Diamonds and Pearls

No other company bows toward the ballet gods quite the way New York City Ballet (NYCB) does it. Young bun-heads aspire to be part of the quintessential American ballet company and ex-NYCB ballerinas pepper their conversations with factoids about the founder. “I still speak about him in the present tense, even though he's been dead 20 years,” Patricia Neary, a former prima, told me. NYCB is a place where the people have that dance in their head. They can't see farther.

After all, the art form requires single-minded worship. Every morning, professional dancers stub out their cigarette, gulp down some coffee, maybe eat a power bar and head over to the studio. With the lights off, they warm up their hips by beating their folded legs like butterflies against the ground and rotate their legs in the sockets (dancers' hips crack incessantly after about age 15). Then they work out the kinks in their neck, flex legwarmer-swathed ankles, and crack their toes against the ground. Accompanied by the tinkling of a single piano, the instructor flicks on the lights and class begins. Dancers rarely speak throughout the hour and a half of plies, tendus, round-de-jambs and reverence. It is a long prayer, the body parts swooping and waving, as the dancer faces the mirror that critiques impassively.

George Balanchine, also known as Mr. B., former founder/director/shepherd to his flock of dancers at NYCB, took the cult-in-a-good-way aspect of ballet and tuned it up a notch. His dancers not only obeyed the rules of dance, but they also dedicated themselves to him personally. And he loved them right back. Before his death in 1983, Balanchine married four of his ballerinas and fell in love with countless others. He bought them perfume, purses and shoes. “He used to say, 'I want to get on the elevator and know who was here before me,'” Neary recalled. He even offered his dancers suggestions on how to move (he told them to land from leaps the way a cat does, springing and recoiling), dress and act. When he told the teenage ballerina Darci Kistler never to cut her hair, she vowed to keep her tresses for life.

Today, the NYCB continues to fan the flames of the long-gone choreographer with a tour celebrating the 100 years since his birth. A hefty portion of Mr. B's ballets are on display, with nearly 70 percent of this year's repertoire paying tribute. The original casts continue to pass the choreography on to young dancers who never knew the slim, Georgian migr who loved lux but couldn't care less for money.

When you check out Mr. B's ballets, it's hard not to notice his dancers, especially the women. They are taller, leaner than most, with boyish hips and surreal extensions. Balanchine said famously that “ballet is woman” and “God creates, woman inspires, and man assembles.” He was a lover of broad, powerful music (he often used Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky) and the kind of woman who is untouchable and unknowable—sort of like a supermodel.

Sure the machinery is perfect, but once the dancers come to life, they move with the hustle-bustle of a New York subway or the purpose of an investment banker walking into the office. After all, Balanchine created an entirely different style. He turned Russian ballet into a movement juiced up on something—Americana. Speeding it up, flinging the legs higher, crossing them sharply, dusting it all with sex, and finding women to embody that paragon.

And his ballets wear well. Unlike some bad ballets today, the pieces shy away from exhibitionist tactics in which a creator highlights his personal struggle with Zoloft or experimental gimmicks: “Let's see what happens if the dancers tie their point shoes around their neck and spend the entire section moving in slow motion.” No, no, no.

A trained musician and the son of a Georgian composer, Balanchine knew how to play with the music and make it visually polyphonic. He created plotless ballets, a welcome relief from the wheezing three-hour fairytale works that dominated the dance scene.

This engagement has some vintage Balanchine ballets that are sure to fire up the imagination, three of which in particular are easy to digest.

Jewels, inspired partly by a visit to Van Clef and Arpels, includes the lovely Emeralds section. The choreography is sort of like a mink coat you don't own, something you slip on and shiver under because it is so silky and shamefully luxurious. Violette Verdy, the original first lead, still leaves her mark on the choreography. Verdy danced like she was laughing, moving her body up and down a melodic scale as she preened, tossed her arms and submerged in fantasy. Other sections include the jazzy Rubies and the lacustrine Diamonds. Serenade, Balanchine's first original ballet choreographed in America, is a piece about sadness and blue moonlight, following waves of women in blue leotard tops and drop-waist, full-length tutus as they embroider the stage with patterns to the music of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major.

Another fun one is Stars and Stripes, a strike-up-the-band, tally-ho, cannons-booming, marathon dance sequence (notoriously tough for the dancer) set to music by John Philip Sousa. Heads of state immediately adopted the piece for all sorts of blue-suit functions such as a Rockefeller's inauguration as the governor of New York.

Perhaps it is fitting that Balanchine has such a patriotic work in his repertoire. After immigrating to the U.S., Balanchine enjoyed his adopted country, perpetually wearing those Bolo ties that haven't come back into style yet and pearl buttons on his Western shirts. He even choreographed a tribute to the Wild West with Western Symphony. Yvonne Mounsey, one of Mr. B's first principals, remembered what he would tell his dancers to think about to get his style right: “It's America. It's skyscrapers, jetliners. Think bigger and better.”

The New York City Ballet performs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2122. Opens Wed. Wed.-Thurs., Sept. 30, 8 p.m. Through Oct. 3. $25-$95.

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