Svelte and elegant, Kistler's melodious laughter fills the conference room at New York City Ballet's headquarters at Lincoln Center as she recalls her very first company class with Mr. B who approached her at the barre and corrected an offending position, asking, '"Where did you learn to dance?" And, she said, "At your school Mr. Balanchine." And he said, "You see dear, NOW I am going to teach you how to dance."' And he did.
Born in Riverside, California, she was the youngest of five and the only sister of four rough-and-tumble brothers. Athletic and outgoing, she dirt-biked, played baseball, basketball, and even football to keep up with them before taking up ballet at the age of eight, much to her Mom's relief. From age 12 she studied with Irina Kosmovska in Los Angeles and then came to New York to attend her first summer course at the School of American Ballet. Two years later Kistler received a full scholarship from SAB.
Balanchine spotted the 15-year-old student, and assigned Alexandra Danilova to teach her the role of Odette in his one-act staging of Swan Lake for the school's annual workshop performance in 1979. A year later, just shy of her 16th birthday, Kistler joined the New York City Ballet corps and promptly left on tour to Paris where Balanchine also rehearsed her in the role. "Basically," says Kistler, "he taught me how he wanted me to dance Odette in Swan Lake. 'Dear,' he would say, 'you are supposed to be a swan queen; don't just be a swan.' He would insist, 'listen to the music and do the steps; give all of yourself to the movement; 'Don't act, just be you.'" Kistler says, "that was just ingrained in me."
The young ballerina was a star was on the rise. Audiences couldn't get enough of the teenage goddess with golden tresses, dancing free, fast and bold. Inspired by her talent and insatiable appetite to dance, Balanchine accelerated his protégé's career _from corps to NYCB's youngest principal in just two years. Kistler believes Mr. B was setting the stage for after he was gone, and cast her in leading roles at a record pace, such as the adagio movement in Symphony in C, Diamonds in Jewels, Dewdrop and Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Chaconne, and the "puffy" (exhausting in ballet-speak) Scherzo in Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 - to name just a few. Kistler says, "Mr. B once told me 'I don't have much time.' And after that, many things just kept coming. I never could get enough; I wanted to do it all."
Suddenly it was all over. Balanchine died in April 1983, and a devastating ankle injury stalled Kistler's brilliant career for nearly five years. During her protracted convalescence Kistler grew up and realized she had some hard decisions to make. "Mr. B was gone, now it was up to me," she says. "I was chosen but now I had to do it on my own." But she had the support of Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, and her teacher Stanley Williams, who Kistler says was like a father to her.
Although Balanchine never created a ballet for her, Kistler became the quintessential Balanchine ballerina and also inspired Jerome Robbins to create two roles on her that drew on her lightness, radiance and speed, including Andantino, about which The New York Times' then chief dance critic Anna Kisselgoff said, "Miss Kistler is elegant and poised, porcelain delicacy inlaid with Balanchine-trained steel."
Ironically, she danced few of Balanchine's abstract leotard ballets, which she loved. "The one ballet I really wanted to do was Stravinsky Violin Concerto but," she says, "never did, because I was considered more of a tutu dancer."
Muse, marriage and motherhood worked in tandem for Kistler during the height of her career when Martins choreographed more than 20 ballets on her and cast her as Aurora in his full-length staging of The Sleeping Beauty in 1991. He also married her at the end of that year, and in 1996, Mr. and Mrs. Martins became parents to Talicia.
The next year, she had just gotten back into shape and couldn't wait to get on stage, when she suffered a back injury and had to have surgery. This return was a testament to her perseverance and grit. Coming back to dance some of her most challenging roles, including Odette/Odile in Martins' evening-length Swan Lake, she knew she was on borrowed time. "I have to be honest," says Kistler, "I was already beginning to say goodbye with these roles, and they were probably my greatest achievement."
Over the last few years Kistler's illuminating performances in such ballets as Valse Triste, Liebeslieder Walzer, and Mozartiana, continue to reaffirm her artistry. Since 1994 she has been teaching at SAB and passing on her mentor's wisdom. "I know that so many generations of dancers have not had the benefit to dance for Mr. B," says Kistler. "I'm so blessed and so lucky to have known Mr. Balanchine. there is a difference! And it stays with you your whole life."
Kistler dances her farewell performance June 27 at 3 PM. Tckets may be purchased at New York City Ballet.