Review: A Peek Inside a Creative Genius at His Height in 'Balanchine's Classroom'

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 17, 2021

George Balancine, 1960s, as seen in 'In Balanchine's Classroom'
George Balancine, 1960s, as seen in 'In Balanchine's Classroom'  (Source:Ernst Hass.)

"In Balanchine's Classroom" dives into the storied ballet world of George Balanchine, Russian émigré, and architect of contemporary ballet in America. Through mostly private archival film, director Connie Hochman has made a uniquely engaging documentary on the magic and mystery of Balanchine's groundbreaking techniques.

Footage of the aged, mumbling, barely-moving Russian choreographer giving corrections to brilliant and accomplished dancers now looks almost funny, but these films, then and now, are a peek inside a creative genius at the height of his powers.

Laced throughout the film are interviews by legendary Balanchine-molded dancers, including Merrill Ashley, Edward Villella, Heather Watts, and Jacques D'Amboise, who describe the choreographer's steely, mythical disciplines that require obsessive training to rebuild a dancer's mind, body, and, crucially, their aesthetic motivation.

The film not only touches on Balanchine's complex and gregarious personal life, but also focuses on his mythical creative mind and methods, however ultimately elusive.

Balanchine was a gifted character dancer at the Imperial Ballet in Russia; he mysterious escaped the oppressive country. After his years in Paris with Sergei Diaghilev' Ballets Russes, Balanchine emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s and, with Lincoln Kirstein, founded Ballet Society. He then went on to establish the School of American Ballet in 1948, the institution that exclusively trained dancers for Balanchine's penultimate company The New York City Ballet. In the early sixties, Balanchine conceived a project to decentralize ballet from New York City by establishing regional companies around the U.S., an undertaking that was funded by the Ford Foundation.

Balanchine's first ballet in America was the groundbreaking "Serenade," which fused classicism with modern technique and psychological subtext, ushering in a new era of neoclassical ballet. Hochman zeroes in on his most dynamic era, the 1950s, during his so-called black and white period, referring to the basic tights worn by the dancers in such classics as "The Four Temperaments," "Agon," and "Apollo."

As the film documents, Balanchine continued to refine his foundational techniques, which pushed dancers mentally and physically to the brink of collapse.

Edward Villella describes taking Balanchine's classes at age 22, after his five-year stint as a professional boxer. Even though he had previously had dance training as a teen, Balanchine was so demanding of Villella that he thought he wouldn't make it back to the stage. Balanchine urged him to stay in the dance ring, and he became a superstar at NYCB. He later established the Miami City Ballet, training his dancers in Balanchine's techniques.

Hochman trained at the school of American Ballet and danced many of Balanchine's masterworks at Pennsylvania Ballet. He knows just what to delve into when interviewing former NYCB stars. For ballerinas, Balanchine insisted that they develop the entire foot to achieve full power, balance, control, and trajectory dancing on pointe, instead of flexion of demi to full point. "He understood movement, the torque that stabilizes you," one dancer observes.

But as several seasoned Balanchine dancers reveal in the film, some of his methods are now viewed with a more critical eye. For instance: Balanchine advising ballerinas, "Don't get married, don't have baby, anybody can have baby.... not everybody can dance."

Contemporary ballet dancers are still dealing with some of the more questionable legacies of Balanchine's influence on American dance. Primary among them is his requirement that ballerinas maintain ultra-thin bodies, a view that is now widely criticized by the industry. But the expectation of weight control at all costs is still a reality in dance companies.

As the film shows, even his most ardent disciples seem to both admire and still ponder the merits of his obsessive methods of creating dance art. The archival, private footage is must-see viewing for dancers of all genres. Hochman paints a fascinating behind-the-scenes portrait of an implacable ballet master at work.

"In Balanchine's Classroom" opens in New York on September 17, and in Los Angeles on September 24. Other cities will follow..

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.