked to keep him in a good mood, but everybody was on pins and needles. The State Department told us that the hotel rooms were bugged, and that if we had something really terrible to say we should write it on a piece of paper and then tear it up and flush it down the toilet.
“Dancing there was particularly exciting for me, because they had never seen a black man dancing ballet. There was great interest and so my goal was to kill myself being the best I could possibly be. When I came on in Agon, you could hear rustling around the theater. It was exhilarating but nerve-racking, like being under a microscope. The response from audiences was tremendous.
“The Cuban missile crisis occurred while we were in Moscow. One morning we looked out of our windows and saw guns and tanks and people marching, and we thought, We’re at war! We found out later that it was a celebration of one of Russia’s armistice days. That calmed everybody.”
Andrei Kramarevsky, faculty member, School of American Ballet; former principal dancer, Bolshoi Ballet (translation by Alla Reznik).
“At the Bolshoi theater, I watched Balanchine giving a class. There was no pianist; he kept time by snapping his fingers. I thought the technique was much better than ours. I noticed the special use of the feet, coming up and down through the foot, through demi-pointe. For our dancers it was just up and down with no in-between. Unlike ours, his accent was always up, on the ‘one’ (and-ONE), whereas ours was always down (ONE-and). I noticed the speed; for example, our glissade was done in two different movements, one foot finishing after the other in fifth. For NYCB it was much faster, with almost no preparation. It was done almost as a single movement, with both feet nearly finishing together. I was also impressed with the stamina. The dancers worked very hard; they never stopped.
I liked every ballet I saw. Villella in Prodigal Son—oh my God! Agon with Allegra Kent and Arthur Mitchell was incredible. Balanchine was a genius—he made the music visible. But it wasn’t a good idea to talk to him—the Soviet attitude was that he had betrayed the motherland.
My generation always felt very good about America. During World War II, when we had almost no food, we received food packages from America. They allowed us to stay alive.”
Allegra Kent, adjunct professor of dance, Barnard College; former principal dancer, NYCB; author, most recently of the children’s book, Ballerina Swan.
“Before the curtain went up on opening night they played the national anthems and I started to cry. That moment was so fraught, so emotional. I was dressed for Serenade, the first ballet. The costumes were all the same; in that sea of blue, there was no differentiation between principals and corps. I thought that, quite apart from the choreography, this must be so different from what the Russians had probably seen. And then I had the honor of dancing with Arthur in Agon. He brought so much sensitivity and power to that ballet. I think the Russians had never seen a pas de deux like that. They were ecstatic.
“One of my biggest thrills was La Sonnambula in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses because the stage was so big. To cover that in the first diagonal walk—I thought, How am I going to do that? Balanchine demonstrated. He asked for the candle, and he was running and running, and then he stepped over the downstage ledge and I thought he was going to die.
“During the Cuban missile crisis, we were afraid we were going to be blown up—but we had to keep dancing! I sewed a lot of ribbons on shoes.
“There was one review that said I had some of the qualities of one of their greatest dancers, Ulanova. Balanchine understood that I was a favorite, and I think I danced every performance but one. But I got to see Kolpakova perform Sleeping Beauty. The sheer beauty of her dancing, her musicality, and her artistry were thrilling.
“We didn’t have much contact with the civilian population, but my grandmother’s youngest brother, who had escaped the Nazis and was living in Moscow, came to see me at the hotel. My mother hadn’t told me I had a relative.”
Irina Kolpakova, ballet mistress, ABT; former principal dancer, Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet.
“We knew the name Balanchine because we learned the history of ballet in our school. But we had never seen NYCB. Balanchine taught one class for the Kirov company. The combinations were not easy because the movement was a little fast. At the Kirov, we did each step separately and very deeply, pushing from the floor. With Balanchine, there was more continuous movement, and the dancers made it look easy. I especially remember Symphony in C, Theme and Variations, Serenade, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux with Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, and La Sonnambula with Allegra Kent. She was ‘number one.’ I also remember Violette Verdy, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and Jacques d’Amboise.
“All our dancers loved NYCB; nobody had a bad word to say about Balanchine’s company. We saw energetic movement, clear and fast, without any apparent technical difficulties, and we loved the interpretation and the wonderful music. We just wanted to see them again and again. And of course we would have been glad to dance those ballets (if someone could have come and staged them), but in my time that was impossible.”
Suki Schorer, faculty member, SAB; former principal dancer, NYCB.
“When I heard we were going to Russia, I got very excited and bought myself a book called Instant Russian and started practicing. One day I said in Russian to Mr. B, ‘How are you?’ and he said, ‘Who’s your teacher—some Japanese man?’
“In the middle of the Kremlin engagement I was out with a stress fracture because the stage was so hard. I went to therapy in several hospitals, and that was interesting. The people were in horrible condition and we were whisked through, then given a massage. They were bleeding…and we got the best treatment.
“We watched one class with the Bolshoi. It had many big jumps, dancers sitting in plié, and a lot of tilting back, maybe because of the raked stage. The bodies weren’t as long and lean as they are today. I think the audiences were overwhelmed by our performances. They couldn’t believe what dance had become—what the ballets looked like, what the bodies looked like, what the choreography looked like—and to their music!”
Nancy Reynolds, a former NYCB dancer, is the author of Repertory in Review and co-author of No Fixed Points. She is director of research at The George Balanchine Foundation.