Young ballerinas in New York ready for takeoff

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

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).

"The young dancers get their chance both when they are ready and if the company needs them," says Richard Tanner, NYCB's choreographer and ballet master,explaining the rise of young dancers. "We are now in a period when several principal dancers have been out with injuries and another is just coming back after having a baby."

Mr. Tanner cast his newest ballet, "Soiree" (music by Nino Rota), from the ranks of the young dancers, using Ashley Bouder, Janie Taylor, and Lindy Mandradjieff in the leading female roles. Ms. Taylor, who is 19, was promoted last season to soloist.

In her first season as a member of the company last year, the 16-year-old Ms. Bouder made a startling debut in the title role of the Balanchine-Robbins version of "The Firebird" (music by Stravinsky).

In keeping with the Russian fairy tale on which the ballet is based, the dancer portraying the Firebird must give the illusion of a fluttering bird by performing the precise steps with incredible swiftness.

"They told me I had the part, and then I had two rehearsals. I went on that night," Boulder says. But her teachers knew she was ready. "She's physically and mentally strong," Tanner says.

"Ashley has a remarkable jump," Ms. Schorer adds. "I've never seen a woman jump as high as she does."

Instructors Martins, Schorer, and Tanner all had long careers on stage as members of NYCB when Balanchine himself was in charge. They absorbed his style with its emphasis on training strong, fearless dancers who move with remarkable speed and musicality.

While the primary focus of the school is to turn out dancers of professional caliber, it also can groom choreographers.

Melissa Barak, a 21-year-old who dances in the corps de ballet, has just had a work premièred by the company. She came to notice while she was a student in the SAB, where she created ballets for the student workshops.

Her ballet "Telemann Overture in E Minor" (music by Georg Philipp Telemann) was added to the NYCB repertory this month.

"Telemann" is a charming abstract ballet for six couples and two leading women, who cover the stage in ever-changing configurations, with an impressively varied vocabulary of steps that includes a thigh-slapping finale.

But as if to prove that baby ballerinas only get better as they grow older, Darci Kistler, Balanchine's last discovery, appeared in early January in the elegant "Valse Triste," choreographed by Martins, whom she married in 1991.

With the assurance of a mature artist, Ms. Kistler sank into the slow, stately chords of the music by Jean Sibelius, etching each movement so it hung in memory. She had been invited into the company in 1981 when she was only 15. By age 18, she was promoted to principal dancer.

But Tanner says it takes more than talent to sustain a ballerina's career over time. "It depends on how ambitious the dancer is, how well she learns, and how much she wants it," he says.

For today's budding talents - Kowroski, Bouder, Taylor, along with Jenny Somogyi, Abi Stafford, Carla Korbes, and 18-year-old male dancer Daniel Ulbrecht, who joined the company in November - center stage awaits.

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