On a snowy morning in February, Violette Verdy walked into a well-lit rehearsal studio seven stories above Broadway. At 81, the former ballerina, best known for her 20-year collaboration with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, is a striking woman, petite and vivacious, with eyes the color of stormy seas. (“My mother said they change with the weather,” she told me.) She wore her signature work attire: matching tights, knee-length skirt, and top, all in the same shade of dark blue, and complemented by a pair of bright-red ballet flats. If one looked closely, one might have noticed that her shoes were held in place not by elastics or ribbons, but by matching rubber bands, the kind shelved next to the paper clips at Staples. Verdy displays the pragmatism of someone who is utterly comfortable in her skin.
As soon as she entered the room, Verdy was surrounded by friends and admirers. Some had shared the stage with her or watched from the wings during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when she was one of New York City Ballet’s most celebrated dancers in what she calls the “19th century and a half” repertory, by which she means ballets that make reference to 19th-century themes and traditions while applying the innovations and refinements of 20th-century technique. Verdy had a word for each person who approached her. Hers is an irrepressible friendliness.
Verdy and one of her former dance partners, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, were in New York to work with Ashley Laracey and Chase Finlay, two young dancers from New York City Ballet, on the finer points of Sonatine, a work that Balanchine had created for Verdy and Bonnefoux in 1975. The session was to be taped and edited by the George Balanchine Foundation for its video archives, part of an effort to preserve and document the subtleties and details of style that define each of Balanchine’s ballets. (“It’s about a very tenuous thing called atmosphère,” Verdy explained.) Such nuances are the first thing to fray when a ballet is passed on from one dancer to the next. If care isn’t taken to explain and preserve them, or at least consider them, choreography becomes an empty exercise, a relic, like a poem loaded with forgotten allusions, or a painting retouched by too many hands. It just fades away. “Ballets are like butterflies,” Balanchine said, and he wasn’t wrong.
Videotaping can capture an impression of a performance, but it fails to elucidate the reasoning behind the steps, or the feelings they were meant to evoke. Notation, when it is used, offers an abstracted score, a guide to what happens when. But nothing can replace the guidance of a person who has danced the role many times and knows its secrets. In ballet, these coaches, or ballet masters, embody an oral, body-to-body tradition that has existed for centuries. (It is central to most forms of dance.) In the case of works from the 19th century—say, Swan Lake—the ballerina is imparting the accumulated wisdom (and sometimes the excesses) of her predecessors. But in the case of 20th-century dances, many of the original interpreters, like Verdy and Bonnefoux, are still with us. They worked with the choreographer and remember what was said—or left unsaid—in the room as the steps were made. Like the annotations of a biblical scholar, their insights illuminate a shared text.