This season at New York City Ballet, intermission will be every bit as riveting as what's onstage, and it has nothing to do with the champagne. As part of its centennial celebration of master choreographer George Balanchine, the Company has installed throughout the New York State Theater's lobby an exhibit of more than 300 photographs that document the life and work of one of the twentieth century's greatest artists.
From the orchestra level, all the way up to the fifth ring, public spaces are lined with photographs that will offer audiences an unparalleled visual tour through Balanchine's career and legacy. Conceived and curated by a longtime associate of Balanchine, Edward Bigelow, the exhibit is not only an educational experience, but also a tribute.
"It's a paying of respect to what Mr. Balanchine and [NYCB co-founder] Mr. Kirstein accomplished," said Mr. Bigelow, who both danced for Balanchine and was on the staff of New York City Ballet for many years. "Mr. Balanchine gave us all this, and we say thank you."
The exhibit covers the enormous scope of its subject in two ways. On the lobby's orchestra level are photos that illustrate Balanchine's life from birth all the way through New York City Ballet's early days at City Center. Then, beginning on the first ring is a chronological progression of ballets that Balanchine created. On the upper rings are selected new works by choreographers who carry on his legacy.
And even with the impressive number of photographs, exhibition coordinator and former NYCB soloist Kathleen Tracey says, "It's not even half of what we wanted to present."
The orchestra level section starts with a look back to the choreographer's Russian roots. A 1904 baby snapshot of Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze, born in St. Petersburg, is included, as are key moments in his artistic childhood, such as his graduation in 1921 from the Petrograd Theatre School (as the Maryinsky School was then called) and a performance of Étude, a pas de deux he created for himself and his first wife, Tamara Geva.
In 1924, Balanchine left Russia for France and joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It was a heady, creative time during which he produced some of his early masterworks, including Apollo and Prodigal Son, both of which are represented in this exhibit.
While some of these photographs proved easy to find, Mr. Bigelow and his team had to dig a little deeper for others. A 1930 picture of Balanchine arriving in Copenhagen, for instance, had a photo credit that was misspelled, which made its ownership a mystery. Researchers contacted the Royal Danish Ballet, where the archivist suggested turning instead to the Danish newspaper Politiken. In the end, the team learned that the photo had been taken by a subsidiary of the newspaper "Polphoto," which had the rights and agreed to allow the photo to be part of the tribute.
The research, though, turned out to be a breeze compared with the process of sifting through the mountains of photos in the chronological display of ballets. This portion of the exhibit, which begins on the first ring of the lobby, gives viewers a look at that enormous body of work that established an American ballet tradition. Though not all of Balanchine's 425 works are represented, as many highlights as possible were included. "We selected pieces with longevity," said Mr. Bigelow.
In some cases, the ballets are represented by more than one photo in order to show how productions and dancers have evolved over time. There are 18 different representations of Apollo, starting from the 1928 premiere with its ostentatious costumes that contrast starkly against today's white leotards. Similarly, a 1963 photo of Liebeslieder Walzer reveals a ballet with a very different look from the current production.
One of the key considerations in the photo selection process was the need to represent dancers from different eras. Maria Tallchief, who danced the first Firebird and the first Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine's version of The Nutcracker, is well represented for her profound impact on the choreographer's creativity.
"For Mr. Balanchine she was an inspiration because she could move in an American way," said Ms. Tracey.
Balanchine's later muse, Suzanne Farrell, also has a strong presence in the exhibit for her impact on the Company's repertory. As Ms. Tracey explained, "Whatever he wanted to create, he had someone he could trust to put it onstage."
Still another consideration was to recognize the many companies that perform Balanchine's works in addition to New York City Ballet. Dance Theater of Harlem is shown in Concerto Barocco. The Kirov Ballet is seen dancing Jewels. And there's even the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo pictured in a photo of Serenade.
To show the ways in which Mr. Balanchine's legacy lives on, the curators have included ballets created by other choreographers, including recent works. During Balanchine's years at NYCB, he not only choreographed prolifically, he also invited others to make dances. It was this belief in the importance of new work that has set New York City Ballet apart from most other ballet companies. Photographs of works by Resident Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Broadway dance maker Susan Stroman, and principal dancer Albert Evans all illustrate how the Company's style and technique continue to develop.
With so much material to see, ballet-goers are going to have to step lively to get through the sizable exhibit. "People are going to have to come back again and again to see the whole thing," said Ms. Tracey, who recommends the exhibit's 130-page catalog for anyone who wants more time with the photographs.
Those who seek even more Balanchiniana can take a tour through "The Enduring Legacy of George Balanchine," an exhibition located at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center. The photos and memorabilia for that display have been chosen from the library's holdings to complement NYCB's exhibition.
Whether you get to both exhibitions, or just one, the best way to experience the joy of these beautiful photos, advises Mr. Bigelow, is to dive right in: "You just have to poke around and see what catches your eye."
Pia Catton is the dance critic for The New York Sun.