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New York City Ballet's Darci Kistler dances off stage for good

June 28, 2010 |  1:30 pm

For many attending New York City Ballet’s season finale Sunday afternoon, three decades’ worth of memories figured as actively in the experience as what was transpiring on the stage of Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. The special program marked the farewell appearance of Darci Kistler, retiring from the company the Riverside native joined as a preternaturally gifted 16-year-old in 1980. That year, she leaped into the collective consciousness of New York’s avid ballet-goers, dancing an eager, open-hearted, technically commanding “Swan Lake” at the School of American Ballet Workshop, and joining NYCB immediately afterward.

George Balanchine, the eminent choreographer who was NYCB’s co-founder and guiding force, had spotted Kistler at the school and fast-tracked her into the company. He immediately cast her in leading roles, and by 1982 she was a principal dancer. Kistler’s invigorating, sunny presence --  and the hold-nothing-back vigor and evident delight with which she dove into each new role --  made her performances in those early years ones that many still recall with particular delight. Particularly poignant was her timing – she was to be the last ballerina whom Balanchine – who had cultivated several decades’ worth of stellar dancers, and died in 1983 – singled out. Then in his late 70s, he was still choreographing through 1982, but did not create a ballet for Kistler. But he made sure that she learned – and received his guidance and coaching in – one seminal ballet after another.

C30519-8KistBowMartTalicia So for many watching on Sunday, the occasion marked the closing of an era. With Kistler departing, there is no dancer left in NYCB who had personal contact with – or ever danced for – Balanchine. The program unfolded as the final, wistful dialogue between the ballerina and the choreographer to whose aesthetics and repertoire she remained so devoted. She opened with “Monumentum Pro Gesualdo” (1960) and “Movement for Piano and Orchestra” (1963) – two concise, rigorous examples of the bracing “leotard ballets” that Balanchine often set to Stravinsky scores. Her trademark beaming smile had to be tempered in these two separate but linked ballets, and neither features choreography that Kistler can perform with full force these days, and at times her stalwart partners (Cahrles Askegard in the first, Sebastien Marcovici in the second) appeared cautious in their handling of her.

But Kistler’s smile beamed out, and she looked most at ease and spontaneous, in the charming excerpt from Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1962) in which Titania, under the influence of the magic love-potion, expresses her sudden and complete infatuation with a man who sports a donkey’s head. The sweet silliness and charming radiance required here registered beautifully, and Henry Seth as the oafish Bottom conveyed bemused delight.

Kistler took a break while another Balanchine-Stravinsky ballet, “Danses Concertantes” (which she performed often during the 1980s) was led by Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette. She then returned to more or less bring her career full circle by donning the white tutu and headpiece of Odette, the Swan Queen. This time she did not perform the one-act 1951 Balanchine version in which he coached her as a teenager, but the tragic final act of NYCB’s full-length production choreographed by Peter Martins. Amid the onrushing ensemble of swans, Kistler and Jared Angle met for one final, elegiac moment of connection before fate took her away; she left the stage bourreeing backward into the wing. (Martins, who has led the company since Balanchine’s death, has been Kistler’s husband since 1991, and choreographed leading roles for her in 20 ballets.)

An instant standing ovation followed. Kistler accepted the fervent cheers as past and present NYCB principal dancers streamed onto the stage to offer bouquets, hugs and some tears. As shiny confetti cascaded onto the stage, three of her brothers hoisted her onto their shoulders – true to the rough-and-tumble tomboy childhood she has often recalled. Martins was one of the last to greet and embrace her, joined by their daughter Talicia. Also offering flowers were two tiny girls in white leotards and tights, representing the SAB students Kistler has taught since 1994 and will continue to teach, as she moves into her next phase.

--Susan Reiter

Photos: Darci Kistler and Jared Angle, top, in "Swan Lake" and Kistler's curtain call. Credit: Paul Kolnik