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."
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."
Schorer (joined NYCB 1959, principal dancer, 1968-1972): "I don't teach like Mr. B., but I think I'm teaching not only his principles but the speed, the beauty of the music, and the quality of the music. Also, I remember some of the steps he gave in class and use them. Sometimes I take a step or combination out of a ballet."
Villella: "Doing your job every day. That says it all. The man was a genius, but he didn't rely on that. A major portion of his time was spent dissecting scores, running the company, choreographing, rehearsals, all of that. But he was a craftsman as well as a genius, constantly working at his job. He was singularly the most prepared individual you've ever met. He once said to me that he had 20 scores in his head at any given time, and when the time was right, with the finances, the personnel, he would say, 'OK, now is the time to do this.' "
Monitor: How did he create his dances?
Tomasson: The first piece he did for me was in the Stravinsky festival in 1972, 'Baiser de la Fée.' He did the choreography in an hour and 20 minutes. I was amazed. It was even hard to retain it all. It happened so fast.
Villella: He demonstrated the choreography, not totally full out, but he would show the style with his body. It was a physical conversation.
Monitor: Did Balanchine encourage you to become a choreographer?
Verdy: "When the Paris Opera asked me to come as director, I threw myself at him. He said, 'Very good, very good.' He had already tried to make me a choreographer. He said, 'May I disturb you with the wonderful power of music that you care so much about? I have a nice piece by Stravinsky.' I was so scared. I chickened out."
Martins: "Balanchine came to me and asked me to choreograph a piece. I said, 'I've never choreographed.' So then I choreographed, 'Calcium Light Night.' He came and looked at the solo and said, 'There's much more to it. Now you should add a girl, otherwise it's not interesting just to see a boy dance.' That's very Balanchine," Martins adds, referring to his mentor's well-known statement: "Ballet is woman." "The work was a success, and he took it into the repertoire. After that he made me choreograph all the time. I danced and choreographed and he made me teach company class. I remember saying to him one time, 'Mr. Balanchine, I can't do this. It's too hard, to dance, to choreograph, to teach, and then dance all night. I'd like to retire.' He looked at me and said, 'And how am I supposed to pay you? No, no, no dear. I pay you to dance - you squeeze all that other stuff in.' "
Tomasson: "I had come to him and said I wanted to try my hand at choreography. He suggested I go to SAB and work with the top class, because it would be a great learning experience for me. Some of the men didn't know about partnering, so I had to break it down. I had to really think deeper and it made me learn the craft of it. He was very encouraging to me to keep on going."
Villella: "He didn't speak very much. He always said, 'Don't talk. Just do.' I think about Balanchine all the time when I am choreographing. It's terrifying, isn't it?"
• Besides New York City Ballet's winter season, which begins Jan. 6, Balanchine programs have been scheduled throughout Florida by Miami City Ballet during January, by Pacific Northwest Ballet in February, and by San Francisco Ballet, March 19 to April 4. For additional events, go to www.balanchine.org.