Familiarity breeds enthusiasm, not contempt, when the subject is a masterpiece. That’s why the hard preparatory work necessary in the performing arts also can be a lot of fun.
“I’ve been having a great time, and found myself dancing around more than I have in a long time,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s artistic director Terrence S. Orr. He’s been getting the company ready for its Balanchine Festival, Friday through April 22 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
George Balanchine was the most celebrated choreographer of the 20th century. Orr selected three of his masterpieces for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s final program of the season — “Theme and Variations” and “Allegro Brillante” to music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and “Who Cares?” to music by George Gershwin.
The performances also will feature the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra conducted by Charles Barker.
In presenting a Balanchine Festival, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is continuing one of its strongest traditions. Orr had several opportunities to work with Balanchine in New York City, but says his experience is nothing like that of his predecessor, Patricia Wilde. She worked with Balanchine from the time she was 14 until she retired from dancing. She created many of his most famous roles at New York City Ballet and continued her association with him as long as he lived.
Wilde visited Balanchine in the hospital shortly before he died in 1983, and said he was happy she had become head of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre the year before. “‘Oh, it’s so wonderful you’re going to continue my work. Use my ballets whenever you want to,'” she says he told her. And she did, enriching Pittsburgh’s dance scene during her 15 years in charge of the company.
Balanchine was born in 1904 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was 9 when he began dancing at the Imperial Theater School. A year later, he made his debut. At 17, he joined the corps de ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company, and started choreographing soon thereafter.
While a member of Serge Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes in the mid- and late 1920s, Balanchine met composer Igor Stravinsky and wealthy American dance enthusiast Lincoln Kirstein. Both men played important roles in his life.
Balanchine was Stravinsky’s preferred choreographer. Their frequent collaborations remain pinnacles of artistic synergy.
Following Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Kirstein facilitated Balanchine’s relocation to America. In 1934, the two men formed the American School of Ballet in New York City. Their other collaborations led to the establishment in 1948 of the New York City Ballet, where Balanchine became an iconic figure and was artistic director until his death.
Wilde was present at the 1956 creation of “Allegro Brillante,” set to Tchaikovsky’s one-movement Piano Concerto No. 3. It came into being when choreographer Jerome Robbins, who was to have revived one of his older works, withdrew from the project, which left a hole in the New York City Ballet program.
“We needed a new ballet. Mr. Balanchine just called six principals, 12 dancers, to rehearsal, and, in one morning, he choreographed the whole of ‘Allegro Brillante,'” says Wilde, who was one of the principals. “It just flowed — the corps, the principals — because he’d been thinking about it for so many years. So we had a new ballet. It took a while for the dancers to accomplish it, but it was there in one morning.”
Only a strong and well-trained mind produces such quality fluently. Balanchine was a superbly educated musician as well as dancer. He also was a man of strong opinions, who once declared, “To say a wine is too dry is merely to express a defect of taste.”
Wilde laughs softly when asked about the comment, then says, “He would come out with those kinds of things.
“One time, I wanted to do a role. I never asked for anything. I did whatever he told me I could do. But this one I really wanted to do,” Wilde says.
But Balanchine replied, “‘I think, you know, I think you are a contralto and this is for soprano,'” Wilde says, imitating Balanchine’s Russian accent.
Next year, “when it suited him, suddenly I was a soprano,” she continues. “I was a soprano when he decided I was.”
Yet Balanchine was basically a dream to work with, Wilde reports, so easy and collegial in creating and rehearsing ballets.
“He spoiled us for everything. He would just walk in and begin choreographing with no preamble,” she says. Not knowing what the ballet was about, the dancers sometimes even had to ask what the music was.
“Then he would begin doing movements. We would follow along. Sometimes they were very explicit. Other times he’d respond (to the way we responded to more general suggestions), ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ It was more rhythms than actual steps at first. Then he would begin defining the movement, which he would do himself and we would follow along. The progression was amazing,” Wilde says.
Balanchine allowed his stars more latitude than the corps. “For principal or solo dancers he’d let you do what you felt like,” Wilde says. “You were part of the creative process.”
Process hardly guarantees results. This weekend, Pittsburgh audiences will have the opportunity to experience one of the arts’ most spectacularly fertile and successful minds.
Not every Balanchine ballet is a masterpiece, says Orr, “but he created a lot more of them than anyone else.”
Featuring: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Terrence S. Orr, artistic director; Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Charles Barker, conductor
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Benedum Center , Downtown