New York City Ballet at City Center

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John F
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New York City Ballet at City Center

Post by John F » Fri Oct 26, 2018 4:01 pm

When City Center Was Balanchine’s House
By Marina Harss
Oct. 25, 2018

When Lincoln Kirstein and the choreographer George Balanchine were attempting to get a company off the ground in the 1930s and ’40s, they had little more than a pickup troupe, with meager seasons and slender prospects. That began to change in 1948, when the company, the newly named New York City Ballet, found an institution willing to take it in: New York City Center.

The studios had splintery floors. The orchestra pit was cramped. There was practically no backstage space — and the stage itself was small. “I could do a couple of jumps and be past center stage,” said Jacques d’Amboise. He danced with the company during its City Center years, as did Edward Villella, who lived a brownstone away from the theater. “They used to deliver huge blocks of ice,” Mr. Villella said, “and they would take it into the alley in the back, and that was the air-conditioning.”

Since those early days, the building, a fanciful Moorish-style structure built as a meeting place for the Shriners, a Masonic group, has been updated many times, most recently in 2011. In 1943, it became a temple for the arts, converted for that purpose by the civic-minded mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Tickets were kept affordable. In the ’40s, a prime seat went for $2.40, roughly equivalent to $35 today.

When New York City Ballet was invited to become a resident company, in 1948, Balanchine got to work, developing his dynamic, streamlined American style. As part of a season celebrating the 75th anniversary of the building’s rebirth as a palace of culture, City Center is hosting a ballet festival, “Balanchine: The City Center Years,” from Oct. 31 through Nov. 4. The works included — 13 in all — were either created or performed there during City Ballet’s first decade and a half, 1948-64.

“What we’ve tried to do,” Arlene Shuler, City Center’s president and chief executive officer, said, “is represent the full range of what was performed here during Balanchine’s time.” Two of the ballets, “Symphony in C” and “Concerto Barocco,” were part of the company’s very first program at the hall. “Tarantella” was the last to premiere there, in 1964, before the company moved into a shiny and vastly more spacious new building at Lincoln Center.

That house — the New York State Theater, now called the David H. Koch Theater — was created to Balanchine’s specifications. It was inarguably a step up for the company: a wider stage, a larger orchestra pit, nicer dressing rooms and better rehearsal spaces. It was, and is, in many ways, an ideal theater in which to watch dance. “But City Center was haunted by ghosts,” Mr. d’Amboise reminisced. “It still is.”

Eight companies from around the world will take part in “Balanchine,” including the Paris Opera Ballet, the Mariinsky from Russia and, it goes without saying, New York City Ballet, the original house of Balanchine.

For the dancers who performed there, the house still has a special aura. I spoke with four of them: Patricia Wilde, Jacques d’Amboise, Allegra Kent and Edward Villella.
“Apollo,” made in 1928 for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, is a pioneering work of modernism, and Balanchine’s oldest surviving ballet. Decades later, he brought it back for the 23-year-old Jacques d’Amboise, the company’s first homegrown male star.

Before his debut, Mr. d’Amboise recalled, the company’s hair stylist attempted to curl his hair to make him look more like his idea of a Greek god. “Balanchine said no!” Mr. d’Amboise said in an interview at the National Dance Institute, a dance-education organization he founded in 1976. “He was adamant,” he continued, doing an excellent Balanchine impression: “‘I want American boy!’ He wanted me to be a wild, untamed youth, not just look pretty and make poses.”

At 84, Mr. d’Amboise got up to demonstrate the syncopated lunges that begin the first solo. “He got those steps from the friezes on the Acropolis. And then later, when Apollo calls out to the ballerina and she comes on and they touch fingers, that’s from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”

Mr. d’Amboise had clear memories of the large, windowless studio on the fifth floor at City Center where he learned the steps. “That was the room where the Masons used to hold their ceremonies,” he said, “It wasn’t well heated. The floor was slick, so we used to use Tide powder to keep from slipping. But if you sat down on the floor, when you got up you would have a white spot on your ass!”

Unlike many of the dancers, Patricia Wilde, who joined City Ballet in 1950, was already a pro with lots of stage experience, mainly in Europe. “The company didn’t seem very professional back then,” Ms. Wilde, 90, said over the phone from Pittsburgh, where she retired after directing Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. “A lot of them were like kids.” Because of the shortage of principal dancers, she was often thrown into roles at the last minute. “Mr. B would always say, ‘Pat can do it!’”

On the tail end of its first European tour, in 1952, the company stopped in Scotland. “We went to see the bagpipers and the Highland dancers, and he loved that,” Ms. Wilde said. Upon their return, Balanchine went to work on a ballet on Scottish themes, which would become “Scotch Symphony.” In rehearsals, Balanchine kept saying, “Don’t put your heels down!” He was insistent that the dancers do everything on their toes, like Highland dancers, whose heels almost never touch the ground. That lightness became a characteristic element of “Scotch Symphony,” and of the Balanchine style.

In the opening section, Ms. Wilde, wearing a kilt, led two men in a sprightly dance filled with crisp footwork and small jumps. The dance was driven by a warbling clarinet melody, inspired by Scottish folk music. “He wanted us to go down into a grand plié,” a deep bend in the legs, “and then up into the air into an entrechat six,” a jump in which the feet crisscross in the air, “all without ever putting our heels down.”

“In a way, it was like I embodied the spirit of the highlands, very light, very playful” Ms. Wilde said. After this jaunty opening, the mood of the ballet darkened to one of mystery and fatefulness. “And that was it for me,” she said. “I never came back onstage!”

Allegra Kent joined the company at 15, in 1952. Her first experience of City Ballet was as a spectator, sitting in the audience at City Center. “I saw ‘Symphony in C,’ and it was this marvelous miracle of a dance,” Ms. Kent, 81, recalled recently at Lincoln Center. By the next year she was in the company, dancing in the corps for that very ballet. “I could watch the great dancers of that era from the wings,” she said, “Maria Tallchief, Tanquil Le Clercq.”

In 1962, she had her debut in a new two-act ballet based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The second act contains a suite of dances, including an exquisite pas de deux for two unidentified characters, set to the limpid andante from Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 9. “I was second cast for Violette Verdy,” Ms. Kent said. “I loved standing in the back and watching it being created on her.”

The duet portrays an idealized, courtly partnership between a man and a woman. “It came from nowhere,” Ms. Kent said, “it’s not really part of the ballet.” One feature is a series of quiet lifts in which the male partner simply catches the ballerina mid-jump with one arm; she appears to be suspended in the air. “The partner is so important,” she said, “his musicality and yours. So that something minimal becomes glorious.” “And Jacques’s partnering was magnificent,” she added of Mr. d’Amboise.

At the end of the duet, the man slowly draws the woman upward from a backward tilt, and then softly, pushes her off-balance again, into a slow-motion dive forward. “You didn’t know where this little something, this little gesture, was going to go,” Ms. Kent said of this passage. “The unexpected — that was Balanchine.”

Edward Villella and Patricia McBride were the original cast in the jaunty showstopper "Tarantella." Balanchine gave Mr. Villella, who was known for his speed and stratospheric jump, every trick in the book. “I would be flying parallel to the floor, and then I would be in the wings, on the ground, gasping for air,” Mr. Villella, 82, recently said at his townhouse in Harlem. “Balanchine really captured something about me,” he continued, as he had in “Rubies.” “I was just this guy, running around, the way I had been in Queens when I was a kid.”

Balanchine, always busy, created the ballet in bits and pieces, between rehearsals of other ballets. “He’d do little sections, not necessarily in the proper order, then finally he said: O.K., let’s put this together,” Mr. Villella said. It was only then that he realized the stamina it would require to get through the eight-minute ballet’s gauntlet of high-flying moves. “You didn’t fool around with ‘Tarantella’ until you’d done it for two weeks, every day, in rehearsal.”

The ballet was (and is) hugely popular. At City Center, the dancers could see the people in audience, and feel their proximity. “I used to look out into the audience,” Mr. Villella said. “You were really reaching out to them.”

Night after night, Balanchine would stand in the first wing to the left of the stage, leaning against one of the flats, with his chin in hand. He was so close to the dancers they could almost touch him. “Another inch, and he would have been on the stage,” Mr. Villella said. ... enter.html
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