Stardust Memories

On October 11, 1948, the New York City Ballet made its official debut at the City Center. At that moment, the succession of companies formed by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to create a contemporary American version of dance classicism took a critical step toward becoming an established institution. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark event, the company opened its winter season at the New York State Theater with a gala offering the all-Balanchine debut program: Concerto Barocco, Orpheus, and Symphony in C. After the annual stretch of Nutcrackers, and continuing through its spring season, the troupe will present 100 ballets from its incomparable repertory. Some will be new, to underline the fact that the NYCB has always been forward-looking. The best of the rest will be Balanchine’s, the next-best those of Jerome Robbins, whose fertile talent would have made him top man anywhere but in this company, which remains dominated by Balanchine’s genius. The work of Peter Martins, who now leads the NYCB, will be represented, of course, but circumspectly, as is fitting on such an occasion.

There’s absolutely no point in reviewing the gala as if it were an ordinary performance, detailing its high points and its failings. (No doubt the fateful evening in 1948 had its own pluses and minuses.) Neither is it fair to take this single showing as the final measure of how the NYCB has managed its overwhelming inheritance. To my eyes, the performance was typical of what I was seeing last year. The dancing seems clearer and more robust than it has in the past decade or so, when one yearned desperately to have Balanchine back to coach and inspire. Compared with the performances that were guided by Balanchine, today’s renditions look diminished in scale and depleted in temperament. And the casting is, as more often than not under Martins, largely unfathomable. Concerto Barocco and Symphony in C promise to endure to thrill our descendants, while Orpheus, alas, no longer works. The special evening, dedicated to the inimitable Balanchine ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, included a succinct, telling film tribute to her and an audience-wide vodka toast to “George” and “Lincoln,” may their memory be blessed.

One of the first of several nonperformance activities scheduled for the anniversary year was a reunion of former members of the New York City Ballet. Since the event was on the agenda announced in the press kit for the season, I phoned the company’s press office to ask if I might attend. “It’s a family affair,” explained the press rep. “No journalists.” This seemed to me altogether reasonable – indeed, fitting – until he added, with some embarrassed reluctance, “Except for Anna and Clive,” referring to the dance critics of New York’s Times and Post. A week later, he phoned to inform me that the powers that be – who remained stubbornly unidentified – had changed their collective mind, and that people on the “gala press list” (this, apparently, includes the critic from New York Magazine) were invited, since “it would not be a good idea to introduce the anniversary year with bad feelings.” By then, the ways of the world having proved too political for me, I had decided to stay safely at home and revel privately in my personal recollection of several generations of the NYCB’s incomparable dancers.

I began watching the company in the fifties, when a quintet of highly individual ballerinas reigned over the female roster. My favorite wasn’t Maria Tallchief (the scintillating unofficial prima) but rather the gentle, lyrical Diana Adams and Le Clercq, all elegance and wit, with those rapier legs. Alongside them danced Melissa Hayden and Patricia Wilde, earthier angels; they were soon joined by the ineffable Allegra Kent. The next wave of stars, equally distinctive and memorable, included Patricia McBride (irresistible, and intensely theatrical, in allegro work), Suzanne Farrell (a sensuous adagio dancer and perhaps Balanchine’s most compelling inspiration), Merrill Ashley (who brought fresh air to technical exactitude), and Gelsey Kirkland (ill-fated, but divinely gifted). Their successors included Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler, who are still performing; if you’ve seen them, you know their magic. Clearly, throughout Balanchine’s tenure, and often with significant input from Jerome Robbins, who usefully saw dancers from his own angle, the women of the company were unmatched.

The men I remember most vividly from the early years are Nicholas Magallanes and Francisco Moncion, because Balanchine was able to choreograph so evocatively for their unique personalities – of body and spirit. Neither dancer was a formidable technician; it didn’t matter. Animated by Balanchine, they became consequential artists. When they took the principal roles in Orpheus, the ballet was resonant. Over the years, as male technique in the company grew generally stronger, practitioners like Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella, Arthur Mitchell, and Peter Boal defined and refined the American meaning of the term danseur noble. The male roster was simultaneously invigorated by an infusion of Scandinavian men (with Helgi Tomasson, Ib Andersen, and Peter Martins predominant) whom Balanchine appreciated as much for their onstage modesty as for their skills; they offered dancing, not ego.

Most of the dancers I’ve named so far were Balanchine’s instruments by instinct or became so through experience. A few imports – from Europe; from American Ballet Theater, which could seem equally distant from Balanchine country – remained “other,” though each enlivened and enhanced the performance (sometimes even the creation) of the repertory: the virtuoso cavalier André Eglevsky, the dramatic dancer Nora Kaye, the musically astute Violette Verdy, and the dazzling Mikhail Baryshnikov, who sensibly wanted to be where ballet was best, but whose destiny lay outside the NYCB’s confines.

I remember other principals whose combined contribution made the New York City Ballet’s glorious history possible, other soloists and ensemble members, too – for this company was, and remains, one in which rank does not entirely determine role. Though as a social curiosity, the reunion might have been fun to attend, having thought it over I see I have no need to ogle or chat up the later, offstage selves of the people who remain frozen in time and eternally luminous as creatures who embodied George Balanchine’s (and Jerome Robbins’s) imagination.

Stardust Memories