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Flash Report, 3-12: Works in Progress
Passing on Balanchine, Generation to Generation, Gesture to Gesture

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2004 Susan Yung

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NEW YORK -- Works & Process at the Guggenheim presented Balanchine: The Middle Years Sunday and Monday, in another installment of its series on Balanchine's legacy featuring coaching sessions and performances. Maria Tallchief coached Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Patricia Barker in two variations from "Firebird." Tallchief recounted how Balanchine, instead of trying to explain the technical breakdown of an arm gesture to elicit the desired effect might simply extend his arm and say "There you are," or peek under an arm in high fifth to say "Here I am." To achieve the proper head angle, he'd suggest that Tallchief pretend she was turning her head to receive a kiss on the cheek from her father.

It was humbling to watch Barker, who's physically imposing -- tall and limby, with the exaggerated lines of hyperextended knees and highly arched feet -- being reprimanded by the role's muse, who danced in the 1949 premiere. Tallchief in particular focused on Barker's hands, key details in the complete characterization of the role, admonishing Barker not to flatten out her fingers like a pancake, or flop them down.

Melissa Hayden coached American Ballet Theatre principals Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in excerpts of "Donizetti Variations," from 1961. Hayden, who created the lead woman's role, marvelled that "everything by Balanchine was so easy, because it was natural." Of "Symphony in C," Hayden said that at the time she wasn't used to doing ballets based on steps rather than stories. To aid her interpretation, she played the role of "hostess with the mostest," which seemed to work. Noted for her quicksilver allegro, she mused on her one, single act performed with Erik Bruhn: "To die for." And she recalled telling Jacques d'Amboise not to touch her while partnering her in turns, as it would impede her pirouettes.

Hayden told Murphy and Gomes to make their entrance "like a circus," acknowledging the festive atmosphere of the piece. She corrected their rushed tempo, and told Gomes to "make it a surprise" when he caught Murphy's arm as she crossed the stage to him, which he did immediately. The dancers laughed as Hayden told how Mr. B had set an entire variation on her without music, and how she had muttered under her breath, "Good luck to me," later performing it to precisely matching music.

Credit goes to the dancers for agreeing to participate in these sessions. Undoubtedly it is a privilege to work with role-originating ballerinas, but the dancers' faults are subject to public exposure. Barker managed through her performance, but she looked admittedly deflated after Tallchief corrected her hands for the nth time. Still, Barker has a lyrical line and great authority onstage, and has the tools to master the role. Murphy and Gomes fared better in their lighter roles requiring less committed acting. Gomes's physical gifts abound, but his confident epaulement and facial expressions, which he always presents to the audience, are key to his commanding presence. Murphy is a technical wiz with great balance, casually and routinely completing four pirouettes to finish her variation. She flickered through a clever tempo sequence of petit allegro, and pulled against Gomes in a daring diagonal arabesque.

Nancy Reynolds moderated, and Nancy McDill provided piano accompaniment.

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