Los Angeles

Passing the Balanchine Baton: LAB's Next Generation of Dancers

Balanchine teaching class, 1970s, SAB, Photo by Nancy Lassa.jpg

An elite group of artists called "repetiteurs " carry on the works of one of the greatest choreographic masters of all time, George Balanchine. For 30 years since his death on April 30, 1983, these human "style guides" for the Balanchine aesthetic have served as guardians of his expansive repertoire of nearly 400 works, and storytellers of his legacy. Many have danced the roles themselves under his tutelage, such as Colleen Neary, co-artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet. She, along with about 30 other New York City Ballet disciples -- the acclaimed ballet company that he founded in 1948 -- have the stamp of approval from the Balanchine Trust to stage the choreographer's works. As such, they travel the world ensuring that professional ballet companies who present Balanchine on their playbill, perform it, just so.

"There was always a style and way of dancing the role that was very important to him," Neary says. "He gave you the freedom to do what you wanted but not to the extreme where it took the piece another direction. And we grew up around that style - we saw what he wanted. We all respect each other but we all have differences in the years we danced with Balanchine and for versions we danced in. When I danced "Rubies" and "Symphony in C" in the same roles as my sister, [Patricia Neary for whom many roles were created by Balanchine], she was a decade before me, and he may have changed it for me, or changed his mind on certain timings. He changed as he went along. We always say 'Before Death.' Those are the years we look at. And after he died, things kept changing, so we try to keep it as tight as we can," she says.

"Rubies"

Neary danced as a soloist from 1969 to 1979 in The New York City Ballet under the direction of Balanchine. Like her sister, she also had numerous roles created for her by Balanchine, as well as by other acclaimed choreographers such as Peter Martins, Jacques d'Amboise and others, throughout her career.

Now Neary is poised to pass the Balanchine baton to a new generation of dancers at her own company, which she founded nine years ago with husband and former Royal Danish Ballet and New York City Ballet dancer Thordal Christensen. To commemorate Mr. B's death (as he's called fondly) and to celebrate his work, Los Angeles Ballet recently launched a Balanchine Festival 2013. Having just wrapped "Balanchine Gold" in March and April, Los Angeles Ballet recently launched part two of the series, "Balanchine Red" across Southern California that runs through June 9. Balanchine Red features his works, "Agon," "La Valse," and "Rubies." The next performance takes place Saturday, May 18 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, followed by a night at the Valley Performing Arts Center May 25, an afternoon at the Alex Theatre May 26 and ending at Royce Hall June 9. Each performance is accompanied by lectures prior to curtain by experts in Balanchine's work, including Kent Stowell, Francia Russell, Lewis Segal, Victoria Looseleaf, and of course, Neary herself.

One of Los Angeles Ballet's principal dancers is Southern California native Allynne Noelle. A tall, lithe figure who crackles on stage, Noelle has been with the company since 2011, coming from Miami City Ballet where she also performed Balanchine under the direction of Eddie Villella, another former principal dancer with New York City Ballet.

Kenta, Noelle, "TchaiPas"

"I like 'Rubies' 'Tall Girl.' LOVE Jewels as a whole ballet. Oh, and 'Tchai Pas' is fun (that's ballet slang for 1960's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux)," she says, ticking off her favorite Balanchine ballets similar to how someone of a different milieu might rattle off pop music hits. "I really like "Apollo" too, but I've never performed it."

In Los Angeles Ballet's "Balanchine Festival Red," Noelle will dance the Pas de Deux in the notoriously challenging Agon (1957) an abstract masterpiece in which nary a note is lost on movement; and she will revisit "Tall Girl" in Rubies (1967). The fact that Neary has coached her in a masterpiece that Neary herself has danced for the master is clearly not lost on her.

Los Angeles Ballet - Principal Dancer Allynne Noelle - Rubies Rehearsal Clips from Los Angeles Ballet on Vimeo.

"I was a little scared at first because I know [Neary] has done the role," she says. "Colleen gives me the freedom to do what I want with the role as an artist, but if there's a step that isn't right she lets me know. Even though it's crazy hard technically, it's artistically freeing."

Neary is quick to dispel any notion that she expects a cookie cutter interpretation of how she performed the part. "It's perfect for Allynne. I give her feedback as to how I did it, but I don't like to say: 'This is MY role!'; even though you might feel like it's your role. I want to train the next generation who are dancing the Balanchine ballets and dancing them well so eventually The Balanchine Trust might approve them to stage the ballets. The Balanchine Trust is very tight with [its] mechanism, and typically, they come from New York City Ballet. But I think it's important for those of us who are with other companies to train the next generation to be able to rehearse his work," she says.

Mr. B, Pat, Colleen.

Meanwhile Neary's next repetiteur "gig" will be with the Paris Opera Ballet staging the original "Symphony in C" called "Palais de Cristal." Neary also invites other repetiteurs to Los Angeles to stage Balanchine on Los Angeles Ballet dancers. "It's good for the dancers to work with someone different. Although sometimes it's hard for me to keep my mouth shut," she laughs.

Noelle, a self-proclaimed repetiteur in waiting, is one of six dancers with Los Angeles Ballet from Southern California. Noelle grew up in Huntington Beach and began classical ballet training at age 5. She remembers limited exposure to professional productions beyond seeing New York-based companies like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and "the occasional Russian company" breeze through to perform. "The cultural growth (in Southern California) has been exponential since then," Noelle says. "I'm so happy to be back here dancing in a company that offers the opportunity to perform such great ballets. Last time I was on stage performing 'Tchai Pas' I thought, 'Wow, this is my job. Should I really be having this much fun?'"

For tickets to Los Angeles Ballet's "Balanchine Festival Red", please call 310-998-7782 or visit their homepage.


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Top Image: Balanchine teaching class, 1970s, SAB. | Photo: Nancy Lassa.

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