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Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique

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In the 11/24/03 DanceView Times, Dale Brauner reports on a panel discussion at Columbia University called St. Petersburg in New York: Ballet. One of the panelists was Suki Schorer, whose talk focused on Balanchine technique:

Homage to St. Petersburg

Schorer said that Balanchine wanted a dancer to be in control of being out of control. He would choreograph dancers falling off pointe or falling out of turns, but the dancer still had to be in control of those effects. To show this, Simon performed the Harp variation from Raymonda Variations and the third variation from Divertimento No. 15. To illustrate how the positions Balanchine wanted grew out of the dancer’s center, Simon performed the beginning of the Sugar Plum Fairy solo from the Nutcracker.

There’s a popular belief that Balanchine wasn’t concerned with the upper body, but Schorer gave several examples that give another view of this. In class, an open first position was achieved by “hugging a tree,” for example. “Balanchine did not want dead hands, dead dancers or zombies. Those were the ones who stared obsessively straight into the mirror, the ones who ‘sat’ into positions, the ones who were static. He used to say the hands should look like a parachute when doing pliés. A tiny bit from Concerto Barocco was performed so we could see hands that moved like “bristles of a paint brush.”

Balanchine though en face dancing was like “cooking a veal roast with no garlic.” The head should tilt as if “asking for a kiss” or “you are putting your head on a pillow.” Schorer said, “We all wanted him to give us a kiss.”

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This was a delightful event. The most memorable part for me was when the two SAB students -- Cassia Phillips and Abigail Simon (who were both in last night's NYCB opening in the first movement of Serenade) -- did a barre side by side to the same live piano music. One did a "routine" from SAB and the other a barre devised by a Vagonova teacher. To see the differences was a real treat and an eye opener. It was not a question of one being "better" than the other, just a different emphasis in each style. The Vagonova routine seemed to me to be infused with more "drama" and was more performance oriented; the SAB routine was all about building speed and techinque. It would have been great if this were videotaped.

The third part of the morning was an interview by Elizabeth Kendall of Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky. What a charming couple!! There was a cute story of how their coach -- the great Kirov ballerina Irina Kopalkova (sp?) -- abhors the hand clap that the Raymonda ballerina does in recent productions and she made it verboden in ABT's upcoming Raymonda. (But I must say I still have fond memories of Patti McBride doing the hand clap, and if Balanchine okayed it. . . well . . .)

Edited by bobbi
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That darned handclap deserves a thread of its own. Frederic Franklin said at another symposium recently that there should be an audible hand clap because the role was demicaractere. I'm going to put up a thread called The Clap in Aesthetic Issues in a few minutes and we can hash it out :(

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[balanchine] used to say the hands should look like a parachute when doing pliés.

My first teacher was from NYCB. When we started pliés with our arms in second, we first raised the arm* as we started down in the plié, which gave the appearance of floating arms. I wonder whether that's what the parachute image refers to. Other teachers I've had didn't do that. How about other people? Have you noticed a difference in your teachers in their approach to the arms during pliés?

* The arm is raised in relation to the shoulder, but since your body is descending, the effect is that the hand briefly floats where it is while the body descends, and then follows it.

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I've been told something very similar about Vera Volkova [i.e., I remember a story about "floating arms like a parachute" but nothing more specific] in her classes in Copenhagen (1951-1973). I don't know the origin of the metaphor, but Balanchine observed Volkova's classes (and brought his dancers over in the summer to take those classes) in the 1940s in London.

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djb, one of hte first things I noticed was hte way the hand floats up as you begin to go down, at the beginning of plies, when I started taking classes at Berkeley Ballet Theater about 20 years ago. (the school was stated by Janet Carole, who'd been at SAB and told wondeful stories about Danilova -- "stay, stay, stay! why you no stay?" was my favorite; Sally Streets, a City BAllet alum, joined as co-director a little later, and remains; Janet has moved on.)

Nobody actually SAID "hand like parachute," but we all did it. It was the first bt of style I tried to get. I think we all still do them that way here - -but I'll have to check around and see if there's anybody that doesn't.

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I really wonder about all the Balanchine teachers about. Each seems to teach a different Balanchine. The hand that lifts going into grand plié is fairly uniform, but I'm kind of reminded of the old smoothbore muskets, which fired a very undersized bullet. The bullet rattled down the inside of the barrel and the direction of the last bounce determined the flight path. It's like so many of Balanchine teachers are teaching from different phases of Balanchine's technical thought. My teacher, who was at SAB as Ella Lauterbur, dancing under the name Lee Vincent, was from an era when Balanchine himself loved to teach. As time wore on, he grew more and more remote from the school, and in the end never really taught there after they moved to Lincoln Center.

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My teacher taught a number of ways of doing steps that I later learned were supposed to be Balanchine's way, but I don't recall her ever claiming to teach Balanchine style or technique. Perhaps she didn't want to claim to be passing on Balanchine's legacy when she was probably adding a lot of her own ideas to the classes.

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Dear Mel, At the risk of having to take cover, I wish to point out that anyone using the term "old smoothbore" when introducing 18th century gunsmithing allegories into a discussion of Balanchine is at peril of having the above quoted phrase ricochet back toward the marksman. Fortunately, your remarks are of the highest caliber, so I will restrain myself from going ballistic.

Keeping his powder very dry,


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:wink: Ouch! Those hurt...good! :sweating:

But my point remains that Balanchine® remains a sort of amorphous je ne sais quoi, a gnostic dogma derived from Balanchine's choreography and applied to technical work in class. That's not exactly how most things have worked in other methods, historically. First the dancers were trained up in the classroom, then the choreographers used what they knew and exploited and extended it. Here, requirements for ballets are used as the ground for the school's teaching and the Master isn't around anymore to modulate and correct it. Transparency, there ain't!

Teachers who worked with Balanchine directly disagree in certain particulars as to what's Balanchine, and what's not. A lot of that depends on when they worked with him! Ballet Russe? Ballet Caravan? Ballet Society and City Center? Lincoln Center?

Remember, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quoi.

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