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Balanchine Centenary Q&A's

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I attended four Q&A's after each performance of the "Balanchine Centenary" program I saw. I took notes, which I've transcribed below. On 5 Feb (Opening Night) and 13 Feb, both Russell and Stowell spoke. On 7 Feb matinee, Russell, Carrie Imler, and Jonathan Poretta, who had performed that afternoon, were the panelists, and on 15 Feb, Russell spoke alone. In my opinion the session with the dancers was less fruitful, because the audience questions weren't nearly as incisive, and at one point, it turned into a mini whine-fest when an audience member was upset because none of the dancers were outside autographing the book Eleven. (They just all happened to be dancing that afternoon.) Russell and Stowell were fascinating by themselves, and the audience tended to try to sound intelligent.

Where Russell and/or Stowell said essentially the same thing in multiple sessions, I didn't list a date. Where there was a quote or something was from a particular session, I noted this. Unfortunately, the half life of my hand-writing is about three days, and I have a wonderful quote from Stowell, "it paid for the down payment on our house" but no context for it :wink: and I didn't always note who was saying what. Most of the retirement comments are in the retirement thread. Please don't yell at me if they said something differently on a night I wasn't there, but if you were there at a session and I got something wrong, I'd appreciate the correction.

I've tried to break this up into topics:

On the program

Before she described the programs for next year, Russell said she was sometimes "taken to task for doing too much Balanchine" by some Board members. [Earth to Board: unless you're doing a steady diet of Gounod Symphony, Variations for Orchestra, and Steadfast Tin Soldier, how on Earth could there be "too much Balanchine?"] So they didn't program much Balanchine coming into the Centennial season. She said she'd tried to "starve" the audience so that we'd appreciate it. (15 Feb mat)

"Balanchine's range can't be shown in one program or one season." (Russell/5 Feb)

The program was presented as close to Balanchine's birthday as possible. [seattle Opera was performing Carmen in January.] (15 Feb mat)

Stowell told Russell to stage what she'd like to stage. She deliberately chose a wide range of music and style, from classical to modern to romantic.

Russell said after the Sunday matinee that the dancers were sad, and that it was hard to see the program end.

On Stravinsky:

The composer for the show "Teatro Zinzanni" (I didn't catch his name, and I can't find it on their website), a friend of Russell's and Stowell's called the ballet "music in human form." (Russell/7 Feb mat)

Stravinsky said he could see "everything in his music through the dancing." (Russell/15 Feb mat)

Stravinsky had started the piece years before, but had suffered a heart attack and put it aside. (5 Feb)

"Stravinsky was the only person in the world [balanchine] bowed down to." (5 Feb)

On Alan Dameron

Russell noted that Dameron is not only a conductor, but also a rehearsal pianist for the Company. (He conducted Divertimento, Stewart Kershaw conducted Agon and Brahms-Schoenberg.) She called him a "real partner in the process," and siad that he not only understood, "the musical structure, but also the inner life of the music." (15 Feb)

On staging Balanchine

Russell does not think that Balanchine should be staged from video only, but that video should be used as an aid. She uses her own notes to stage, which are a mixture of diagrams, written notes, and counts. (13 Feb)

Russell on why they choose the versions they do: "What Mr. B wanted when I was there." "What I saw and heard." (7 Feb mat) "I stick to what I know because I heard [balanchine] explain it." (15 Feb mat)

In response to one question about using notation to preserve Balanchine's intentions, Russell said it was the quality of the movement that was important. She said that teaching the steps was this much, as she gestured "tiny" with her thumb and pointer fingers. The worry is that the steps will be remembered, but not the ideas behind them. (7 Feb mat).

As a ballet mistress, she said she was fascinated by the details of what Balanchine wanted. When discussing Divertimento she mentioned that there was a place where the steps were off the music, deliberately, and she asked him about this. He told her, and then said, "Someday, dear, you'll be the only one who knows." She then said "Now our dancers know." (15 Feb mat)

"I count on the dancers to remember everything I'm saying, especially these two [imler and Poretta]." (Russell/7 Feb mat)

Russell said, "If I've done something that doesn't feel right, I've made a mistake," as she explained that Balanchine's choreography always "felt right." (5 Feb)

When asked why there were differences in staging among contemporaries, and why some people thing that NYCB is going to seed, Russell sighed deeply and said that there were "disagreements about memories." (13 Feb)

Both Russell and Stowell were clear that they had reasons to stage the versions they did -- they heard Balanchine explain what he wanted -- but they by no means were trying to say that these were the "only" or "right" versions. As Russell said, "There were other versions before, and there were other versions after."

Every time she stages Balanchine Russell finds new things she's never seen before. (15 Feb mat)

On philosophy of changes in the ballets

Russell and Stowell were asked whether they made changes. They both said that, no, while Balanchine made changes, they did not. Russell said that Balanchine would tend to let men do the steps they wanted in many of their solos, he didn't change as much for women. (The context was in her time.) She said that she felt that if the dancer wasn't up to the steps, the dancer shouldn't be dancing the role.

The only time I think I saw either of them flustered was when some guy in the back asked them why they didn't just change things, like Shakespeare was changed. I actually think I saw shock and horrow cross Russell's brow. She shut that one down quickly. Stowell smiled and said in response, "we believe in integrity."

Russell even went back to really bad tapes of the original performances of Brahms-Schoenberg to see if there was anything she needed to clean up. Unfortunately, they were too dark and the figures too tiny to be much help. (That was the one ballet in the program in which she never danced.)

The bottom line seemed to be when Russell said "I hope I didn't change anything" (15 Feb mat) and that the choreography was "only as correct as the performance." (7 Feb mat)

On roles that they danced and staged

Stowell danced the lead in Divertimento. I also have a note from 5 Feb that he also danced Theme and Variations, but Russell didn't list the role as his on 15 Feb mat. He also danced the leads in the first, second, and third movements of Brahms-Schoenberg, and one of the two men in the second pas de trois in Agon.

Russell danced in the corps in the premieres of Divertimento and Agon, and later danced one of the two women in the second pas de trois of Agon and the second variation/first pas de deux in the Mozart. She also said she danced a "principal role" in Agon, but I'm not sure if she danced "Bransle Gay" in the second pas de trois, or if she was referring to being one of the two women in the first. She stages all three ballets.

Russell and Agon:

Russell's role in the premiere was as one of the four girls in the corps. It is in this role that she was pictured on the cover of the brochure, looking as if she was trying to listen to Balanchine, Stravinsky, and rehearsal pianist Boris Kopeikine (not shown), but she said several times that they only spoke Russian, so that she didn't understand them. But, she said, there was "electricity" in the room between the composer, choreographer, and pianist, whom she several times described as a "collaborator" in the effort, and that they "shot sparks off each other."

Balanchine was unhappy with the dance for the two women in the second pas de trois, and at the first revival after the premiere, he rechoreographed it. She had just become a soloist* and was cast opposite principal dancer Jillana, who was so insulted at being the counterpart to a "lowly" soloist that she refused to come to rehearsals, and Balanchine re-choreographed it entirely on her. [*Russell repeated this story several times. Once she said that it might have been right before she was promoted to soloist, but at the last Q&A she phrased it this way.]

In each Q&A, Russell and/or Stowell described the crazy sets of counts that are required to do all but the pas de deux. In one she had Poretta describe the actual counts in the male solo for the first pas de trois, and when the occasional "eight" was spoken, it almost seemed out of place in the "fives" and "nineteens." She and Stowell explained that Balanchine was very specific about the way he wanted it counted: if there was a count of "twenty," it was not the same thing as "four fives" or "five fours."

Russell mentioned that the pas de deux isn't counted; instead the dancers take cues from the sounds. That is a rather scary thought, because it was not always smooth sailing for the orchestra. She said a couple of times that part of this is because the orchestra doesn't rehearse nearly as much as the dancers do. (She told a story about performing the ballet in Paris with the Paris Opera Ballet orchestra, in which the union contract stipulated that the actual musicians did not have to come to practice, only the substitutes and extras. Not surprisingly the result was a "disaster.") Russell said on Sunday that it has become easier for the dancers, but not for the musicians.

Someone mentioned that s/he liked the mandolin player. Russell agreed and said that Kershaw told her that the player was "completely reliable," unlike one they had years ago, who "blew up." (15 Feb mat)

On Opening Night (it was obvious), the second Thursday (she described it), and the last performance Russell noted that the orchestra got lost. She said that the dancers have to keep to their counts and keep going, or the whole thing will fall apart. She said that dancers try pull each other in when they are lost. At yesterday's performance, she said that because the orchestra lost its way during the triple pas de quatre, the places where the three groups of four go deliberately in and out of synch were not clear.

When dancing her first role, Russell said that she was in Diana Adams' group, and that her group and Hayden's group could never agree on the counts (when they had the same ones.) She said wryly, but I think seriously, that her group was "always right." (She said that Adams was her hero.)

Another thing Russell mentioned about counting is that the pas de quatre groups can't count out loud during rehearsals, because they are dancing on different counts!

Russell and Stowell on Brahms-Schoenberg

Brahms was staged when NYCB moved to NYST and there was a bigger stage to fill, and that it was Balanchine's response to a new environment and having "more resources" to fill the stage. He kept doing bigger and bigger ballets as the company grew (Stowell and Russell/13 Feb).

Russell returned from Germany after staging several ballets there, and Balanchine was anxious for her to see his new ballet (B-S). She saw the second movement, which she fell in love with. Although she believes that parts are flawed and some parts are better than others, she also called it "underperformed and underappreciated," and said that only NYCB and PNB perform it. (5 Feb)

Russell said of all of the parts of all three ballets, the hardest in terms of stamina is the second movement of the Brahms. (13 Feb) She also called it "rigorous," "finely tuned," and "fast for a romantic pas de deux" (5 Feb), as well as a "real jewel" and a "treasure." (15 Feb)

On the third movement, Russell pointed out that what looks symmentrical in the corps is not: when the corps crosses, the mirrored dancers do not move to equivalent places, and this "keeps the eye moving." (15 Feb)

Russell also noted that the only dancer in the Company who had danced Brahms-Schoenberg when it was last presented by PNB in 1988 is Patricia Barker. (15 Feb)

Russell and Stowell on Divertimento No. 15:

Russell quoted Balanchine several times as having said of the ballet, "I did battle with the Master, and I lost." They do not agree.

Divertimento was choreographed for the opening of the Stratford Festival, after Russell had danced her first short season with NYCB and had returned from the layoff. She was in the corps of the premiere. (15 Feb) In two different sessions she said that the second movement lead was one of her favorite roles to dance.

Stowell's last performance was as the male lead in the ballet. (15 Feb)

After initial introductions during the Opening Night Q&A session, Stowell did something I thought was amazing. He started to speak about Erik Bruhn, whom he described as his role model for the male lead. He described Bruhn's "beautiful line and presentation," and "classic profile." He then twice said that Nureyev came and "eclipsed his career," even though, in Stowell's words, Bruhn had "more elegance" and "sophistication." (I missed his third description.) He lamented the fact that Bruhn is not as well known and remembered as much as he should be. (5 Feb)

Imler on Brahms-Schoenberg

When asked what her favorite role in the program was, Imler said fourth movement of Brahms, because she had "so much fun with it...it's different...I don't have to think too closely about the steps." Russell said that this was true only because Imler had such wonderful technique, and that "someone else would have to think about the steps." (7 Feb mat)

Poretta on favorite roles

While Imler described her costume for La Corsaire as one of her favorites because of the sparkles, Poretta said that he preferred ballets like Agon, where he wore leotards and tights, because they are "freeing on the body." He said he loves his Balanchine roles because he "feels so free." (7 Feb mat)

Russell on Symphony in C

In one performance she danced the first movement, and one of the demis in the third. She was cast in the lead of fourth movement for the first time in the same performance. She came huffing offstage after the third movement, and the wardrobe person stuck a tiara on her head. She stook there waiting for music to begin, and nothing happened. Finally, the conductor started and she went running out. She had never seen the fourth movement, and didn't realize that the conductor was waiting for her to take her place before he started! (5 Feb)

On McCaw Hall vs. the Opera House, and Mercer Arena

Merry Widow is being revived next year, because Russell thought it was a wonderful piece, and that too few people came to see it at Mercer Arena. (15 Feb mat).

Russell said that there was a "more intimate relationship between the audience and the stage" in McCaw Hall, and noted that there was "electricity crossing the footlights." She noted that The Nutcracker exceeded projections by $450K, because people wanted to see it in the new house. As a side question, someone asked her if Stowell had changed the choreography. She said every year people tell them they they like the changes, but except for when it was performed at the Paramount Theater and the entire production couldn't fit, nothing's been added. She said that they got so tired of saying that nothing changed, that now they just say, "Thank you." (15 Feb mat)

Someone in the audience asked if the Company was dancing better in the new hall. Russell replied that she thought the audience could see better in the new hall, and that the audience reaction was better, which made the dancers dance better. She likened the move from the Mercer Arena to McCaw Hall to NYCB's move from City Center to New York State Theater, and said that she thought, "the audience was having a great experience" in the new hall. (15 Feb mat)

She rued the missing crowds at Mercer Arena, where she said "careers developed" while the hall remained empty. (15 Feb mat).

On audience reaction and applause

Russell and Stowell praised the audiences for responding so enthusiastically to Agon in particular. Russell said that they knew they were working on a masterpiece, immediate audience acceptance was unexpected. She described the ballet as "most influential," a "pinnacle," and "completely different from anything before or after it."

Russell mentioned after the Sunday matinee that evening audiences tend to be louder than matinee audiences, and that they used to think of Friday night as the "tired night." Someone in the audience mentioned that she had just seen the Bolshoi and was taken aback by the interruptions for applause and the number of bows, even in the middle of the piece, and that this wasn't the case with PNB. [Not that the applause in controllable, but certainly the bow protocol is.] Russell said that Balanchine didn't like applause in the middle of the piece, that it should be more like a concert, and he even had a note in the program of Divertimento asking people to hold the applause to the end, which didn't work. But she did note that the dancers love the applause. She also said that someone asked her why in the Mozart the dancers start dancing before the music started; of course she replied that the applause was drowning out the soft music.

Russell did say that when she staged ballets at the Kirov, the bowing and applause protocol was similar to that at the Boshoi. She said it didn't bother her there, and that while American audiences might find the Kirov/Bolshoi norm to be over-the-top, they probably think that American audiences are too uninvolved. (15 Feb mat).

On TV versions of ballets

Russell said that Balanchine often restaged versions of his ballets for TV, which took into account the size of the stage, camera perspectives, etc. When Russell was staging in China, she heard familiar music coming from the other room. It was a rehearsal for Allegro Brilliante, being staged from a film version, which made little sense on stage with a proscenium. [she didn't say if it was the Tallchief or the Farrell version they were pirating.]

Balanchine changed the ending of Four Temperaments for television, and Russell preferred the original ending. Balanchine gave Russell permission ("That's okay, dear) and to use the long version of Apollo. She said she would not have done this without Balanchine's permission. [Tallchief tells a similar story in the documentary "Dancing for Mr. B."] (13 Feb)

On choreography and Balanchine's influence

The reason Stowell did all of the full-length story ballets was because the company needed them.

Stowell said that when choreographing, he is on the "hunt for someone who's willing to be an instrument...in this process, they're like gold...You can't get 24 people to have that relationship." Russell then said that "Suzanne Farrell wasn't the greatest dancer in the Company, but she would do anything for [balanchine]."

Stowell described his first view of Balanchine's choreography when San Francisco Ballet brought Concerto Barocco to Salt Lake City; he described the ballet as "bodies shaped by time and space." Stowell said he "learned so much from Balanchine's constraints" and architecture. He described Balanchine's use and re-use of the classical vocabulary in terms that Balanchine probably would have appreciated: "subtleties like a great chef taking the same piece of meat and giving different flavors to it." (13 Feb)

On the job of being Artistic Director and running the school

Russell listed the parts of the job that she loved as working with dancers and the school, especially working with "little lumps of clay." She said she meant no disrespect for the students, but that it was great to be able to work with them to turn them into dancers. She mentioned that next year they will be taking into the Company a girl who started at five in the Bellevue school, a first. (15 Feb mat)

One of the things that they wanted to create after they came was to have Production shops, and gradually they did. (They had this in Germany.) She said she believed that if "the dancers feel beautiful, they'll dance beautifully." She had lots of praise for her shops, and said that many of the backstage people had been with the Company for over twenty years. (15 Feb mat) She noted several times that the original costumes for Brahms-Schoenberg were badly built and "looked like horse blankets", and after the re-design was scrapped in a budget cut, Larae Hascall [pronounced Lor RAY'] and her staff rebuilt them for relatively little cost.

When asked how they found their dancers, they said that 65% of the women have come out of the school, and while Russell said that Suki Schorer recommended Jonathan Poretta when he was studying at SAB, many of the foreign-born dancers, seek them out. Batkhurel Bold took company class with them at the Kennedy Center when they were touring, Le Yin auditioned, etc. (7 Feb mat)

Russell said that the school does not teach Balanchine technique, but they teach with a "Balanchine foundation" and take from lots of influences, so that the dancers can "go and do anything." (7 Feb mat)

On casting

Two things she listed that she didn't like: attending finance committe meetings and casting -- "if you want to find a way to make a whole group of dancers unhappy, do the casting" and that "it's hard not to get distracted by trying to make everybody happy." She explained that she needed to give dancers roles "to develop dancers for the future...to give them the role they needed in their phase of development," which is why she couldn't cast only principals in major roles. (5 Feb) She noted that she finds that there "are so many dancers who deserve opportunities." (13 Feb)

She also talked about other considerations when casting: distributing roles so that any dancer wasn't overworked in one program, matching heights, matching strengths. She said that the dancers don't really get to choose their partners, but that they have to take romantic break-ups into account, and said that divorces are "very trying." She always does at least two casts and tries for three. (13 Feb)

On 13 February Kylee Kitchens made her debut in the third (Adams) variation in Divertimento, a role that had been danced by long-time Principal Dancers Patricia Barker and Louise Nadeau. In Russell's words, "I have to put young dancers out there." She noted Kitchens' "regal quality," that her performance was "not finished," but "if we don't shove her out there she'll never get the opportunity."

On being a Ballet Mistress

Russell told the story of someone who had called the PNB box office after she and Stowell first arrived. They explained to the caller that Russell had been Ballet Mistress for Balanchine, and the woman replied, "I understand he had a lot of those." (Feb 5)

On other topics

Someone in the audiences noted that PNB dancers tend to be tall. While Russell said that they like long lines, they didn't set out to have a tall company, but that once tall dancers know the Company is willing to hire tall, they all want to apply, and, "if you have tall girls you need tall boys..." (15 Feb mat)

Russell said that her first choice company was ABT, but that for the time, she was considered too tall. She said that too much talent is missed with a height limitation of 5'3"-5'5", and that "quality of dancing" and "personality" is more important. (15 Feb mat)

Someone in the audience praised Batkhurel Bold, and said that it was nice to see him smiling. Russell noted that he is shy and replied, "you have no idea how hard I've been working to get him to start to smile" and offered to pass on the praise. She also noted that his entire name is "Bold," but that wasn't okay by INS standards, so he took his father's name and added it to his, and that his parents are both dancers in Ulan Bator. (15 Feb mat)

All PNB performances are filmed; some are taped over, the rest are saved for the archives for union reasons and go to the Lincoln Center Library. According to Russell and Stowell, their camera is on its last legs, and there's no budget for another. There is no footage of Russell staging Balanchine's ballets for PNB. [she didn't mention if she's been filmed anywhere else.]

During the Opening Night Q&A, there was a man who sang the premiere of Liebeslieder Walzer. [He didn't mention his name, but he had a deep, sonorous speaking voice.] He said that he had to have surgery, and his brother got to do the piece on tour with NYCB.

Russell had a lot of praise for Angela Sterling [formerly a PNB soloist], the company photographer, who was also named photographer for the Dutch National Ballet. (15 Feb mat)

The Company will not be touring before they leave PNB (budget issue). Russell said the main reason to tour was "to impress the audiences back home." (15 Feb mat)

Russell danced with NYCB and Robbin's Ballet USA. (15 Feb mat)

One audience member asked if they would ever come back to take a role. Russell laughed and said that Ariana Lallone and Olivier Wevers persuaded them to let them film them in Souvenirs, and that the dancers showed the film at a Company party. In Russell's words, "it wouldn't be pretty." (15 Feb mat)

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Interesting stuff!

Russell has told the Jillana/Agon story before. I interviewed her about Agon in 1997 and it came up then. I never corroborated it with Jillana, so it didn't get put into the article. It was also fascinating to see Melissa Hayden coach PNB dancers in Agon with Russell in attendance. The differences in steps are slight, but in approach are larger. Russell has the counts of Agon written on index cards. As Hayden coached Louise Nadeau in the second pas de trois (a role Hayden originated) I saw Russell counting along, only occasionally flinching.

Just for the record, I thought Nadeau was the cat's pajamas in Agon :thumbsup:

Also, just to clarify, when Russell didn't like the "second movement lead" in Divert, did you mean the second variation? Or did you mean the lead in the adagio (which would be the sixth variation)

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Also, just to clarify, when Russell didn't like the "second movement lead" in Divert, did you mean the second variation?  Or did you mean the lead in the adagio (which would be the sixth variation)

I meant the second variation, which was one of her favorite roles. (That's what I should have written.) In the premiere she danced in the corps, but later danced what she called "Mara Vinson's role."

Probably everyone else in the theater would agree with you about Nadeau.

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Russell has told the Jillana/Agon story before.

I was intrigued to read the complete version of the story, because at the Valentine's Day evening Q&A, Francia told the story but declined to name the principal dancer in question. B) My mom, who was with me that night, and I were quite intrigued. (The story didn't come up at the earlier Q&A I attended.)

Oh...and I agree with Leigh about Nadeau. :yes:

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When Russell first told the story about Agon, my first thought was about Tanaquil LeClerq's comments in Striking a Balance about being a student cast as Choleric in The Four Temperaments

But you know that part where I'm in the middle and the other four women are in a square around me?  One of the women, who should remain nameless, who was a lead, didn't turn up for a rehearsal.  I heard through the grapevine that she had objected; she didn't want to dance with a student in the middle, or she wanted to be there.  And then the very next rehearsal, she turned up and everything was fine.  George had obviously talked to her.  It was the first and the only time I ever had trouble with anything like that..."
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