Balanchine | Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazine | November 2021 | www.scene4.com

In Balanchine's Classroom
 A Documentary:
'It Can't Be Done Any More'

Renate Stendhal


The legendary Mr. B – Georges Balanchine (1904-1983) not only invented American ballet, but also reshaped the aesthetic of all 20th century ballet. His School of American Ballet or SAB (1934) and his illustrious company, the New York City Ballet (founded in 1948) produced a new style of ballerina: small head, endless legs, 6 o'clock arabesque for breakfast. Clockwork precision at full steam, peppered by sexy charm and swagger. Balanchine's dictum was, "Ballet is Woman." He got his women to deliver high athleticism with minimal body fat. They danced "abstract" ballets to Stravinsky as if it were the Walzerkönig Johann Strauss, and thrilled with their flexed feet, edgy arms, and jazzy hip kicks.


Then, after ruling the ballet world for decades, they vanished in full sight. No new generations of Balanchine dancers emerged, no matter how frequently NYC Ballet and companies all over the world kept trying their hands and feet at them. The once sensational "neoclassical" choreographies turned into museum pieces almost the moment the choreographer died.

Much has been said, argued and denied about this mystery. Now a new documentary dives into the puzzle. In Balanchine's Classroom is a film by ex-dancer Connie Hochman. Hochman trained at Balanchine's school and danced at Pennsylvania Ballet in several of his ballets, some supervised by the master himself, before turning to  teaching.

In almost sixty decades of dance making, Balanchine created over four hundred ballets. With a musician father and brother, he was a fine musician himself.  He trained from age ten at the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company, stopped after an injury at sixteen and turned to choreography. 


His renowned masterpiece Apollo (Apollon Musagète, 1928) was created in Paris when he was only twenty-four and worked for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It was his first collaboration with Stravinsky and perfectly announced the modern elements of his style. By that time, according to some accounts, he had already choreographed some eighty dance pieces. As a teenager, he had founded his own ballet company, the first of many that became notorious for the "baby ballerinas" he trained.


In Balanchine's Classroom points out that the inspired choreographer's overriding passion was, in fact, teaching. Performances and rehearsals were the more documented part of his work, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. What lay underneath was the vast laboratory of the classroom. Here Balanchine developed the technique of his dancers and groomed the artistry of his future stars: "I want to see the music and hear the dance." No cameras, no visitors or spectators were allowed in his classroom. But as any rules find their exceptions, Hochman set out to gather footage, peeks and snippets of film showing Balanchine in his lab. These peeks were not easy to come by. It took Hochman eight years of combing through dance libraries. She interviewed a hundred former company members, trying to convince them to open up to her quest and share the contraband of their home videos.


I saw In Balanchine's Classroom on the opening day in mid-September – my first foray into the post-Covid world of movie theaters. Barely a dozen spectators showed up to watch the dizzying collage of classes, rehearsals and interviews. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuyCdgpa5sY

For every ballet dancer in the world, the classroom with a barre (rail), mirrors, and a piano is the ground zero of their craft. When you watch a long line of dancers at the barre starting their exercise, moving their spectacular legs in symmetry, swishing their beautiful feet over the floor and into the air, it dawns on you that this mysterious ritual of in and out, back and forth are the alphabet letters of the language of classical dance. This ritual was so important for Balanchine, Hochman reports, that he gave company class every single morning, even on the dancers' free days and during holidays.


When an anxious, ambitious dancer asked what she could do to become a great dancer, Balanchine would answer, "Do your tendus, dear. Do your tendus." Tendus? They are the most basic, deceptively simple of all moves: you stand in fifth or first position and glide one foot forward and back, sidewards or backwards and back. And that's what would turn the ambitious dancer into a star?


I wish In Balanchine's Classroom had captured more of these hypnotic tendus that are like a sensuous form of prayer, an erotic rosary, so to speak. The first impression of the film is that  there are too many hasty snippets , too many brief, blurry rehearsal scenes, interrupted by little excursions into Balanchine's biography, too many bits of interviews. The too -muchness at times feels tedious. But of course this documentary is meant to be study material, to be viewed more than once in a movie theater.


On the whole, the film give a good sense of what it was like to train and work with Balanchine. The interviewed top dancers – Merrill Ashley, Heather Watts, Suki Schorer, Jacques d'Amboise, Edward Villella and others have all turned to teaching in turn. They remember Balanchine's classroom as a tremendous challenge -- repetitions so long and so fast that "you wanted to vomit." They remember how  the classroom would be full to bursting at the beginning of the season and then get emptier by the week until only a small group of intrepids was left. Some company members, even soloists and principals, avoided his class; some left the company because the demands were too high. When you had given your all in class and were ready to collapse on the floor and die, one ballerina reports, the master would say, "Dear, who are you saving it for?"


Working with an unrelenting perfectionist brings up the shame of failure.  The former stars touch upon the shadow of burning envy and desire – the pain when the master picks the girl next to you at the barre to single her out and shower her with his attention. There is the cruelty of watching how a star is made and it's not you.


When sixteen year-old Suzanne Farrell was pulled from the ballet school into the company and quickly grew into Balanchine's great muse, some ballerinas (like the gifted Gelsey Kirkland) reverted to cosmetic surgery to look like her. Young company member Heather Watts "never saw anything so beautiful." And in one short classroom snippet the film reveals the reasons why. Farrell (who was not interviewed) could do anything with absolute fearlessness and at top speed. Her striking lack of self -consciousness let her make all kinds of mistakes that she instantly integrated into her playful, graceful style. You are watching ballet alchemy – wild spontaneity turned into gold.


There are a few such revelatory scenes, and perhaps the most touching ones belongs to the main interviewee, Merrill Ashley, a dancer who had to work and work to succeed. When she was already very good and longed to dance in the comparatively simple "Serenade" Balanchine said, "Yes dear, in three years." (Do your tendus.) But Merrill Ashley made it and another short excerpt shows her stunning achievement: an explosion of speed, confidence and beauty. "I went from questioning to  believing to becoming a disciple," she concludes. But what she expresses in her face and body language is so much more: passionate respect and devotion for the man who allowed her to go to the extreme and find her artistic self.


The man Balanchine comes through in the classroom footage as a teacher of genius. "It felt like I was a disciple of Einstein," Jacques d'Amboise says in the film. Balanchine is in almost every sequence, dancing with the dancers, showing them, modelling, pushing, commanding, explaining what can't be explained. "Hands like baby," he demands in his never perfect English, keeping the dancers guessing. It's a marvel to see him dance at the head of the class: astonishing in his musicality, elegance and grace. The man with the observant eyes and haughty mouth is irresistible, in fact  – but this is never acknowledged in the film. Many of the photos  and some of the snippets reveal the extraordinary intimacy between the  teacher and his ballerinas. Not one of Hochman's many interviewees dares to mention the erotic vibe that infused the classroom and was so obvious: Balanchine married five of his star ballerinas, one after another, and fell in love with many more.  


As a teacher of Balanchine technique, Merrill Ashley is refreshingly honest and admits that "it can't be done any more…." What the "it" is remains the mystery of Balanchine's classroom. Hochman's film nevertheless gets impressively close to an answer.

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Scene4 Magazine - Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2021 Renate Stendhal
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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