The Balanchine legacy
Suzanne Farrell and Edward Villella
by Stephanie Rieke
In August 1913, nine-year old Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze became a boarding student at the Imperial Theater Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Russia. A week later, he ran away. Not exactly an auspicious beginning for the later-renamed George Balanchine, arguably the most influential and revolutionary choreographer of the twentieth century.
Balanchine arrived in America in 1933, founded a ballet school in 1934, and directed several incarnations of what would eventually become, in 1948, the New York City Ballet. More than 400 dances later, the magnitude of Balanchine's choreographic achievement is astonishing. By updating the tradition and technique of Russian classicism with a modern-formalist sensibility, Balanchine single-handedly expanded the vocabulary of dance. Most of all, Balanchine was interested in how bodies move through space and the resulting interplay of music and steps. Still edgy and fresh, his ballets continue to challenge audiences worldwide.
The best way to measure Balanchine's enormous impact is to witness his creativity firsthand. Unfortunately, the New York City Ballet - still the most active repository of Balanchine works - rarely tours stateside. But twenty years after his death, the University Musical Society is presenting the companies of two of Balanchine's most accomplished acolytes, Suzanne Farrell and Edward Villella, as part of the festivities marking St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary.
Farrell and Villella are as different as were their respective careers with City Ballet. Farrell was Mr. B.'s favorite in the last two decades of his life - the ultimate insider who benefited, and suffered, from his devoted attention. Known for taking risks and an inherent musicality, Farrell will always be held up as a paragon of Balanchine technique. But Villella, an athletic Italian American kid from Queens, always saw himself as an outsider. It didn't help that he refused to play by the Balanchine rules, often studying with outside teachers and freelancing here and abroad. All along, he sought to broaden the appeal of ballet and redefine what a classical male dancer can be. Long
retired from dancing themselves, Farrell and Villella now nurture their own authoritative outposts of Balanchine style and repertoire for the next generation.
On Saturday and Sunday, October 18 and 19, Miami City Ballet, which Villella founded in 1986, presents an all-Stravinsky program, underlining the dynamic collaboration between Stravinsky and Balanchine that began in 1926 and flourished throughout their lives. Canons of Balanchine neoclassicism - Apollo (1928) and Agon (1957), essentially plotless ballets with spare costumes and sets - pulse with spiky toe work, leggy extensions, and intricate partnering. The Agon pas de deux alone is worth the price of a ticket.
The much younger Suzanne Farrell Ballet is a handpicked group of exceptional dancers that calls the Kennedy Center in D.C. home. On Friday, October 31, the company performs five works - including Meditation (1963), Balanchine's haunting love letter to Farrell and the first of many ballets he made for her - all set to Tchaikovsky, one of Balanchine's most profound influences from St. Petersburg.
To learn more about the Balanchine legacy, and to hear Farrell and Villella speak about their personal experiences in the studio with Balanchine, check out the free international symposium devoted to the choreographer sponsored by the U-M Center for Russian and East European Studies on Friday and Saturday, October 31 and November 1, at Rackham Auditorium.
[Originally published in October, 2003.]