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Rediscovering The Thrill Of George Balanchine's New York City Ballet


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. For many years, our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says he was addicted to and mesmerized by George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet. Then Lloyd lost interest. Lately, he says his fascination has returned.


LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: When I was a student in New York in the 1960s, the New York City Ballet was the institution dearest to me. At first, I was just thrilled by what I was seeing. I had no real understanding of George Balanchine or how important he was, but I learned quickly. Balanchine was our Shakespeare, actively creating a new repertoire that encompassed the comic and the tragic, the narrative and the abstract and right in my hometown. No one has ever visualized music more deeply. Watching a Balanchine ballet is like watching music come alive.

I especially love going to Saratoga, the outdoor summer home of the City Ballet in upstate New York, where anyone could actually watch Balanchine himself rehearsing the company - strictly off-limits at Lincoln Center. After Balanchine died in 1983, his spirit seemed to evaporate. And after the retirement of my favorite dance partners - the magnificent Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, who became the director of the company and fired Farrell from her coaching position, I stopped going, content to settle for Balanchine on videos made under the master's supervision.

Lately, I've been fascinated by the cornucopia of new DVD releases on VAI, Video Artists International, which has tapes of New York City Ballet appearances on Canadian television, some with legendary dancers from before my time. Maria Tallchief, the first Native American ballet superstar, one of Balanchine's four wives, and the heartbreaking Tanaquil Le Clercq, Balanchine's last wife, who was stricken with polio. On volume four, there's a charming three-minute video in which Balanchine presents his dancers and even dances a little with them.

Last summer, at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires, I saw a program featuring younger stars of the City Ballet, and I was blown away by the grace and musicality of ballerinas Tiler Peck and Teresa Reichlen. Along with the powerful and elegant Tyler Angle and Robert Fairchild, who's now starring on Broadway in "An American In Paris." Not just technically brilliant, these are artists with real personality. And on last year's Kennedy Center Honors, when Tiler Peck danced Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm" as part of a tribute to City Ballet's Patricia McBride, I suddenly had to see the company again.

So this summer in Saratoga, I attended a matinee that featured two of Balanchine's very greatest works. One was "The Four Temperaments" to music by Paul Hindemith that Balanchine himself commissioned, a work that was on the inaugural program of Ballet Society in 1946, the first incarnation of the New York City Ballet. You can see an excellent later performance on a VAI disk.

It's like a vision of the inner-workings of the cosmos. It starts with a couple, each extending one leg to a perfect point. Then suddenly, they flex their ankles into a right angle, a no-no in classical ballet. But Balanchine makes this awkward gesture expressive and witty, surprisingly beautiful. He opens up a whole new world of dance, just as cubism transformed art.


SCHWARTZ: I also saw "Symphony In C," the grand finale of the opening night of the officially renamed New York City Ballet in 1948. The irresistible music is by the 17-year-old George Bizet. The Saratoga performance featured sparkling Tiler Peck in the first movement and otherworldly Sara Mearns in the breathtaking adagio, where to a ravishing oboe solo, the ballerina falls or floats backwards in slow motion into the arms of her partner.


SCHWARTZ: These extraordinary dancers have breathed new life into Balanchine's legacy. And suddenly, once again, as in the old days, I want to follow what they're up to.

DAVIES: Lloyd Scwhartz teaches in the creating writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and is senior editor of classical music for the web journal New York Arts. He reviewed the New York City Ballet at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and a series of five "New York City Ballet In Montreal" DVDs on VAI.


DAVIES: Coming up, we remember a trailblazer for women in broadcast journalism. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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