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Dancing for the Master

A review of the documentary film “In Balanchine’s Classroom.”

(Ron Kroon/Wikimedia Commons)

George Balanchine ranks as America’s greatest choreographer based on the breadth, beauty, and originality of his ballets, which are performed by companies around the world. The documentary film In Balanchine’s Classroom explores his investment in the dancers who brought these ballets to life. Director Connie Hochman spent about a decade interviewing one hundred people who observed Balanchine as teacher and mentor from 1934, when he opened his School of American Ballet in New York, until his death in 1983. Regrettably, Hochman features only an adoring handful who worked with the choreographer from about 1950 onward, when his reputation was secure and his career finally stable. As a result, In Balanchine’s Classroom is more a hagiographical portrait than an historically informed, comprehensive appraisal of this complicated genius.

Nevertheless, Hochman’s inclusion of rarely seen footage of Balanchine rehearsing students and talking to reporters—that is, when he acts and speaks for himself—makes her film worth watching. Such footage reveals that Balanchine’s self-assessment was endearingly at odds with his dancers’ reverential opinions of him. He claims in the film that he’s just a “simple choreographer who learned how to read music.” They call him an “angel,” or “magical,” or themselves his “disciples.” He, too, evokes the spiritual, but always in reference to his dancers or the art form itself. “The portals are open for you, but the passage is narrow,” he tells his charges. Of ballet, he contends that “the real reality is not on earth. It’s what we cannot explain with words.”

While the film’s fleeting moments, such as when Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky gesticulate, staccato-like, over a score, or when ballerina Maria Tallchief spins to an exhilarating passage from Stravinsky’s Firebird, are its most powerful, the intimate testimonials of four celebrated Balanchine dancers, Heather Watts, Gloria Govrin, Edward Villella, and Merrill Ashley, hold the narrative together and move it along. Each reveals their mentor’s memorable phrases and techniques, and his impact on their lives and careers. Each is also shown teaching others, passing on Balanchine’s legacy, as they feel obligated to do. Watts and Govrin express his philosophy especially through the telling of their personal stories, while Villella and Ashley do so in the studio as they coach.

Watts was the undisciplined “hippie” with a quirky body from California, who tested Balanchine’s legendary patience. She idolized her beautiful colleague Suzanne Farrell—a Balanchine favorite—and agonized over her own identity as a ballerina. “We wanted so badly to be what he wanted us to be,” she explains. When she asked him to cast her as the coveted Dewdrop in The Nutcracker, he declined, saying audiences were not ready for her. He gave her the role when he felt the time was right, urging her to express her individuality: “He taught me to make wise and informed decisions on the spot.” Balanchine eventually elevated Watts to the rank of principal, and she is shown dancing the female lead in his edgy ballet Agon in 1982 and later coaching current dancers in the piece. Watts relates how she herself received some advice from the ballerina who originated the female lead in 1957: “Don’t be so animalistic. Be more [like] a statue moving.” Presumably, something similar was uttered first by Balanchine, and even laypeople can understand what he meant.

Govrin stood over six feet tall in pointe shoes and feared she had no future in ballet. She was advised to look for work in Las Vegas as a showgirl, but Balanchine told her he never saw anyone her size move the way she did and made her a soloist. “He would rather see a mouth full of crooked teeth than straight teeth,” she recalls him saying. “He found [that] more interesting.” Govrin’s relationship with Balanchine had none of the friction that Watts’s did. He left her alone and she flourished. In a thrilling bit of footage, Govrin leads a parade of dancers toward the front of the stage in Balanchine’s homage to his adopted country, Stars and Stripes, during a 1964 performance that launched what is now the David H. Koch Theater (the Russian-born Balanchine became an American citizen in 1939). We see the qualities in her that Balanchine saw: strength, ebullience, femininity.

Villella and Ashley pass on their interpretations of Balanchine’s preferences through their coaching. While Villella, who founded and directed the esteemed Miami City Ballet, stresses style, Ashley focuses on technique, technique, technique. Images of Villella in his prime show a smoldering American Baryshnikov with a shock of black hair. “I could jump around [and] fly around, but that’s not dancing. That’s a trickster. I wanted to be artistic.” Balanchine showed him how. He talked about eagles and soccer players and modeled the movement. Today, Villella demonstrates with his body and gives the steps an internal connection, communicating Balanchine’s “poetry” as well as his mechanics. Ashley, on the other hand, comes across as a rigid taskmaster when shown rehearsing ballerina Stella Abrera in the choreographer’s magisterial ballet Symphony in C. Ashley earned Balanchine’s favor through her hard-won crystalline execution, but by imposing her exacting standards on others, she suppresses their desire to take risks, which Balanchine himself encouraged. “We’ve been doing this [for] two weeks,” an exasperated Abrera mutters. “We have to push to make it right,” Ashley responds. She wants so badly to please him, still.

Input from some non-pleasers would have given In Balanchine’s Classroom more depth and humanized its subject. Presumably, among Hochman’s vast number of interviewees (who will eventually be represented in a digital archive) were a disgruntled few whom the choreographer neglected during his roiling obsession with Suzanne Farrell in the 1960s. (Farrell’s own voice is notably absent, but she has a habit of eschewing such collective Balanchine projects.) Any clear-eyed insights offered by the brilliant, cantankerous Yvonne Patterson, who joined Balanchine in 1934 and was never one of his favorites, were also omitted. In her day, Balanchine choreographed in a different style (European romanticism verses the neoclassicism of his later career) and probably taught somewhat differently as well, given the hodgepodge of students he initially encountered in the United States. To Patterson and her classmates, Balanchine no doubt seemed just a young choreographer finding his footing, who was as mortal as everyone else.

Sharon Skeel is the author of Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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