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Remembering George Balanchine

In honor of his centennial, the Monitor asked six former dancers to reminisce about the dance master.

By Iris FangerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2003

Edward Villella has never forgotten his first glimpse of choreographer and ballet master, George Balanchine. "The door of the studio at the School of American Ballet opened and there was this aura," says the artistic director of the Miami City Ballet. "One immediately got the impression that this was a man of distinction, a man of humanity and confidence. I was 10."

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Mr. Villella grew up to join Balanchine's troupe, the New York City Ballet (NYCB), in 1957, where he remained as principal dancer from 1960 to 1975.

Next month marks 100 years since the birth of Balanchine, the father of neoclassical ballet. To celebrate, NYCB is planning to produce more than 50 of his ballets. And more than 60 American and European companies will be celebrating the centennial with his works. A series of exhibitions, lectures, and films is also planned.

Balanchine came to New York in 1933, at the invitation of arts visionary, Lincoln Kirstein. Together, they founded the School of American Ballet (SAB) in 1934, and the NYCB in 1948. Although Balanchine worked in every style, his abstract ballets, performed with precision, speed, and intense musicality, transformed classical ballet into one of the most expressive mediums of the 20th century.

The Monitor asked Villella and five other former NYCB dancers to talk about Mr. B., as he was universally called. The panel includes his successor at NYCB, Peter Martins, ballet master-in-chief; Francia Russell, co-artistic director and director of the school, Pacific Northwest Ballet (Seattle); Suki Schorer, senior faculty member, SAB; Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet; and Violet Verdy, professor of ballet at the University of Indiana and former director of the Paris Opera Ballet and the Boston Ballet.

Monitor: How has the Balanchine influence stayed with you?

Martins: (joined NYCB 1967, principal dancer, 1970-84): "I think of GB all the time. I say that in a positive sense, not suggesting a daunting or intimidating presence. First of all, I watch his ballets all day long and every night, so his work is constantly in front of me. He established the whole tone of the NYCB, how people behave, how people are supposed to think about life and other people; how dignified he was, how humane he was. I learned everything from him.

I never saw him lose his temper. He treated everybody equally, whether you were a queen or a stagehand. It's very natural for me to behave similarly. There are moments when you feel otherwise. That's when I think of him."

Russell (joined NYCB 1956, soloist, 1959, ballet mistress, 1964-1970): "I hear Mr. B. in my ear all the time when I am staging a ballet. He always used me when he was choreographing. I was the one who could read his mind, got the music, and understood where he was going. He had this feeling that I understood, especially musically, which was so important to him."

Tomasson (principal dancer, NYCB, 1970-1985): "Working with Mr. B. and his company for 15 years, you become very aware of musicality, how he phrased his choreography to the music. I also worked in many ballets by Jerome Robbins, and that influenced me as well. If you say, 'What did you learn from Mr. B.?' I try not to think about that, [I] almost distance myself. I'm not him. After you start to choreograph, you have to find your own voice. I have to do what works for me, but there is no question he had an influence on me."

Verdy (principal dancer, NYCB, 1958-1976): "He is present now [in] the clarification he gave all of us. It was the attitude he had about the technique and the music, about the size of the gestures. He put everything back to its real value, the right size, the right time, the music in time and space. He simplified, explaining and showing the logic.... He was frankly an educator, for all of us, for the public, for the critics."