New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's Serenade (by Paul Kolnik)
It’s a thrilling moment: My fellow corps members and I rise to our toes and begin hopping on pointe in time to a beautiful Bach violin concerto. As we merge into two lines, we start an intricate canon with our arms—the first line opens one arm every four counts, and the other line opens it every three counts. The result is a visually stunning effect: You can literally see the music. And it happens during the last movement of George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco.
Feeling molded to the music is one of the biggest perks of dancing a Balanchine ballet. But his prolific repertoire (more than 400 works!) ranges from tutu ballets like Symphony in C to neoclassical masterpieces like Agon—and getting the hang of their fleet petit allégro, elongated, off-balance positions and innovative pointework can be tricky. Here’s how you can find the freedom in Balanchine’s ballets without sacrificing his signature style.
The Man Behind the Moves
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine studied at the Imperial Theater Ballet School and danced for the Maryinsky Ballet before turning his focus towards choreography. After serving as ballet master for Europe’s Ballets Russes in the 1920s, Balanchine moved to the United States in the ’30s and opened the School of American Ballet with the help of patron Lincoln Kirstein. He choreographed for Broadway, Hollywood and several small ballet troupes before founding the New York City Ballet in 1948, which he directed until his death in 1983.
“Balanchine was a musician who choreographed,” says former NYCB principal Jacques d’Amboise. In fact, Balanchine was an expertly trained pianist. He would often stay up late breaking down a musical score into its different components, so that when he choreographed to it he knew, as d’Amboise says, “the orchestration’s DNA.”
“The work just flowed out of him,” says Allegra Kent, one of his foremost ballerinas at NYCB. “He created very quickly and quietly—he never yelled. It was just about the work.”
And that work forever changed classical ballet. Many of his ballets lacked a specific story; he wanted to let the dancing speak for itself. For that reason, he frequently did without elaborate costumes and sets, having his dancers perform in simple practice clothes. His choreography often incorporated elements of jazz and unconventional partnering never before seen in the ballet world. Today, Balanchine’s ballets are performed in companies worldwide, and he continues to influence choreographers everywhere.
Balanchine developed a distinct technical style to accommodate his choreography. He stressed precise musical timing, and emphasized phrasing and syncopation in his classes. “For example, Balanchine’s fondu doesn’t have the same timing on the way down as on the way up,” says Suki Schorer, a longtime instructor at SAB. “It goes down slower and comes up a little faster. Frappé isn’t even—its accent is out and out, while ballonné is in and in.”
Balanchine wanted dancers to gobble up space, and gave classical technique a more streamlined look. He asked for longer lines, deeper lunges and a more open arabesque. “He disguised all his preparations,” says NYCB principal Teresa Reichlen. “He tried to make the in-between stuff look just as fantastic as the bigger steps.”
“There are no boundaries with his technique,” says Miami City Ballet soloist Sara Esty. “Everything is stretched to the maximum.”
How to Dance It
Speed and musicality are some of the hardest elements of Balanchine technique. “Be in time and on time—that’s the most important thing,” Schorer says. Developing speed starts at the barre during tendus and dégagés. “You need to stop in fifth position fully each time you close,” Schorer says. For greater efficiency, cross your working leg so that it’s directly in line with your body’s center line, instead of the standing heel. And keep your weight forward over the balls of the feet, “so you’re ready to move in an instant,” Schorer says.
Rather than preparing for pirouettes with two bent legs in fourth position, the Balanchine style requires a straight back leg to create an element of surprise. “From two bent legs, it’s a dead giveaway you’re going to pirouette,” says Schorer. “But from an elongated fourth you could be about to do anything.” During turns traveling on a diagonal, Balanchine dancers spot the front instead of the corner so the audience can see their faces and the turnout of their legs.
In Balanchine works, it’s OK to let your elbows and wrists bend and sweep up through the center of the body, and there should be space between each of your fingers. “The elbow picks up the wrist and the wrist brings the fingers,” says Schorer. “The arms aren’t one unit, but many pieces in motion, responding to the air.”
NYCB principal Teresa Reichlen in "Rubies," from Balanchine's Jewels (by Paul Kolnik)
Grasping Balanchine’s style requires time and consistent training. “It’s a process,” says Reichlen. “You have to work to develop the specific muscle groups that his technique stresses.” Most importantly, though, don’t forget to listen. “Every step he choreographed has a musical purpose,” says Esty. “If you really dive into the music, it will lead the way.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.