Those of us who have followed the New York City Ballet and the repertory of the world’s greatest choreographer, George Balanchine, since the mid-1950s are filled with spine-tingling memories of great ballets performed by dancers whose technique was so solid they danced beyond technique. A few of many such memories are of Suzanne Farrell dreamily, and seemingly impossibly, floating in way-off-balance arabesques in Chaconne; Maria Tallchief touching her knee with her nose in penché as the Firebird; Edward Villella, in Tarantella, leaping so high and so far while tapping his tambourine (anything held in the hand makes it harder to dance) that the big State Theatre stage could barely contain him; Allegra Kent seductively snaking, then orgasmically yet coolly turning out her gracefully rounded and apparently muscle-less body to wrap around Villella in Bugaku, a ballet so erotically charged that someone suggested the police might shut it down. For us, observing the company these days is not without disappointments: The dancing, for the most part, looks fuzzy, messy and safe. (Many City Ballet fans of, say, a dozen years ago are no longer going.) For those very few of us who trained at the School of American Ballet in the 1960s, when it had its most brilliant roster of teachers (mostly Russian), the experience is often downright painful. Except for a handful of dancers, everyone seems to be dancing beyond a lack of technique, or worse, the wrong technique. Conversely, when you see a few dancers executing the choreography cleanly, you are so deeply grateful you want to hug them.
In his choreography, Balanchine was able to enlarge the classical vocabulary of the Imperial Dancing Academy (now the Vaganova) school in St. Petersburg precisely because, as head of the School of American Ballet as well as of the company, he knew that the classic technique was being taught. His company classes were primarily for teaching technique mediated by the demands of the choreography he was working on at the time, and he expected his dancers to take regular school classes to retain classic technique. In a sense, he was teaching his choreography. His deliberate exaggerations of or deviations from the school style, which was the Vaganova style, were all the more visible and thrilling to audiences because his basic medium of expression was classical ballet technique. Now, there’s much talk of “Balanchine style,” and Suki Schorer, a former member of City Ballet who never went to the School of American Ballet, is a main teacher there and has even written a book, Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique. Schorer is passing on to readers and her students choreography as technique, what she learned in company class with Balanchine. And sadly, the brilliant roster of teachers are all gone except for the 97-year-old Antonina Tumkovsky and for Hélène Dudin, whose teaching time has, naturally, been drastically reduced; and Andrei Kramarevsky, who doesn’t teach girls, as Pierre Vladimiroff and Stanley Williams did. Taking the place of such luminaries as Vladimiroff, his wife, Felia Doubrovska, Alexandra Danilova, Muriel Stuart (who danced in Pavlova’s company), Williams (who, despite his Bournonville-style background, stuck to the Vaganova style) and Diana Adams (a former principal who tried to outdo Tumkovsky in her Russian approach) are members of City Ballet, many of whom were not principals. The school badly needs an infusion of Russian blood.
In his preface to Lincoln Kirstein and Muriel Stuart’s illustrated book, The Classic Ballet: Basic Technique and Terminology (1952), Balanchine insists that the technique explicated by Stuart is the same as the one he learned in St. Petersburg and the same as the one taught at his School of American Ballet. He calls such technique “unalterable” and its teaching “a conservative calling.” He deems the drawings as “more accurate as an approximation of ideal perfection, because they have been corrected and recorrected, which is impossible in photography, however vivid or charming its accidental results may be.”