Like a calming spirit embracing the energy of pre-performance jitters, George Balanchine’s voice fills the dark backstage footage that opens In Balanchine’s Classroom.
This is the beginning of a one-and-a-half hour journey through the history, the thoughts, and – as the title suggests – the classroom of a man who changed the landscape of ballet in the United States and the entire world.
Director Connie Hochman was driven to create the film by two series of questions that developed during her training and professional career as a ballet dancer – one pertaining to Balanchine’s motives and the other relating to his dancers’ receptiveness, reactions, and responsibilities once granted the wealth of information he shared. Hochman reflected:
“Why did Balanchine teach and not just choreograph? How did his class relate to his ballets? What was it that he sought from his already proficient dancers? Why wouldn’t they talk about it?”
“What happens when a master is gone? What was the secret of his teaching? Can it be replicated?”
A Man Viewed Through Rose-Colored Glasses
The picture of Balanchine painted in In Balanchine’s Classroom is a biased one… naturally. Out of the 100 people interviewed in preparation for this project, only six are granted prominent screen time – Jacques d’Amboise, Merrill Ashley, Gloria Govrin, Suki Schorer, Edward Villella, and Heather Watts. All speak of the genius choreographer with admiration despite what can certainly be perceived as negative remarks.
“He was being perverse,” and “I was thinking that I was gonna throw up,” recall Ashley and Govrin, respectively, regarding the physical limits to which Balanchine pushed his dancers to achieve in class.
And the relentless pressure to reach an unreachable ideal, to appease a man who was never satisfied, to blindly acquiesce in the decisions made by a singular person.
Yet they still adore him. It’s almost as if the extreme behavior is justified and given pardon as the price for his tutelage. Would his demands be perceived in the same light by 21st century dancers?
When I asked Hochman why these handful of perspectives were the ones given the spotlight in her film, she replied:
“Without exaggeration, every interview, that is, each Balanchine dancer’s perspective is a treasure. At the outset, I spent several years trying a different version of the movie which featured 25 – 30 different voices – a true ensemble piece. The chorus of voices brought to life Balanchine’s classroom in interesting, entertaining, informative ways but lacked the dramatic build of good storytelling.
The ‘chorus’ did not lend itself to character development, which takes screen time and is actually what pulls a viewer in with its unfolding emotional arc. I realized I wanted to tell a compelling story and that depended on fleshed out characters. There was a depth to the dancers’ journey with Balanchine which I felt this film deserved. Our specific characters rose to the surface for a combination of reasons:
⦿ In interview, they reveal the dancer’s struggle, both physical and psychological, and the eventual transformation they undergo as artists. Each represents certain aspects of the journey.
⦿ We were able to find archival footage and photographs of these particular dancers to document their experience learning from Balanchine.
⦿ We were allowed to film them teaching and/or staging Balanchine ballets to see firsthand how the experience of his classroom lives on through them.
⦿ They contributed excellent narration required for historical context.
⦿ They each manifest a strong personality and aura not only as dancers but as human beings and teachers, which radiate from the screen with force. As a group, they complement one another but also contrast sharply. Together they symbolize the array of starkly different dancers Balanchine chose for his New York City Ballet company.”
A Question Remained Unanswered (in my mind)
When the closing credits started rolling, I couldn’t help but wonder if Hochman had satisfied the curiosities she set out to seek answers to. There is only one that I was left speculating – “Why wouldn’t they talk about it [Balanchine’s class, methods, demands]?” – although I have certainly come to my own conclusions.
I asked Hochman if indeed her question has been answered in the film:
“Yes, many times over! No matter how hard one tries, one cannot do justice to all that went on in that room. After working ten plus years on the movie, I know it’s only a fraction of the real story. Balanchine’s classroom was more difficult, more confronting, more frustrating, more thought provoking, more intense, with more learning, humor, discovery, wisdom, wonder and transformation than any dancer could fully absorb or describe. But they – and we – tried!”
From Generation to Generation
In the three decades often considered the golden age of his career, Balanchine influenced the hundreds of dancers who passed through his studio. Hochman endeavors to shed light on the conundrum of what happens when such a legend leaves the earthly realm. Marked by his emotional, physcological, and artistic imprints, only a select percent of his former students have taken the responsibility of keeping Balanchine’s visions, intents, and voice alive.
There is expressed concern about Balanchine’s methods being misunderstood, that exaggeration upon exaggeration is resulting in distorted and inaccurate information, not unlike a round of The Telephone Game.
There’s also acknowledgement – succinctly communicated by Watts – that his students received Balanchine’s messages how they wanted to: “We were all in the same room and we all heard it differently.”
What will happen when those who had Balanchine’s direct guidance and instruction are no longer able to fulfill the mission of passing on not only his process and choreography but his essence?
In Balanchine's Classroom Trailer
A Sparkling Time Capsule
Naturally, those who have studied at the School of American Ballet, thus many students of Balanchine’s direct “disciples” (a distinction voiced by Ashley), will gravitate toward this film. Yet I believe that a broader audience will be drawn to In Balanchine’s Classroom, one that is fascinated by and appreciates the facets which culminate in elite performing artists.
There are gems of video clips captured through the 1980s of some of Balanchine’s most prolific dancers – those interviewed as well as Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martin, Kay Mazzo, Patricia McBride, and Karin von Aroldingen, to mention just a few.
We are also given a seat to watch d’Amboise, Govrin, and Schorer teach the upcoming generation and Ashley, Villella, and Watts’ studios as they coach professionals from American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, and New York City Ballet.
And most uniquely, we are invited into Balanchine’s classroom, a space where exercises evolved into masterpieces, pupils nurtured into stars, and a man turned into a legend.
In Balanchine’s Classroom opens in theaters on September 17. Check out Zeitgeist Film’s website to see when it’s coming to a city near you.
Featured Photo for this In Balanchine’s Classroom review taken circa 1964 at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center by Martha Swope
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