On May 5th, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Kyra Nichols returned to the stage. Not to perform, sadly – it was a pleasure to watch her until she retired in 2007 – but rather to lead a free seminar along with Peter Martins about similarities and differences between the choreography of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. The hour-long discussion was filled with anecdotes and reflections on the two choreographers along with excerpts performed by current company members.
Musicality and partnering were both popular topics. While Robbins wanted the man to fully support the woman, Balanchine preferred for the woman to move independently for as long as possible until the man would swoop in and assist her. Company members Ana Sophia Scheller and Gonzalo Garcia showed an excerpt from Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux during which she does a series of pirouettes. At first Garcia stepped in right away, but Peter Martins repeatedly told him to wait until the last possible moment to support her. The hesitation and slight discomfort among the two dancers was visible as they experimented with Martins’ instructions.
That evening, it was a treat to watch Scheller and Garcia perform the ballet on an all-Balanchine program. I had hoped to see the changes from the afternoon demonstration incorporated into their performance, but alas, they stuck with their old habits and didn’t take the riskier approach that Balanchine preferred.
Another interesting point that Martins and Nichols emphasized was that Robbins wanted his dancers to mark his ballets in rehearsals (meaning not perform them to the fullest), while Balanchine expected the dancers to perform at 100% in rehearsals. This surprised me, as I remember reading and hearing stories about how Robbins was a tough grader and always pushed his dancers for more, which seems to lend itself to the opposite of marking a ballet. “Easy! Easy!” said Martins, imitating the tone that Robbins would take with his dancers. What a joy it was to see Sterling Hyltin perform an excerpt from Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering with such ease and fluidity. I think Robbins would have approved of her relaxed demonstration.
These seminars are always eye-opening. The stories about Balanchine and Robbins as told by the people who were fortunate enough to work with them are priceless. Nichols and Martins shared far too many to list here, but they certainly offered some insight into working with the company’s two most significant choreographers.