Alexandra

Balanchine centrism?

68 posts in this topic

I think it's very sad that so many people are Balanchine-Centric. I admit that he's a good choreographer but he's certainly not so good that all other choreographers should fall by the wayside because of him. In my experience, it seems that people who have trained with SAB or have some childhood connection with NYCB are unwilling to accept that any other choreographer could be just as good, if not better than Balanchine. I find it incredibly difficult to comprehend that these people also go as far as to say Petipa masterpieces are "boring" and have not even heard of Antony Tudor, Kenneth MacMillan, Frederick Ashton, Leonide Massine or Mikhail Fokine.

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I think it's very sad that so many people are Balanchine-Centric. I admit that he's a good choreographer but he's certainly not so good that all other choreographers should fall by the wayside because of him. In my experience, it seems that people who have trained with SAB or have some childhood connection with NYCB are unwilling to accept that any other choreographer could be just as good, if not better than Balanchine. I find it incredibly difficult to comprehend that these people also go as far as to say Petipa masterpieces are "boring" and have not even heard of Antony Tudor, Kenneth MacMillan, Frederick Ashton, Leonide Massine or Mikhail Fokine.

I think the kind of ignorance you're describing is certainly sad, but I think you can be both "Balanchine-centric" and well-informed (if I do say so myself!).

More seriously, though, I often question my own Balanchine-centrism, as I know it is borne out of my limited (but also rich and focused) experience as a dancer. I will defend dances without music, but I don't always enjoy them (and as a dancer I was stymied by them); I can see how other choreographers compose skillfully, but only Balanchine elicits from me emotional and intellectual responses; I can see how different choreographic lineages coexist side-by-side, but my gut feels them in a coarse Darwinian fashion--as all steps leading to Balanchine. I am not a believer by nature--one of the reasons I left the dance world--but Balanchine's work tested my limits in that regard. Balanchine was not my first exposure to ballet, but the first one I cared about.

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I think it's very sad that so many people are Chocolate-Centric. I admit that it's a good flavor but it's certainly not so good that all other flavors should fall by the wayside because of it. In my experience, it seems that people who have lived on the east or west coasts are unwilling to accept that any other flavor could be just as good, if not better than Chocolate. I find it incredibly difficult to comprehend that these people also go as far as to say Vanilla is "boring" and have not even heard of Strawberry, Peach, Rasberry or Rocky Road.

(....with apologies).

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It's rather odd to see a decade old thread revived, but it's more ironic to re-visit what I defensively wrote just 9 years ago. (Another reason to wish that the Internet had a delete button.)

In the ensuing years I think I've become a good deal less Balanchine-centric. The Ashton Festival had something to do with it. Having friends and family in England opened me naturally to more as well. So did working as a dance writer - I felt that my taste had to be more open, not just to other forms of ballet, but other dance as well.

Some of the process was purposeful, other parts just happened. All of it is simply the evolution of a viewer.

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There are many issues involved, especially if you ARE a dancer and have actually danced Balanchine.

But the biggest of these is this -- ballet does not record well, unlike opera -- with ballet, 90 per cent of the excitement is lost if you don't see the great performance live. The 3-d experience, the kinds of things that happen in your brain as you focus on whatever it is that is so appealing to you that you make extra effort to actually see it happen, that, and the mystery of the weight transfer -- those things only register when you're in the real presence. Video is a flat-screen medium that robs the figures of weight, so it's hardly a miracle that they move so gracefully.

Which means that your own local dancers, if they're good enough, are the ones you love -- wherever you are, in Tulsa, San Francisco, Seattle, New York. And different companies dance Balanchine differently -- SFB does not clarify the steps as sharply as NYCB, but does emphasize the sweep of the phrase in a wonderful way.

But the result is that ballet is LOCAL-- and New Yorkers not only have a troupe brought up on Balanchine, they have a troupe they can FOLLOW-- for decades they've been able to follow the casting, posted in the lobby, and follow the dancers: corps (remember Renee Estopinal?) as well as principals. if it was Kyra you wanted to see in Diamonds, you could save your money and spend it on her; if it was Darci, you could blow off your mother in law and go to the ballet DARCI's night.

I am not a New Yorker, but that's what I imagine I WOULD have done. I do live in the Bay Area, and i know that a decade ago I'd blow off my best friend to see Loscavio in Ballo, and now I plan if I can to see van Patten when possible and Zahorian in any of Patty's roles -- she is OUTSTANDING in Dybbuk and Opus 19, like Schwarzkopf in Capriccio, the only person who makes those ballets make sense, and she makes them glorious.

OK -- so whoever you form your taste on makes other companies look peculiarly mannered. Denby covered this subject pretty much a-z.

BUT ALSO, IF YOU DON'T SEE THE RIGHT PEOPLE DANCE A CHOREOGRAPHER LIKE ASHTON, IT'S NOT VERY LIKELY THAT HIS PARTICULAR

OOPS, CAPS LOCK.....

SHALL WE SAY, SWEETNESS --

Ashton is sweet like honeysuckle, it's not cloying, it's intense and glorious and not cheap in any way -- but it is also EXTREMELY difficult to dance Ashton with amplitude and full musical value, EXTREMELY difficult -- the whole body must dance, the upper body must be as pliant and willing to tilt VIOLENTLY, as willing as a modern dancer's, above arrowy footwork that is in fact as fast as Balanchine's, and there are very few who can do it and maintain a limpid flow of movement.

I formed my taste on Ashton -- but it did not take me any time at all, the first time I saw Balanchine it was heart-breaking; San Francisco Ballet was dancing in Berkeley, a concert with Christensen and Balanchine, and Christensen was lots of fun and Symphony in C just made me weep, Betsy Erickson was out of this world beautiful in the adagio -- and in fact, I've never seen anybody except Allegra Kent on video approach the musicality and daring of Erickson's performance -- when that high melody kicks in and she dives into those penchees, Erickson was like a swallow, she swooped and soared and turned twice and swooped again fearlessly, like a swallow, i was GONE.....

The fact is, Balanchine is one of the great imaginations of the modern era. It's partly the style he created, it's partly his ability to keep making new things and KEEP ON making new things, always responding to the music, so there is a lot of Balanchine you can get to know and a lot of Balanchine NYCB can present, but the main thing is, he had a great imagination, and we were SO lucky....

In France, when a poet is asked "Who is the greatest French man of letters?" they say "Victor Hugo, alas...." As if we had to say that Edgar Allan Poe was our greatest poet, alas. WE don't have to say that, since we DO have Walt Whitman, alas.... But we do NOT have to say "our greatest choreographer? George Balanchine, alas.... there is no 'alas' to it. We can say, "Hallelujah!"

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Your daughter is a friend of my heart.

my friends have a 2-cab rule -- you may not discuss hte performance until you are in the SECOND cab of hte evening, nad truly on the way home -- since SOMEONE mightknow ne of hte dancers, and it would be terrible if you said something detrimental htat dispirited them.... SOmetimes I'mve ready to get in the second cab after we've gone one block....

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Thank you Paul.

I can't say how important process is to forming these sorts of attachments. It mattered hugely that NYCB made standing room affordable and didn't police people who took unused spaces in the fourth ring. It meant as a student I could afford to go three or four nights a week if I wanted to. I watched Balanchine's ballets, but I also watched dancers grow and develop in them.

As much as I know people love videos - and it's a lot better than never seeing it at all; I need the experience of being in an audience together in the dark, seeing it happen live.

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Fabulous.....

THanks for the extended quote from Denby; that's he gospel truth........

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But the biggest of these [issues]is this -- ballet does not record well, unlike opera -- with ballet, 90 per cent of the excitement is lost if you don't see the great performance live. The 3-d experience, the kinds of things that happen in your brain as you focus on whatever it is that is so appealing to you that you make extra effort to actually see it happen, that, and the mystery of the weight transfer -- those things only register when you're in the real presence. Video is a flat-screen medium that robs the figures of weight, so it's hardly a miracle that they move so gracefully.

Which means that your own local dancers, if they're good enough, are the ones you love -- wherever you are, in Tulsa, San Francisco, Seattle, New York. And different companies dance Balanchine differently -- SFB does not clarify the steps as sharply as NYCB, but does emphasize the sweep of the phrase in a wonderful way.

But the result is that ballet is LOCAL-- and New Yorkers not only have a troupe brought up on Balanchine, they have a troupe they can FOLLOW-- for decades they've been able to follow the casting, posted in the lobby, and follow the dancers: corps (remember Renee Estopinal?) as well as principals. if it was Kyra you wanted to see in Diamonds, you could save your money and spend it on her; if it was Darci, you could blow off your mother in law and go to the ballet DARCI's night.

[ ... ]

[W]hoever you form your taste on makes other companies look peculiarly mannered.

Bravo and thanks, Paul. Like the earlier (2001) part of this thread, you say so much that helps clarify my own experience for me.:lightbulb: Now I understand better why I identified so much -- and so positively -- to Leigh's statement on page One of this thread.
I'm not really interested in whether Balanchine was the genius of ballet. He was a genius of ballet, and most importantly, my genius of ballet. If I need to adjust my eyes to look at other choreographers, I can, but it takes effort.

As Leigh says in his most recent post, looking back from the vantage point of 8 years further on in life, our way of looking at things does change over time and with expanded experience. The NYCB, with Balanchine's dances and dancers, were my "local" -- my zone of comfort, my intuitive home base -- for 25 years. I've always known that, but never really understood why. Of course, one learns to "adjust" one's eyes and appreciate other forms of movement. (Living in NYC in our impressionable, formative years gave many of us an advantage: there was so much other world-class dancing (ballet, modern, national, etc.) to enjoy and to learn from. Aside from Miami City Ballet, this is not the case where I reside now. Thank goodness we do have a few quite nice local companies and have a market that attracts frequent touring groups from the outside.)

This kind of thoughtful, knowledgeable writing is what attracted me to Ballet Talk in the first and what keeps me fascinated 7 years later.

Please, Alexandra and Helene, never delete those older threads. And please, BT members, never stop reviving them. :clapping:

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In France, when a poet is asked "Who is the greatest French man of letters?" they say "Victor Hugo, alas...." As if we had to say that Edgar Allan Poe was our greatest poet, alas. WE don't have to say that, since we DO have Walt Whitman, alas.... But we do NOT have to say "our greatest choreographer? George Balanchine, alas.... there is no 'alas' to it. We can say, "Hallelujah!"

That's a matter of opinion. To me, it sounds like somebody talking about Wagner and Bayreuth in particular. As for this 'ballet is LOCAL' business, that used to be the case with me, since I started with Balanchine and still love Balanchine. But no longer. The NYCB is nominally the 'LOCAL' ballet company of New York, maybe even a bit more than ABT, but while I'll go to NYCB if something comes up, I'm going to 'invest' in ABT, POB (when they come), and other companies. NYCB is actually a wonderful company to start with: Once you've put them in proportion, you're free to look at literally every other dance company in the world (whether ballet or anything else) and judge them clearly and fairly--because it's a case of freedom from NYCB and Balanchine as well. Which doesn't mean you give up Balanchine just because you want to 'play the field' and be totally promiscuous now.

BUT ALSO, IF YOU DON'T SEE THE RIGHT PEOPLE DANCE A CHOREOGRAPHER LIKE ASHTON, IT'S NOT VERY LIKELY THAT HIS PARTICULAR

OOPS, CAPS LOCK.....

SHALL WE SAY, SWEETNESS --

????? In any case, the Ashton people continue to re-state their devotions as well, including those on this board when they care to (Simon, leonid), and for this I am glad. I'd have never thought to even lightly concentrate on Ashton had it not been for them and a few of the other Brits. In fact, the oddest irony is that I find an enormous amount of this 'Balanchine centrism' at BT, but it's reading BT regularly for over 4 years now that's broken me of my own extreme symptoms in that direction.

Some of these new remarks are interesting, and I value them because I can see why I'm not purely Balanchine-centric, Ray put that very well, as here:

I think the kind of ignorance you're describing is certainly sad, but I think you can be both "Balanchine-centric" and well-informed (if I do say so myself!).

I suppose his immediately following remarks made me realize how I see this now. I now want to look at Balanchine and my more intense focus on his works and NYCB in particular fit in with all the consumption of all World Dance, not just ballet and modern. Ray's mention of 'emotion' and 'being moved' apply as well to me regarding Balanchine, but not more than to Martha Graham and not more even to the DVD of Ashton's 'Month in the Country' (I never saw anything like that from Balanchine.) Ultimately, it does seem like the reproduced performances ought to automatically mean that the ballet is 'lesser' to you if you only saw it there than live. Except that many things I've only seen on DVD, and some of these matter more to me than ballets I've seen many times live; so much for that, then, even though it's obviously the case if it's one you're most crazy about, it's going to have much more dimension live.

I'd say the same thing about Chinese dance, South Indian Bharata Natyam dance, Cambodian dance, they have definitely sometimes moved me as much as Balanchine. I always resisted this, in fact, didn't like that something Eastern was coming up to 'compete' with the fact that I wanted all those ballets I'd seem Farrell dance to be greater. But I didn't always think they had been greater. The Cambodian Dance I saw at the Joyce in about 1990 (stravinskyviolinconcerto brought this up at one point) definitely made me start doing a mental comparison with some of the ballets I'd seen at NYCB in fairly recent years. At the time I thought they all actually seemed more tinselly and artificial compared to the Cambodians, but by 2006 my view had changed back somewhat: the old performance of 'La Valse' in 1986, right after Joseph Duell died, seemed as meaningful to me again. And that was Balanchine.

But there have been many threads on this choosing and determining the 'one genius'. It's done in all fields, and it says more about those judging it than those judged. Professionals do hack work all the time, they are never the purists that fans and critics tend to be. Not that hack work alone would be enough for the greatest. So it has to do with whether one needs to decide that 'Proust is greater than Faulkner' (I don't think he is, but not lesser either), or whether one doesn't care about such things. Alexandra said sometning on this thread many years ago about how we 'can have many loves'. Yes, we can. So that sometimes what is called 'greatest genius' may still be just 'our favourite'. 'Our favourite' can also be 'a great genius', but you can never prove that he is 'the greatest genius'. Yes, even if many people say the same thing. The very fact that there is an 'Ashton Contingent' proves this. They are never Balanchine-centric, and they are not obliged to be. My thread on the Nutcracker has been about how this one particular ballet is unique in its popular power, but also (with many contributors) how it may not necessarily be considered the 'greatest' thereby. And, interestingly, not a single person who responded on my thread did say that they thought it was the very greatest. Although fans of SB and Giselle have said at different times that these are the 'greatest ballets'. But it's not the case, because it can be disagreed with. I said SB was my favourite ballet, but I do not claim that it is 'the greatest'. This kind of thing always reminds of when Pauline Kael wrote that she thought 'Intolerance' was the greatest movie ever made. Who needs it?

I myself am Balanchine-centric to the extent that I once was, and saw more of his work than anybody else's, but that changed. I still think it's very amusing and ironic that being exposed to a wider range of thinking from dancers and dance fans here at BT is what broke me of that. But, as I've said so many times, how can it be any different in dance than in the other arts? How can the Mozart Freak definitely be 100% right? Because he is both right and wrong. There's a sense of comfort and security that comes from allying oneself to one school or cult or another. Some pianists swear by late Beethoven, and then then the Mozartians get all condescending to them. So I'd just say I've been deeply moved by Balanchine a few times, Graham a few times, and by music and dance from Asia a few times--and that, ultimately, it all matters equally to me--insofar as 'equality' means anything at all, really just that I can't choose one over the other, they're different. For some kinds of thinking, people want to ally themselves with Picasso, with Rembrandt, with James Joyce, with Wagner, with Mozart, with Beethoven, with Petipa, with Balanchine...

But it's this very board that has proved that you can be 'Balanchine-centric', but that those who are not don't consider this to be a dominant trope, and they just don't pay any attention to it. When people write about Bournonville and when people write about POB, they're not trying to be any numbers of the forms of 'Balanchine-centric' that all have discussed. Balanchine and 'Balanchine-centrism' is a subset of ballet and dance, not the subtext. Neither is Petipa, incidentally.

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Well I think it's not so much about "Balanchine centrism" so much as the fact is, very few ballets have real staying power. It's been almost 30 years since Balanchine's death, and his ballets have proven to have staying power. Symphony in C, Apollo, Theme and Variations, Agon, Four Temperaments, Nutcracker, Serenade, Concerto Barocco, Midsummer's Night Dream, Prodigal Son, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, these ballets are now staged all over the world and have become very popular in different companies.

Then there are the ballets that have tended to remain within the NYCB but always amaze me, like Who Cares?, Vienna Waltzes, his version of Coppelia, Western Symphony, etc. etc.

Is he the greatest choreographer ever? I don't know, but I think he certainly is a top candidate and thus he's always going to be discussed.

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I don't want to get into a "greatest choreographer" discussion, but I wanted to add a couple thoughts to the conversation. Leigh's comment about learning taking time is an important one, especially in dance where we have so little of it. I spent a great deal of time with video tape at the beginning of my dance-watching life -- Paul is correct in his list of its deficits, but it's what was available. A good thing, thought -- it gave me a chance to concentrate on one thing at a time, so that I didn't feel desperate about 'seeing everything at once' when I was still struggling to see anything at all.

In the states I think there is a shift towards acceptance of Balanchine/NYCB as the received ballet style, away from an earlier emphasis on a Imperial Russian/Ballet Russe point of view. I've noticed recently that companies who would have performed a Swan Lake or a Sleeping Beauty as an institutional milestone (we do it because we can, we do it because it proves we're a ballet company) might now present Jewels in a similar context. In part this is due to the shift in population -- the Russian trained dancers who founded many of the schools and companies across the states, using the works they'd been taught to teach their own dancers, have finished their work, and that foundational generation has been replaced by dancers who have come from the NYCB/Balanchine tradition. You can lay this at the feet of a number of events (the Ford Foundation's scholarship program, the relationship between NYCB and Jac Venza's Dance in America programming, the relative strengths of NYCB and ABT as performing and teaching institutions...) but it is there.

A lot of the video I spent time with at the beginning was of Balanchine's choreography -- it's what I could get. I don't think that it's made me Balanchine-centric per-se -- anyone who spends any time with me will tell you how greedy I am for more dance to watch. But I do think that it's made me pretty good at seeing patterns, especially musical patterns expressed in group choreography.

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I know this is off topic, but Hugo is a figure of some importance to me ... I will try to circle back to topic at the end.

From what I have read in biographies etc. the Victor Hugo joke mentioned above goes back to a newspaper questionnaire which included a question about the greatest French Poet: André Gide wrote down "Victor Hugo, alas" (poet--not'man of letters': the distinction is not trivial when you are talking about the author of Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris as well as the symbolic leader of the opposition to Napoleon III and one of the most important nineteenth-century voices against the death penalty inter alia). Presumably, Gide would have been happier if he could have just said Mallarmé was the greatest French poet, but he couldn't which is probably to his credit. As a poet, too, Hugo has rather more in common with Whitman than Poe.

Uh...of course I don't expect anyone else to share my interest in Hugo and minutiae attached to his reputation...

Back on topic? Well, I think no-one would say "Balanchine alas!" in response to a question about the greatest choreographer of the twentieth-century, unless perhaps someone who, recognizing Balanchine's greatness, still opposed his larger aesthetic and/or just did not much like it personally and/or thought Balanchine a false trail for others to follow; still, it's much more likely they would simply name another choreographer than condescend in Gide's manner. (Hugo is the rare genius who seems to invite condescension...)

Anyway, if Balanchine-centrism amounts to no more than parochialism, as it may for some, then it is obviously limiting their vision. But I remain persuaded that being centered in a particular aesthetic or artistic vision--assuming it really deserves to be called that--can give a basis for serious judgments of a range of different aesthetics/visions IF that 'centrism' is raised from the level of mere personal taste to real aesthetic judgment: that is, an ability to evaluate and argue concerning what makes a particular aesthetic/vision what it is, what its values and meanings are--or, challenges to values and meanings etc. (I think this is pretty much in sync with what I wrote in 2001 (!!!), though I have developed a much greater appreciation for Victor Hugo since then :wink: .)

To give an example: why is Andre Levinson able to write so powerfully about Isadora Duncan even as he opposes and dislikes what she is doing? I believe that he was able to do so, not in spite of the fact that he was Petipa-centric, but because of it. He had a grasp of what was at stake in Duncan's dancing--at least so it seems to me who, admittedly, never saw Duncan or early-twentieth century performances of the Maryinsky. And that grasp was based in his understanding as well as love of everything she was trying to transform.

A profound sense of personal connection to one's local company or style seems to me a slightly different matter. In that more particular sense I agree that most people (though not all) are 'centric' for what belongs to their personal history and the things that made them who and what they are.

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In that more particular sense I agree that most people (though not all) are 'centric' for what belongs to their personal history and the things that made them who and what they are.

I loved that...and I believe it. :clapping:

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In that more particular sense I agree that most people (though not all) are 'centric' for what belongs to their personal history and the things that made them who and what they are.

I loved that...and I believe it. :clapping:

Yes, I agree with Drew and Cristian here. Whatever forms your initial exposure to something remains part of your consciousness. It's sort of a variation on the old "Mom's cooking is best" adage.

I find this being true for myself but I have to add that I've also found that it's limiting to be bound by such points of reference. Sometimes mom was really a mediocre cook and while one can hold a sentimental attachment to the dishes she produced it's really good for perspective sake to acknowledge that there is sometimes a better way, even in an objective sense.

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To give an example: why is Andre Levinson able to write so powerfully about Isadora Duncan even as he opposes and dislikes what she is doing? I believe that he was able to do so, not in spite of the fact that he was Petipa-centric, but because of it. He had a grasp of what was at stake in Duncan's dancing--at least so it seems to me who, admittedly, never saw Duncan or early-twentieth century performances of the Maryinsky. And that grasp was based in his understanding as well as love of everything she was trying to transform.

And as someone who loves both Petipa and Duncan, Levinson's work is particularly illuminating -- thanks for bringing him into the discussion!

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Whatever forms your initial exposure to something remains part of your consciousness. It's sort of a variation on the old "Mom's cooking is best" adage.

I find this being true for myself but I have to add that I've also found that it's limiting to be bound by such points of reference. Sometimes mom was really a mediocre cook and while one can hold a sentimental attachment to the dishes she produced it's really good for perspective sake to acknowledge that there is sometimes a better way, even in an objective sense.

Hard to imagine this better-said. Because that is the best possible analogy, since surely one of the toughest. We do let our sentimental attachments go too far sometimes, and we sometimes have to go on and take that leap and face the harsh facts of going past 'tis a poor thing, but one's own'. I recently faced that my mother was brilliant at some foods, but had no feeling for carrots at all, and always ruined them!

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Speaking from the Midwest, seeing Balanchine choreography danced live is an extremely limited experience.

The classic's still dominate the regional dance companies. I suspect the main reasons to be name recognition and inability of smaller companies to stage a Balanchine ballet.

Ask ten people where I live if they have heard of Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty as a ballet, you would mostly get an afirmative answers. Now, ask those same ten people if they have heard of The Concerto Barocco or Symphony In C ballets and you're going to get 10 blank stares. Heck, ask them if they know of George Balanchine and you will get the same blank look. As someone who loves Balanchine with an enduring and ardent love, it's almost a physical pain in the heart when no one around you knows who and what you're talking about.

Are New Yorkers Balanchine-centric? Well if they aren't then they should be! Wave your Balanchine flag( in the colors blue, black and white for Serenade and the black and white ballets) high and proud.

I think it's okay for New Yorkers to see new choreography filtered through the lens of Balanchine, in the same way ballet watchers in London see dance through McMillen's looking glass, etc. The "nobody makes meatloaf like my Mom" analogy is very apt.

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