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.”
The lack of, or downright wrong, technique has marred much of this winter’s eight-week season, which started in January.
Poor alignment: Sofiane Sylve is a perverse choice for guest artist this season. Her photo alone in the season’s programs shows you how badly she hoists up her right hip to raise her right leg into second position (to the side). A serious no-no, and a cheating way to get the leg higher, to achieve greater extension. (Hips should remain even.) She reminds me of her French compatriot Sylvie Guillem. Sylve has been trading leads with the superb principal Maria Kowroski in Balanchine’s Western Symphony, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Serenade, and the comparisons invite ridicule. Instead of flapping her arms like wings, as Kowroski does in the angel role in Serenade, Sylve wields them like fly swatters.
Elevation: Practically no one can jump anymore, and the few who can don’t jump very high. Jumps, along with turns, are especially essential to the men, because they denote masculinity and virility.
Landing on relevé or demi-pointe: This bad technique is actually advocated by Schorer in her book, and gives a fudgy look to the allegro passages of ballets, as if everyone is tiptoeing around. The correct way to land is softly, toe first then down flat to the heel into a plié, or knee bend. Landing on the ball of your foot and not following through with the heel on the floor does several terrible things to the look of dance: It prevents the dancer from getting a decent plié, to prepare for the jump (the plié with heel to floor enables the dancer to jump higher: Think Michael Jordan). Of course, the heel-to-floor plié preparation must be done quickly and unnoticeably, otherwise you look like “Heave-ho. I weigh 300 pounds.” Plié-ing in relevé tends to produce knotty muscles in the calves, and quite a few New York City Ballet dancers, notably the principal Wendy Whelan, have this problem. Not putting the heel to the floor nullifies the horizontal plane, which is supposed to emphasize the vertical plane: It takes away that beautifully tactile sense of the floor that the basic foot positions rely on and that, in turn, form the foundation of ballet. How can you defy gravity if you don’t acknowledge it? In a quick combination of steps, the spectator needs to sense the lovely brushing through fifth or first positions–which, by definition, require the heel to the floor–in order to be dazzled by footwork.
Fussy gestures by men; overdeveloped muscles in women: Too many men are flapping their hands. Tumkovsky once reprimanded a boy in our class, who kept splaying his fingers artistically: “What you make me Swan Lake? You not girl!” If the men don’t look interested in the women they’re dancing with, the spectator rightly wonders why they’re dancing together. By the same token, many women look muscle-bound, ropy and tense in the neck. Presumably they’re working with weights and doing The New York City Ballet Workout, a set of strengthening exercises on video for sale on the mezzanine of the State Theatre. Projecting masculinity and femininity has nothing to do with a dancer’s sexual orientation and everything to do with acting, which is part of ballet. Without “la différence,” a pas de deux has no sexual tension, which is the underlying drama of all Balanchine’s ballets, including the so-called plotless ones. As Balanchine once said, “Boy meets girl. They fall in love. How much story you want?”
Overcrossed fifths: Sometimes the men cheat and slightly overcross their feet in fifth position, to get a cleaner look because they are usually less turned out than women. Now many of the women are doing it too. (Correct fifth has the legs turned out, one foot in front of the other with the heel of the back foot lining up with the first joint of the front foot’s big toe, or at most the end of the toe. The toe in front should not project past the heel in back.) In Schorer’s book, the female dancer demonstrating the steps in photographs consistently overcrosses fifth position. Peter Boal, the best male Balanchine dancer left and a teacher at the school, is photographed in perfect position. Overcrossing fifth looks bad because it creates a zigzag effect and turns the dancer’s body away from en face, or facing directly, the audience–again, a key element of ballet. In order to appreciate choreography, the audience must always have a clear sense of the geometry of space, direction and timing. Principal Yvonne Borrée is guilty of overcrossing her fifths, yet, inexplicably, doesn’t snap her legs shut when she’s supposed to in beats in the air, and makes sticks out of her arms: In allegro roles such as the lead in Raymonda Variations and Square Dance, she produces a questionable shape: She turns Balanchine’s juicy roles into bloodless ghosts.
Thank heaven for those dancers at City Ballet who are carrying the torch for Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Peter Boal continues to clarify Balanchine’s modernism with his classical technique. But the company’s director, Peter Martins, should accord this marvelous danseur more respect and not cast him in the bravura virtuoso lead of Raymonda Variations, which Boal manages, although he is at an age when stamina can become a problem. Maria Kowroski continues to improve and exalt, seeming to channel the former star Suzanne Farrell in many roles created for or retuned to Farrell. Her performance in Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, one of my favorite Balanchines, was sensational without being flashy, despite Richard Moredock’s funereal pacing at the piano. (Kowroski is a self-starter: Years ago I watched her rehearse the role of Terpsichore in Apollo. She asked Karin von Aroldingen, a former principal who was coaching her in the role, whether the step she was doing was développé à la seconde, an unfurling of the leg to the side, or devant, or to the front. Von Aroldingen replied, “Sort of in-between.” There is no such thing as in-between, of course, and I noticed that in performance, Kowroski did it properly, first to the side, then slowly turning the upper body toward it to the front.) But she mustn’t lift or lose any weight: There’s a little tension creeping into her neck. Alexandra Ansanelli gave a suitably delirious performance in her role in the Schumann, despite wretched support from her partner. Many of the dancers look better in Robbins’s ballets than in Balanchine’s, perhaps because Robbins (1918-98) relied less on classic technique than Balanchine did; but Rachel Rutherford, a soloist, is shining in both. In the lyrical sweep of her adagio, she reminds me of the former principal Maria Calegari, except Rutherford is better: Calegari rarely bothered to rein in her hyperextension, turning out a good 200 degrees instead of 180 degrees. Rutherford is more controlled. Abi Stafford, another soloist, gave a clean performance of Square Dance. Benjamin Millepied, a principal, outdid José Manuel Carreño over at the American Ballet Theatre, in the same role as the Latin-dancing showoff sailor in Robbins’s wonderful Fancy Free. He kept the rumba movements subtle and restrained, as they should be. (Carreño, a few months earlier at City Center, jerked his bottom up and down and camped it up to the point where the audience burst out laughing.) And as soon as she walked out onto the stage, presenting herself as a classically trained ballerina, Alina Dronova stood out in the corps. She just joined the company from Ukraine. In Serenade, Dronova was so carried away with Tchaikovsky’s romantic score and dancing so all-out that she fell, quickly pulled herself together and carried on. Balanchine would have been proud.