“(George) Balanchine Teaching" by Joan Acocela. 011117.
A great dancer, he was the main teacher of Marilee Stiles, ’67 once she became a professional in New York City. Article below, photos and a video.
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George Balanchine’s dancers at New York City Ballet sometimes said that, when he was coaching them, he did the steps more beautifully than they did. No matter if he was old, no matter if he was wearing a cowboy shirt, he always outclassed them. I don’t think that’s true, but there’s a new book out, “Balanchine Teaching” (Eakins Press), that shows him, in the classroom, looking not so much beautiful, in the sense of ready to go onstage, as epitomizing what he thought was beauty in ballet.
In 1960, his school, the School of American Ballet, initiated what would be a series of eight “Teachers’ Seminars,” where ballet instructors from across the country were invited to come to New York and observe his classes. Some of the teachers actually took the class, but most of them sat in a little set of bleachers. Balanchine, in his slacks and cotton shirt, stood in front of them with his students, and for two days, four hours (sometimes more) a day, he demonstrated what he thought of as the basics of ballet. Nancy Lassalle, who over the years was a patron, trustee, and all-around benefactor of the school and company, attended the second seminar, and she asked Balanchine if she could photograph it. The backbone of “Balanchine Teaching” is a series of fourteen black-and-white photos that Lassalle took in the course of those two days. Each photo comes with a short commentary, on the facing page, by Suki Schorer, who danced for Balanchine at New York City Ballet, in the sixties and seventies—she was the original Butterfly in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1960)—and later became one of the most honored teachers at the School of American Ballet. Balanchine, in these photos, can’t speak to us in words, so Schorer does it for him, telling us, with each picture, what, exactly, Balanchine is demonstrating, and adding a pleasingly tart, teacherly note. “The toes of the working foot are on the centerline, not aligned with the hip as is sometimes taught and often seen,” she writes. Don’t you be seen doing that!
The seminars took place in S.A.B.’s old studio at Broadway and Eighty-second Street, its last home before it moved to Lincoln Center, in 1969. The room is very much present in the photos. You see the light streaming in through the window, the “No Smoking” sign, the black smudges on the dancers’ ankles where their shoes, having picked up dirt from the wooden floor, transferred it to their tights. The dancers assume the occasionally schlumpy postures that we know also from Degas’s ballet-class studies. Everyone is working; you can almost smell them. In the middle, working even harder, is Balanchine. Again, there is no fanciness. A vein sticks out on his temple; you can see his bald spot. (He is fifty-seven.) Out of this toil and ordinariness he is drawing the most fundamental principles of the art. The scene is Platonic.
In one photo, almost prayerful, he is holding his right finger, vertically, against his nose and forehead to show that ballet, or his version of it, divides the body vertically, into two halves, left and right. This idea—the opposite of the Cecchetti system, which sees the body as divided horizontally, like a stack—helped make Balanchine’s dancers look tall and thin, more so than they actually were. In another photo, he goes into plié, in the Balanchine way—that is, in a series of counter-actions. To quote Schorer, “The dancer pulls up to go down, resisting going down and coming up. The knees bend, the body starts down, and then the arms come, like a parachute . . . the hands resisting, holding onto the air.” In the next photo, Balanchine shows how, in landing from a jump, the dancer bends her knee to catch her weight but never brings her heel fully down to the floor. (He told the dancers to dance on their “chicken-tops.” Chickens don’t have heels, he said.) This readied the body to shoot up again in an instant.
In another photo, of a falling step (tombé pas de bourrée), Balanchine shows how the back hip opens as the other hip pushes down into plié. This is a jazzy, George Chakiris sort of step. Balanchine’s hair falls in his face, and his mouth is open, as if he were yelling something. Most of the actions shown in these pictures have the same underlying principle: the deployment of opposing forces, which produces an exciting tension, an aliveness. If Balanchine’s ballets seem fast, that is probably due to positioning as well as to actual tempo.
And then some of the photos are not about tension but about peace or joy. At one point, he works on épaulement, the styling of the head and shoulders. He wanted a certain tilt of the head—like asking for a kiss, he would say—and in one photo we see him guiding the head of Barbara Weisberger, one of the visiting teachers (she went on to found and direct Pennsylvania Ballet), into this position. Meanwhile, his own head mirrors the position of hers, and he smiles, sweetly—the only time in this volume that we catch him smiling. That is one surprise, but the biggest surprise in the book, for me, was a photo of Balanchine in a jump. I had never seen a picture of Balanchine jumping before. Here he seems to be doing a cabriole back, beating his legs in the air behind him. His face, which elsewhere in the book is usually oriented toward his students or visitors, is suddenly wiped clean of all relatedness. He has gone inside himself, entered another country. He almost doesn’t look like himself. Or he looks like himself forty years earlier, before he left Russia and came to America to teach us how to do ballet.
As he saw it, that job, teaching, was his main job. Most of us think of him preëminently as a choreographer, but he insisted that he was above all a teacher. Schorer says that he gave class not just on work days but also on the dancers’ (and his) one free day, and during layoffs. Class or not, he said that all dancers had to do a complete barre (supported exercises, executed while holding onto the rail) every day. It was like brushing your teeth, he said. You didn’t think about it; you just did it.