Balanchine, the teacher: ‘I pushed everybody’

Balanchine, the teacher: ‘I pushed everybody’

The setting is a ballet class, and the year is 1974. George Balanchine throws up his arms in exasperation at the sight of a dancer executing a step incorrectly at the barre. We may not be able to see her, and what she’s doing wrong, but we feel how hard Balanchine is taking it. It’s not just his words – “that’s bad” – but the punctuation of his body: emphatic, agile, alive.

His hands slap his thighs. He raises an arm like a stiff branch to show how far a leg should be raised. It’s not high; it’s parallel to the floor.

“Go enough,” he says, before lifting it a couple of inches. “To go up later. See? ’Cause if you go high, you fall down.”

His arm crashes down, hitting his leg. Then his zinger: “Newton’s Law.”

The new film “In Balanchine’s Classroom,” directed by Connie Hochman, focuses on the teaching of the groundbreaking choreographer – and how it instilled his dances at New York City Ballet with articulate, musical brilliance. It’s both enthralling and heartbreaking. To love Balanchine is to love this film; to love this film is to love ballet, specifically Balanchine’s kind and his kind of dancer: daring, fast, strong, free, at one with the music. Each is different from the next. That mattered to him.

“What do you see?” he says in a voice-over. “You see a person doing it. This person, not the other one. This particular person. This particular leg is lifted or neck is bent. I care about these people, you see.”

Balanchine is irreplaceable. His ballets are still performed, most regularly by City Ballet, the company he formed with Lincoln Kirstein, but are they performed in the same way? It’s that question that makes the film heartbreaking. Each year since Balanchine’s death in 1983, his legacy has become more vulnerable. The pandemic sped that up.

In many ways, “In Balanchine’s Classroom” is a call to action, an opportunity to study what he left behind: his teaching, which was the basis for all that followed. He not only revolutionized ballet, but he made it reflect the feeling of the time while giving it a sense of timelessness.

“I feel the sadness, too,” said Hochman, a dancer who studied at the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet as a child in the 1960s. “But I like to always remember that Balanchine was such an optimist.

“He sometimes was pulling his hair out trying to get his point across,” she added, “but he just stuck with it because he really believed in his dancers and he loved them so much.”

Since Hochman began work on the documentary more than 10 years ago, several of the dancers she interviewed, including Jacques d’Amboise, have died. Esteemed teachers like Suki Schorer, a former principal who started teaching at Balanchine’s request in the early 1960s and continues to do so at the School of American Ballet, are getting older. That the film preserves their voices, and many more, is invaluable. (Hochman is also building an archive of the dozens of dancers she interviewed for the film. A selection of snippets is available online.)

Merrill Ashley, a former principal who appears in the film, said that Balanchine used to say that he would be more remembered for his teaching than for his ballets. “I don’t think that’s happened, but I think it should happen,” she said. “And I think this will be an important tool to show the world how he taught, and that it was important to him. He was a teacher.”

And he didn’t teach through counts and imagery alone. What this film shows so lucidly is how his philosophy of movement lived inside of his body. Rare archival footage of him teaching and rehearsing show not only his speed and accuracy but the generosity of his own dancing body as he demonstrates what he wants. Balanchine is clear, but he’s not polite. He devours space.

One of Hochman’s greatest challenges was to unearth film of Balanchine. The classroom material comes from Jerome Robbins and Christine Redpath, then a dancer in the company and now a repertory director. In diving into the digital collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Hochman combed metadata. If she found something with words like “rehearsal” and “Balanchine works with dancer,” she made a note of it.

One chunk of material she found is exceptional: footage from a shoot for a 1981 TV production of “The Spellbound Child,” or “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges,” set to Ravel. The rehearsal was filmed, which meant “hours and hours of Balanchine working on that ballet,” Hochman said. “They were making a blueprint of the path of the dancers and the camera angles. It was wonderful.”

It’s a fantasy ballet, full of creatures and objects that come to life; Balanchine, who created the first version of it for the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 1925, revived it in 1975 for City Ballet’s Ravel Festival. In one rehearsal, he asks a dancer if she “could run starting forever.” She isn’t sure what he means – who would be? – so he shows her, lunging on the floor and moving forward and back slightly as if he is about to take off but some invisible force keeps him from doing so.

“Something like that,” he says.

Balanchine, here and in footage of class, is an energetic force: The film may be blurry or grainy, but his intention is not. “Did you see moths in your life?” he asks a group before taking off in a serpentine swoop as if it were suddenly a moonlit night. Whoosh! He is so fast, so urgent. It’s all the more mesmerizing in the digitized films of him teaching class, as flickering lights render him ghostly, otherworldly.

“It’s so magical,” Hochman said. “But when you watch it, I think on a subliminal level, you feel that this just barely captured what happened, because dance evaporates – everything goes, but we just have this little hint. The deterioration actually adds to the meaning of it.”

Why would a dancer who never took a class from Balanchine want to make a film about his teaching? Hochman, who went on to become a member of the Pennsylvania Ballet, loved class. And when Pennsylvania Ballet would perform in New York, Schorer, her former teacher, would come to see her dance.

“I did a solo in ‘Raymonda Variations’ and Suki came backstage,” Hochman said. “She’s very spirited and very blunt, and she said: ‘It was lovely, Connie, but you don’t get it. It’s about opposition.’ And she started right there in the dressing room trying to get across to me what the variation was about. The Balanchine dancers knew something that I didn’t know. It was like a fog.”

She wanted to get to the bottom of it for herself. And even more important, she wanted to preserve the dancers’ perspectives on Balanchine and his training, and to show how Balanchine cherished his dancers’ individuality.

Even if you never had the luxury of seeing the company when he was in charge (I depressingly did not), “In Balanchine’s Classroom” shows that he would stop at nothing to make dancers more precise, stronger, more musical and also more themselves. “I wanted to have a certain way of dancing,” he says in another voice-over. “I want to have clean dancers. So I pushed everybody.”

Balanchine studied at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Russia, starting at age 9. (He left the Soviet Union in 1924.) That classical training, Ashley said, is what he passed onto them. “When people say he’s not teaching classical ballet, that is just ludicrous,” she said. “He is going back to the very essence of what ballet was.”

What happens when there is no one left to correct the myths?

Ashley is not alone in worrying about his legacy as a teacher and about misconceptions surrounding some of his ideas: He wanted the hand to be rounded with the fingers separated like petals, but sometimes it ends up looking like a claw. And there’s the notion that he didn’t want his dancers to put down any weight in their heels when they danced. What Balanchine actually wanted was for dancers to feel as if there was nothing more than a piece of onion skin between the heel and the floor. “A piece of paper, that’s it,” Ashley said. “Your heel can touch the floor, but your weight can’t be in the heel.”

While City Ballet can still feel like a glorious bouquet – Balanchine used to say his dancers were like flowers that bloomed at different times to create a garden – it’s not hard to imagine that he could transform today’s dancers into something transcendent. “This is how I see it: He chose people with strong personalities that he enjoyed,” Hochman said. “The rigors of ballet technique could not squelch them.”

Hochman draws out some of those personalities: How did they become so devoted? What was the spark? There’s something particularly affecting in Heather Watts’ story. A free spirit from California, Watts, in an interview, said he used to call her his little flower child. She was something of a problem – “discipline was not my middle name,” she admits in the film – but he wouldn’t give up on her.

One day, when she was late for a costume fitting, Balanchine told her it was her last chance. Around that time, she got to perform a lead role in “Serenade,” and after the performance, Balanchine delivered the words that shifted her focus: “You were good.”

“In that moment,” Watts says in the film, “he becomes the only voice in my head that can guide me to what I most want.”

Hochman shows Watts (and others, too) coaching younger dancers: passing on her knowledge that in a Balanchine ballet there is no such thing as safe. Sometimes Watts finds that the dancers she works with improve but then settle into a place of safety. “You have to keep going,” she said. “And that’s what he did with us.”

Dancers today like to use the expression that choreography is in their bodies. To Watts, that means trouble. “You’re not dancing on the edge of a volcano,” she said. “And you’re not hanging on that note like your life depended on it.”

She thinks about the role of Dewdrop in “The Nutcracker.” In it, Balanchine challenged her to run as fast as she could, to bend as much as possible and to fly – to not touch the ground.

“He dared me not to touch the ground,” Watts said. “That’s exhilarating. That’s an exhilarating dare.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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