Gems from the Past

Classic Arts Features   Gems from the Past
How the New York City Ballet stages revivals.

Only ballet masters and dancers fully comprehend the difficulties involved in reviving ballets. Our favorite ballets live in our memories like beautiful dreams, danced forever by heavenly casts. So, upon seeing a new version, we may complain, "That's not the way it was done," as if someone intentionally let us down. Nevertheless, every season, fully aware of the pitfalls, artistic directors bravely bring back ballets, hoping the revivals will not only please new audiences but will also satisfy those of us who affectionately remember the originals from the past.

Although reviving ballets is challenging, Peters Martins, Ballet Master in Chief of the New York City Ballet, can draw upon a large store of impressive works. For the winter season, he chose Jerome Robbins' sparkling Piano Pieces, a hit after its premiere at the Tschaikovsky Festival in 1981, and the first revival of a Robbins ballet since his death in 1998. Martins also selected Balanchine's romantic Ballade, from 1980, set to Faure's Ballade for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19; his own playful twosome to Stravinsky's music, Eight Easy Pieces from 1980 and the sequel Eight More from 1985; plus his Sinfonia from 1993, also set to music by Stravinsky.

Martins chose each ballet for a different reason. "Bringing back Piano Pieces was really Jerry's idea," he says. "We'd talked about reviving it towards the end of his life. Now we are doing it for him. I chose Eight Easy Pieces and Eight More, because they are good for the some of the Company's current dancers, and Ballade is one of those lovely Balanchine ballets that isn't performed that often, and shouldn't be forgotten."

The responsibility for reviving older works falls to a small cadre of former New York City Ballet dancers who flourished during the Balanchine and Robbins years and know most of the repertory by heart. Like emissaries, they regularly travel around the world, staging ballets from the repertory for companies in Europe, Russia, and Asia, as well as in the United States. But most of their work is done at home for the New York City Ballet.

This season, Susan Hendl, a guest assistant ballet master and a repetiteur for The George Balanchine Trust, took charge of the revival of Piano Pieces, a 40-minute work for three couples, one soloist, and corps, set to solo piano music composed by Tschaikovsky. Assistant ballet master Victor Castelli coached the corps. Before his death, Robbins designated Hendl, Castelli, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, and Christine Redpath as the chief repetiteurs of his ballets, a great honor from a famously exacting choreographer. "We always check with one another and ask, 'Is this what Jerry wanted?'" she says. Though she didn't dance Piano Pieces, she knows his style well, having been in many of Robbins' ballets.

"The essence of Jerry's work lies in his duets, the relationship between the man and the woman," Hendl says. "In a sense, they perform for each other, rather than for the audience. But they invite us into their private world, which makes for a more intimate experience. Jerry had a special gift for drawing people into his ballets." To start the restaging, she turned to videotapes of the original cast. For three weeks last fall, she studied them every day, trying to grasp the nuances that contribute to the ballet's sunny charm and hearty folk quality. When she showed the tapes to the new dancers, they were awed by Kyra Nichols' ease in her difficult role. "I told them that's what they should try to capture, her lightness and Jerry's vision of frolicking on a beautiful summer day," she says.

Next, Hendl called Nichols, Maria Calegari, and Heather Watts, the original female principals, for advice. "I wasn't sure of the timing," she says. "Sometimes Jerry let the music lead you. He didn't want you exactly on the beat. So I checked to be sure I was going in the right direction. I'm always happy when I can go to the original dancers, and Kyra, Heather and Maria are very giving."

Nichols remembers Piano Pieces well. "It was a great time for me and others in the cast," she says. "We were just beginning to get bigger roles. What Jerry finally came up with for me resembled my fluid and earthy role as Spring in his Four Seasons. I remember him standing at the side of the stage watching me, happy to see me dancing in my own world. Piano Pieces is not one of his harder ballets, though there's some tricky partnering and an amazing solo for one of the men, but its elegance and charm are entrancing."

While some dancers teach roles by using images and metaphors, Nichols is more down-to-earth. "When I describe roles to other dancers," she says, "I usually talk about the quality of movement. For instance, I might suggest a dancer slow down at a certain point and take her time, or make a bigger, juicier shape. All of us have different approaches. As for the meaning of a ballet, I believe dancers should find that for themselves."

Hendl agrees. "Dancers have to bring their own spirit and personality to their roles," she says. "That's why, no matter how well we duplicate the originals, they are going to look different. Dancers should be distinctive individuals."

After 23 years restaging the New York City Ballet repertory, beginning with Balanchine's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for Rudolf Nureyev at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1979, Hendl has discovered that dancers the world over ask very much the same questions. "They want to know what qualities to give the steps and the motivation behind them," she says. "The ballets of Balanchine and Robbins strike such a universal chord that nothing else needs to be explained."

Valerie Gladstone writes for The New York Times, Dance Magazine, and Playbill.

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