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Young ballerinas in New York ready for takeoff

By Iris FangerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2002


For a man who communicated gloriously by moving bodies in patterns, George Balanchine also managed to make some memorable verbal statements.

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Balanchine, founder of both the School of American Ballet (SAB) and the New York City Ballet (NYCB), once declared "Ballet is woman," in homage to the students he transformed into ballerinas. The motto stuck because it was true, at least for him, even though many men also became stars in his company.

Mr. B., as he was universally called, would be pleased to see the current generation of young women still in their teens, or barely beyond, who are being pushed into the spotlight at the NYCB, where he ruled from 1948 until shortly before his death in 1983.

Just a year or two out of the SAB, these dancers are performing leading roles in this NYCB season, which runs through the end of February at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.

Of course, ballet has always been a profession for the young. What's different right now at the NYCB is the large number of promising young dancers.

The reigning prima, according to New York-based dance historian Donald McDonagh, is Maria Kowroski. Now in her mid-20s, she came to New York at age 16 from Grand Rapids, Mich., to train at the SAB. After a brief apprenticeship, she joined the NYCB as an 18-year-old member of the corps de ballet.

"I knew pretty early about Maria. When she just stands there, she's a presence," says Suki Schorer, an SAB faculty member for 30 years. Several months after joining the NYCB, Ms. Kowroski was asked to learn the role of the Siren in the Balanchine classic "The Prodigal Son" (music by Serge Prokofiev) with a group of other dancers.

She recalls the experience: "I stood in the back of the rehearsal. Little by little, the others dropped out, and I kept moving closer to the front until it was an audition for me and one other girl.

"Peter Martins, ballet master in chief, came to watch us, and the next day I was told I was doing the part. I was frightened to perform the Siren as my first principal role."

After this, she was given two more important roles to learn, and, in the following season, a flood of them. She was promoted to soloist in 1997, then principal in 1999.

Kowroski is a tall, luscious-looking dancer with legs that extend to tomorrow and a lift to her arabesque that suggests she's ready for takeoff.

She appeared earlier this month in Balanchine's "Monumentum Pro Gesualdo" (music by Igor Stravinsky). The climax of the ballet comes when she is thrown into the air, then caught in a figurehead pose by three of the men.

Asked if she was concerned by the need for split-second timing, Kowroski replies, "No, I trust all those guys." She performed another stark-looking Balanchine ballet, "Kammermusik No. 2" (music by Paul Hindemith), that same weekend, then, a few nights later, floated across the stage in Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering" (music by Frederic Chopin).