‘Balanchine Then and Now’ with Pacific Northwest Ballet

Written by Steve Ha
(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Kiyon Gaines with soloist Lindsi Dec,
and corps de ballet dancers Jerome Tisserand and Sarah Ricard Orza in The Four Temperaments,
choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust.
Photo © Angela Sterling. April 16, 2010
 
At Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Balanchine: Then and Now’ lecture-demonstration held on April 2, 2012, founding artistic director Francia Russell and current artistic director Peter Boal led a presentation that highlighted changes that have been made to mastermind choreographer George Balanchine’s ballets, spanning over half a century. Through photos, archival footage, and in-studio performances by PNB dancers Maria Chapman, Benjamin Griffiths, Lesley Rausch, and newcomer Matthew Renko, three generations of “Balanchine dancers” came together to illustrate the evolutionary nature of Balanchine’s work in fine detail.
Russell, famously known as a repetiteur of Balanchine ballets and for having a close relationship with the man himself, offered the most fascinating historical insights. Her departure from New York City Ballet (the very house of Balanchine) came after one of his most prolific periods, and the ballets as they were performed during that time are the stagings Russell brought with her to the West Coast. Russell as a repetiteur is comparable to an island breaking away from a continent—the isolation allowed for the proliferation of an older “vintage” of Balanchine—a term coined by celebrated muse Violette Verdy and a perfect summation of the diversification of his work. The idiosyncrasies among the “vintages” are not a matter of authentication because inevitably it is all Balanchine, but they do serve as reminders that choreography, like a living entity, must be nurtured in order to thrive. Though discrepancies within the Balanchine Trust caused a struggle to establish how certain ballets were to be restaged, Russell said it best by merely saying: “Nobody was wrong.” As for the philosophy behind her stagings, she had the luxury of asking Balanchine himself, who simply responded with: “Do what you like, dear.”
From changes to titles, costumes, music, and choreography, Balanchine constantly tweaked and edited his own creations, though one philosophy remained steadfast—the way a step is done is of utmost importance. Russell quoted Balanchine saying that musical erosion is what happens most, and that someday people will remember the steps but not how they’re done. This was best exemplified by an anecdote of hers about a moment in The Four Temperaments that Balanchine specifically entrusted to her by telling her not to forget, because only she will know it as it is meant to be. Though the music and choreography are closely intertwined, when Balanchine did make changes something incredible happened; molding choreography to the dancer was like weaving new threads into a fine tapestry, literally tying the dancer into the work. One can only imagine how gratifying that feeling must have been.
By far, the most fascinating example of different “vintages” of Balanchine were brought to life in the Melancholic solo from The Four Temperaments, where Russell and Boal had Benjamin Griffiths perform Russell’s staging and Matthew Renko perform the one he learned at New York City Ballet side by side. Differences in timing, aesthetic changes from a lyrical one to a sharper, more angular one were made crystal clear in thrilling fashion. Visually informative, the juxtaposition of the two solos also highlighted the approachability of Balanchine’s choreography—in-depth knowledge of ballet was far from necessary to be able to see what made the two solos unique. Unfortunately, this was the only example to be compared as such, though there was plenty of great dancing to follow. The demonstration closed with the full variations and coda from Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, a lovely preview of next season’s All Tchaikovskyrepertory program. Lesley Rausch performed the female variation with a dazzling splendor, offering crisp footwork and minimal port de bras in the manner of Violette Verdy. Griffiths, always the consummate jumper, was not to be missed in the male role, and both Chapman and Renko performed a marvelous coda. One of the trickier moments in the coda has the ballerina insert little steps in between fouetté turns, a classic example of Balanchine’s knowledge of transitions as well as his changing of steps as this current sequence was not originated by Violette Verdy— Chapman executes this flawlessly.
Former PNB dancers Patricia Barker and Stanko Milov
with Company dancers in George Balanchine’s Apollo.
Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust.
Photo © Angela Sterling. 
It is perhaps Balanchine’s treatment of his own work that is just as revolutionary as some of the more notable ways he changed the face of ballet, such as putting dancers in black and white leotards, and creating an aesthetic that sets the standard for the neoclassical genre. Seattleaudiences will have a fantastic opportunity to see this at work again, when PNB performs Apollo as a part of their Apollo & Carmina program, where the dancers will perform the “New York” vintage as Boal learned it. Seasoned audience members may miss the birth scene that Russell always includes in her staging of Apollo, but the chance to see Balanchine through a different lens—or rather a prism that splays light into a full spectrum of color—is an indulgence into the vitality of Balanchine.
Apollo & Carmina opens tomorrow night, April 13, and continues next weekend. For ticket information, visit www.pnb.org