When Balanchine Went Home

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.

The Conversation
Dance History
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

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
Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.

When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.

The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave

A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.

I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.

There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.

While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?

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
What Dancers Eat
Getty Images

Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.

"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.

The key is choosing your loaf wisely.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending

It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.

We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Unity Phelan in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy FRANK PR

"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.

Walsh's Moon Fate Sin at Danspace Project. Like Fame Notions, the title was derived from Yvonne Rainer's "No" manifesto. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace Project

The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Via YouTube

What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.

Keep reading... Show less
Style & Beauty

Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.

But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Stock Snap

I injured my foot in class after 10 relaxing days on the beach. I thought vacations were the way to deal with burnout. What am I missing?

—Confused, New York, NY

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Not an outsider? No worries. Train yourself to see and think like one. Let go of preconceived notions and old habits of mind. Let dance take you by surprise! Photo by Getty Images

When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.

As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox