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Flash Report, 11-21: 'Lost' and Found
Tallchief, Franklin, and a Few Friends Recoup Balanchine Jewels

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Dance performances are magical in part because, in contrast with precisely scored music, they are usually unscripted -- unique and ephemeral, like individual snowflakes. While many works have been notated, many performances have surely been lost to the ages. Archival performance videotaping is now standard at even smaller performing venues, but what exists on tape may languish, untapped. The George Balanchine Foundation has set about filling in some gaps in George Balanchine's repertory, reconstructing segments based on historical film clips of dances no longer performed. Twenty-one such films exist. Segments are being restored on contemporary dancers; they are aided by those who danced the works and/or those who are intimately familiar with the technique. This past Sunday and Monday, Works & Process at the Guggenheim, with the assistance of the Balanchine Foundation, showed restored excerpts from "Le Baiser de la Fee" (1937, to Stravinsky) and "Mozartiana" (1933/45, to Tchaikovsky), plus onstage coaching sessions and film clips in an engaging lecture/demonstration format. (Balanchine used the music from both these pieces in other, later, works.)

Three current New York City Ballet principals performed the brief segments: Nikolaj Hubbe, Jenifer Ringer, and Miranda Weese. First, we watched coaching sessions for both excerpts. Hubbe and Ringer, in 'Baiser,' received comments from Maria Tallchief, the noble and legendary ballerina who danced the role of Fee (a gypsy Fairy) decades ago. Besides correcting Ringer's minor mistaken steps (and disciplining Ringer to remove the one leg warmer she wore to rehearse), Tallchief advised her on the carriage of her shoulder, head, and arms, telling her to lead sweeping arms with a slight break in the wrist. It is one thing to hear such words spoken, but quite another to see the instructions and response demonstrated so eloquently. Tallchief remains a powerful presence onstage even in street clothes. (She said she found it easier to dance dramatic roles "because I'm dramatic." Indeed.) The film of her dancing the excerpt on which the restoration was based showed how assertive and fiery the role could be. As Ringer rehearsed, it seemed doubtful that she could ever approach the intensity of Tallchief's performance. But when it came time to perform, Ringer kicked it up a notch, doubtless inspired (or challenged) by Tallchief's presence.

Frederic Franklin coached Hubbe and Weese in a bit from "Mozartiana." Franklin approaches his 90th birthday but appears decades younger, and his humor and sharp insight made for fascinating banter. Having danced the original work in 1933, he conveyed Balanchine's notes: he wanted it "elegant, serene, not grand -- like Mozart." He encouraged the dancers to appreciate the stillness present in the choreography. He recalled his partner in the work, Alexandra Danilova, who, great as she was, found some of the experimental steps tricky to understand, such as a lift sequence in which the woman stabs her cross leg into arabesque. (In fairness -- it did look weird.) She also asked if she could not plie on pointe in one section, which can appear somewhat vulgar in the context of classicism, but Balanchine nixed her request.

Prior to the performance segment of the reconstructed excerpt from the original "Mozartiana," we watched a film of current NYCB principal Peter Boal performing the later dance to the same piece of music, as choreographed by Balanchine in 1981, two years before his death. The effect was like looking at cursive script next to block lettering. The 1981 version flowed quickly, filled with space-gobbling steps in ovals and diagonals, and nifty, delicate croise shifts. The 1933 segment emphasized phrases punctuated with lunges and starchy poses. It ended sublimely, with Hubbe lowering Weese to the floor in a heartachingly slow spiral.

The restoration of these "lost works" raises the question of why they were not kept in repertory to begin with. But Balanchine was so prolific that it is impossible to keep everything in rep, and his recycling of these particular musical compositions surely helped keep the older versions on the shelf. Dancers as athletes have been rapidly evolving over the last 70 years, and Balanchine's choreography certainly reflected what must also be the changing tastes of the audience. Seeing the old and new works juxtaposed, my eye found the modern appealing, perhaps because of the contrast presented, or simply because it is a language I am used to. To compare both is a wonderful opportunity to see a great mind evolve through a historically rich span of time.

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