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Passing Balanchine on to the next ballet generation, in the studio and on tape

November 9, 2010 |  9:15 am


In a spacious, sunlit Lincoln Center studio on Sunday morning, two generations of New York City Ballet principal dancers met for a unique coaching session focused on a 1968 ballet by George Balanchine.

Over the course of three hours, Violette Verdy, for whom the choreographer created the lead role in "La Source," and Helgi Tomasson, who danced for Balanchine for 15 years before becoming artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, helped Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia understand and absorb specific details and nuances.

Having worked closely with Balanchine, they were able to explain and illuminate –- and, increasingly, demonstrate -– the choreographer's original intentions to dancers who recently learned and performed "La Source" as it has been handed down through several decades.

Sunday’s session, with its illuminating demonstrations of the finer points of choreographic shading and emphasis, will soon have an impact beyond the two dancers who were its beneficiaries and the handful of observers who were present. It was digitally taped by the George Balanchine Foundation for the Interpreters Archive, an ongoing series. The edited tapes for each ballet, which include an extended interview with the veteran dancers who participate, are available to dancers and scholars in 70 libraries worldwide. (In California, the collection is available at UC Irvine, Moorpark Community College, UC Berkeley. Sacramento Ballet and the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum.) In addition to New York, taping sessions have taken place in San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles, where in 2008 Yvonne Mounsey coached Melissa Barak in the formidable role of the Siren in Balanchine’s "Prodigal Son."

In "La Source," set to a score by Léo Delibes, Balanchine drew on Verdy's sophisticated, subtle musical awareness and effervescent wit to create a contemporary tutu ballet that alludes to 19th century French romantic ballet tradition. It is a notably demanding work -– there are two extended pas de deux as well as two solos for each principal. For today's young dancers, often called on to perform the hyper-extended extremes of new choreography, the delicacy and refinement of "La Source" may not be second nature. Verdy and Tomasson (who performed the lead male role with her frequently) observed and conferred, and often demonstrated.

At one point, working through an intricate variation, Verdy encouraged Hyltin to make a movement "less modern -– it's still a little romantic. She repeatedly emphasized the épaulement -– the crucial positioning of the upper body -- that each step required, and offered insights from her years of experience with the ballet, such as "deploy the roof of your hand" and "lift the sole of your foot -– it's a Balanchine thing."

Retreating breathlessly to the side after extensive work on one taxing section, Hyltin, who first performed the ballet last spring, marveled that “that’s a completely different variation than I've been doing.” After the session, Verdy noted, “You never have to worry about them lacking in technique. It's just that sometimes they have to reduce their energy to create something else -– leisurely and more elegant, restrained, delicate and detailed."

-- Susan Reiter in New York

Photo: Gonzalo Garcia and Sterling Hyltin performing George Balanchine's "La Source" in July. Credit: Paul Kolnik