“In Balanchine’s class” – Let’s dance [MOVIE REVIEW]

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George Balanchine in “In the class of Balanchine”. Photo courtesy of Ernst Hass.

For my husband and I, dancing is the ultimate art. It combines music, art and movement in the service of history. It can be classical, modern, jazz or abstract, but all the elements are there. “In Balanchine’s Classroom,” directed by Connie Hochman, you are placed in the front row in the room where this is happening.

A poem of pure love to George Balanchine, who undoubtedly created the first great American ballet school and company (the New York City Ballet), former dancers, now teachers, explain what it was than to learn from the master. From Monday to Friday, for years, Balanchine himself taught classes at the School for American Ballet, founded by him and Lincoln Kirstein in 1934.

Hochman argues that there were no professional ballet schools established in the United States until 1934, and this may very well be true. Balanchine has always been a pioneer. After starting his career as a dancer and choreographer at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, he danced in the body of the National Opera and Ballet Theater (now known as the Mariinsky Ballet). It was there that he started to focus more on the choreography. Fleeing (even if it was perhaps more a question of leaving) the Soviet Union, he found a place at Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris as a dancer, but above all as a choreographer, collaborating with some of the most great dancers (Nijinsky, Massine), composers (Prokofiev, Stravinsky), and artists (Picasso, Matisse) of the time. It was there that he created two of his most famous and enduring ballets, “Apollo” and “The Prodigal Son”, both of which will be relaunched for the New York City Ballet.

In his admiration, even his adulation, for Balanchine, Hochman generalizes that before his innovative choreography, the ballet had been a series of “no-no-pauses” stilted on the music. I can only assume that she has never attended a ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, known for his collaborations with Tchaikovsky on “The Nutcracker”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake”.

One of Balanchine’s strengths was her ability to see the possibilities of dancers that no one else saw. Its best dancers have known how to internalize the rhythm of the music beyond technical expertise. He often said, “The eye chooses what it wants to look at and that cannot be taught. Two of her most famous ballerinas mentioned in the documentary had that something indescribable and an internal rhythm. They have gone beyond technique in creativity. The first was Maria Tallchief, who became Balanchine’s third wife; and the other, Suzanne Farrell who eventually had to leave the company for several years when she married another dancer in the company because Balanchine himself was in love with her.

For the women in his classes, he was the man they wanted to please. He was a very difficult task master because his choreography was difficult to dance, required skill and speed beyond which most dancers could perform and was difficult to teach.

That the film focuses primarily on his dancers from the sixties and seventies is not surprising as they are the last direct descendants of his technique and choreography. Their memories are still fresh and their tale is compelling in the visceral description of what it was like to try to do things right and make her happy. Almost cult in their devotion, it is clear that Balanchine was a father figure to these women. This, on the other hand, is not reflected in the interviews with the two prominent male dancers, Jacques D’Amboise and Edward Villella, who subsequently founded their own companies. Their perspectives are less emotional and more distinct from the point of view of the dance for the master they revered.

George Balanchine in “In the class of Balanchine”. Photo courtesy of Martha Swope.

A particular strength of the documentary is the archival footage, most of which is blurry and appears to have been taken almost after the fact. The credits reveal that the rehearsal sequences were taken by Jerome Robbins, the ballet master and successor to Balanchine, and Christine Redpath, a dancer with the company. Although its quality is inconsistent, it ultimately serves to underscore the nature of ballet in that no matter how clear the image is, it is the ballet movement always accompanied by music that captures the art.

I love dancing and well performed Balanchine’s pieces are exquisite but can tend to appear sterile and emotionless. This is probably more a function of the second generation staging than of the pieces themselves, but it does reveal a problem in the work. As Balanchine himself said, they are difficult to dance.

There are a lot of inexplicable gaps in the story as presented here. Most notable is the absence of Arthur Mitchell, the revolutionary and exciting African-American ballet dancer who was part of the trio consisting of d’Amboise and Villella and then founded the Dance Theater of Harlem, teaching Balanchine’s choreography to a diverse generation of dancers, some of whom would go dancing for the New York City Ballet. He can be seen, unidentified, dancing in some of his iconic roles.

There is no mention of Jerome Robbins who was a soloist at the New York City Ballet for Balanchine in the 1950s, choreographed some of the most important pieces in the repertoire and, following his successful career as a choreographer and director on Broadway and in film, became ballet master at the New York City Ballet in 1972, then assumed the role of chief ballet master from 1983 (year of Balanchine’s death) until his death in 2017. He was considered, along with Balanchine , the founding choreographer of the company. It’s understandable why Peter Martins, one of Balanchine’s greatest dancers and Balanchine’s successor as artistic director, is being ignored, given credible abuse accusations leveled against him, but it still creates an ‘elephant-type omission in the film. room “.

Completely engaging and captivating, I wish it was less of a hagiography and more of a fully developed portrait, warts and all, of this man, a giant of the 20th century.

Opening on Friday September 24 in the Laemmle cinemas including the Laemmle Monica, the Royal and the Laemmle Virtual cinema.


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