Violette Verdy Teaches Art and Life And the Simplicity of Balanchine
A BALLET MASTER CLASS
EDINBURGH — Dressed in a violet-colored shift, in honor of her first name, and red shoes, Violette Verdy zestfully puts six ''ladies'' and five ''gentlemen'' through their paces.
Clearly mistress of the master-class genre (this one part of the recent Edinburgh Festival program), the French-born ballerina, who created many leading roles for the repertoire is now a much sought-after teacher. She has been described by ballet critic Horst Koegler as having ''quicksilver effervescence and inimitable charm.'' Both are in evidence.
Although she confessed at the end of the class - on stage at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre - that she had been a little ''nervous'' about a class that she and the busy dancers from the Scottish Ballet had put together in a mere three hours, she had no need to be. The occasion was riveting, building from warmup exercises at the barre to some exactingly advanced efforts, which proved challenging for some of the 11 dancers.
She is generous with praise - particularly when a second attempt at a difficult exercise seems to her to surpass the first. She does not belabor imperfect attainment: She knows the dancers know when they could do better.
She has both these young dancers and the audience in the palm of her hand. She is firm, funny, and decidedly French in intonation. She intersperses her instructions, which include a richly expressive range of encouraging noises, finger-snappings, and rhythmic counting, with all sorts of wise advice on dancing and life. In fact it is clear that for her dancing and life are naturally synonymous.
About dance and dancers, she says such things as: ''A dancer is both the horse and its rider'' and ''ballet is form, structure, order, harmony, courtesy.'' She even suggests that total dedication to dancing is certain to supply your financial needs - ''enough, not too much. Just enough,'' she asserts. That is her experience. To dancers hurt in the course of their work (this she knows, too) she advises: ''Crepes suzette - turn it around. Make sad things an advantage.''
And then there is George Balanchine, the great Russian choreographer of American ballet. One of his stars for nearly 20 years from 1958, she is a great source of recollections. Since 1984, she has held the title of teaching associate at New York City Ballet, Balanchine's baby.
''Balanchine, you know,'' she says, at the same time telling the dancers to go ahead and do their plies, ''always called his dancers 'ladies' and 'gentlemen.' '' She follows suit. ''He was, as a young man in Russia, at the same time a military cadet and a dancer. There is something to be said about that.''
Presumably she means discipline. She herself is wont to come out with sayings like: ''A diamond is good in the rough, but when it is cut it shines much more.'' Presumably she again means discipline.
She snaps her fingers in time to the piano.
She tells us: ''Mr. Balanchine did not like to be called 'artistic director' but 'ballet master.' '' What he harnessed was ''American energy'' and recognized that American dancers had ''no past to be bounded with. He pushed them to the limit of speed. New York City Ballet is the fastest ballet company in the world.'' He made classical ballet ''bolder, bigger - bigger for the big things, smaller for the small things. Now arms are less discreet, legs and arms more independent.''
As the dancers behind her indulge in various kinds of jete and releve, and then move on to grands battements, she gives them her full attention for a while. ''Grand battement,'' she tells them, ''has a degree offorce . Much tougher. High kick.'' She watches them. ''Good.''
Then she resumes her reminiscences. When ''Mr B.'' had his dancers doing barre work, ''it was straight, very straight. But once the dancers were out in the open, it was angles more - though always concentrating on front presentation.'' She also says that Balanchine had his dancers keep in mind the end result - the stage performance itself.
As things heat up in the master class, she observes: ''We are growing - that's the only way to go - always up. And to a dancer who has just messed up slightly, she says: ''Oh, it's not an easy step: as in life, not delicious on the moment, but afterwards (she waggles a finger prophetically) a banquet!''
The ladies please her with some immaculate work, but she asks them to do it again. ''You need to throw it away a little,'' she says, ''enjoy the weather.'' The difference the second time round is perceptibly freer - a touch more of the Balanchine energy. ''Goooood. Much better. That's the way to do those things....''
All the time you have the feeling she is re-echoing for us something of the Balanchine ethos. She believes that this kind of ballet had ''an incredible philosophy and one logic from A to Z - but we don't know if it will happen again.'' Elsewhere she has even openly expressed uncertainty about the survival of classical ballet today.
But to watch her work with this small group, you would not suspect her of trying to perpetuate some doomed art. To her, both classical ballet and Balanchine are very much alive and kicking. She praises him above all for the clarity of his choreography - and for his simplification.
''Simple is hardest,'' she says. ''It is the daring that comes from discipline. Rules must be obeyed and then you can be free. Then you can clarify.''
Balanchine knew that. Violette Verdy does too. She is campaigning - charmingly - for its continuance.