January 22, the birthday of George Balanchine, photo (c) Bernard Gotfryd
George Balanchine posing with young dancers including Gelsey Kirkland (first one on the right) and one of my past teachers, Lesli Wiesner (fourth from the left).
Happy birthday, George Balanchine.
Megan Fairchild, Ballo della Regina
Bolshoi’s corps de ballet dancers as Emeralds in Balanchine’s Jewels
Photo by James Bort
Marianela Nuñez as Myrtha and the corps de ballet of the royal ballet in Giselle.
Can you have ballet without ballerinas? Yes. In the 18th century, women were the second sex in Western theater dance. Though some female stars were called “queens” of dance, men were known as “gods.”
Yet for the last two centuries, mainly since the establishment of female point work, the ballerina has been the quintessence of ballet. On toe, she stands at the heart of this disquietingly, often thrillingly, sexist genre, the queen bee at the apex of this highly hierarchical art; she is partnered but does not partner. And, as she matches music with movement, she shows how the immense scale of ballet can turn musicality into a vastly three-dimensional form.
But that’s not all. For many people, a ballerina must also be an embodiment of the Old World. Today that opinion seems shared by American Ballet Theater, whose idea of ballet theater often seems none too American. In its eight-week season, which just concluded at the Metropolitan Opera House, only 2 of its 11 principal women were from this country. The younger of them, Gillian Murphy, is reaching the zenith of her powers; but would she be more revered if — following the practice of Hilda Munnings (Lydia Sokolova), Lilian Alicia Marks (Alicia Markova) and Peggy Hookham (Margot Fonteyn) — she changed her name to Ghislaine Muravieva and claimed to come from Omsk?
To some, an American ballerina has always been a virtual contradiction in terms. The original Italian word “ballerina” just means “female dancer,” but it has become encrusted with layers of mysticism — primarily through the idolization accorded in Russia to ballet’s divas since the 19th century. But to be American is to be ornery, direct, unaffected. Is it possible to be American and this exotic dance vision of transcendence? Can a ballerina represent local or national characteristics in her dancing?
The questions pile up. Does the 21st century even need ballerinas? America is one of many Western societies where women fight for equality in the workplace and can no longer expect men to stand when they enter a room; same-sex marriages are now institutionalized. Ballet had a beginning; it may have an end. In particular, the practice of dancing on point may one day seem as bizarre as the bygone Chinese practicing of binding women’s feet. Do we still need an art form whose stage worlds are almost solely heterosexual and whose principal women are shown not as workers but as divinities?
I ask these questions; I don’t rush to answer them. The future of the form is to be determined not by critics but by choreographers, artistic directors and, not least, by dancers, working together. The answers they are currently providing show us a complex situation for ballet and its women.
Just now there are at least 10 prodigious American young women dancing in six different American companies, who deserve to be called ballerinas. Let’s name some. Certainly, Ms. Murphy would be one — yet what woman today more completely illustrates the contradictions of “American” and “ballerina”? — but she was born in Britain. She’s a resplendent technician, and yet the large shapes she cuts in the air have no special linear refinement. She can be uneasy about taking the audience into her imagination, yet as the heroines of Frederick Ashton’s “Dream” or Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” she loses herself impetuously. This season she’s been casting off her inhibitions and entering her prime. As the huntress heroine of Ashton’s “Sylvia,” she’s glorious first in chastity and then in ebullient love.
New York City Ballet has several candidates. Ashley Bouder, Maria Kowroski, Janie Taylor and Wendy Whelan are mature dancers but part-time ballerinas — extraordinary artists in only parts of their repertory. The ascent of Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck and Teresa Reichlen, however, has been of another order.
They specialize in the repertories of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins; a number of new roles have also been created for them. In the full-length “Swan Lake,” Ms. Mearns has also become one of the greatest interpreters of the double role of Odette-Odile — she’s the most powerfully Romantic classicist in dance today — while as the heroine of “The Sleeping Beauty,” Ms. Hyltin, with her marvelous way of enlivening a realm onstage with her eager attention, is one of the few important Auroras of the last 30 years.Ms. Peck, a scintillating technician, dances with a playful musicianship that recalls the way Violette Verdy and Merle Park left their audiences spellbound in the 1960s and 1970s. The tall, pure, inscrutable Ms. Reichlen lays her roles before the audience with a chameleonlike selflessness that makes her as enigmatic as anyone in dance.
Outside New York there are others. Miami City Ballet has Jeanette and Patricia Delgado (sisters); San Francisco Ballet has Vanessa Zahorian and Sarah Van Patten. Less known than these, but memorably individual, are Boston Ballet’s Kathleen Breen Combes and Ballet Arizona’s Jillian Barrell.
When Jeanette Delgado danced Balanchine’s “Square Dance” with the Miami company in New York in 2009, hers was not just the most sparkling account of the piece since Merrill Ashley’s more than two decades before — it redefined the role with an engaging impulsiveness all her own. Her sister Patricia, who shares many of her roles, has a different capacity for rapture; her interpretations also show particular intelligence.
Ms. Zahorian and Ms. Van Patten are complex women who often light up San Francisco Ballet’s repertory with multifaceted authority. Both can be striking in dramatic roles: Ms. Zahorian has mature sophistication, while Ms. Van Patten is capable of wildness and sweep.
In Boston, Ms. Breen Combes has the personal allure of a 1940s movie star. She ascended to ballerina status with the shining power of her performances in Balanchine prima roles: the stretching ardor of her performance in “Diamonds” is an indelible memory. And Ms. Barrell has danced roles by Balanchine and Ballet Arizona’s ballet master Ib Andersen with an easy radiance and musical finesse that catch the heart; in 2011 she created the heroine of Mr. Andersen’s three-act “Cinderella” There are likely more, too, I’ve yet to discover.
The presence of such marvels outside New York lights up the American ballet landscape — but how much? These women are admirably equipped to illumine many of the leading roles of the 19th and 20th centuries, but will they or their New York peers change the history of the art? New roles have been made for them, but will these creations prove lasting contributions to the image of woman in ballet or just passing fancies?
I can only say that their dancing already matters greatly and is full of yet greater potential. Set these 11 women against their European counterparts, and you find an energy, an open audacity, a rhythmic complexity, and an assertiveness that helps to define them as excitingly American.
And the lesson of history is that ballerinadom has been continually redefined. This year one of the most celebrated of all American ballerinas, Maria Tallchief, died; her prime was from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The news of her death made my mind fly to film clips in which her dancing still blazes proudly. Yet I also recalled how three Balanchine dancers of her generation, in recent years, had said to me: “Tallchief? Never a ballerina.” To them, Tallchief and those other Balanchine ballerinas like Tanaquil Le Clercq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell and Ms. Ashley were admirable, but both too remote and too athletic to be ballerinas.
What this demonstrates is that Balanchine changed the look of women in ballet beyond most people’s imaginings. To many of the Tallchief generation, the new style deviated too far from the true tradition. To most of us who have followed, the Balanchine tradition has been central; 20th-century ballet produced no greater female roles than his. Their vitality and modernity are American. They make claims on life, they are independent beings for whom love is not all. My generation still compares this century’s new women and new choreographers to the models he set.
Both Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, the art’s foremost choreographers of our century to date, have made striking roles for women — but roles that reject aspects of ballerinadom. Mr. Wheeldon’s women tend to get manipulated by their men. Ms. Murphy has one of her most wonderful parts as the adult heroine of Mr. Ratmansky’s version of “The Nutcracker,” and yet a central part of its appeal is a “can this be me?” girlishness that’s far from the ballerina grandeur we’ve known. History may determine that the best Wheeldon and Ratmansky roles redefine the ballerina as fully as Balanchine did. Who knows? Or the grand-ballerina aspect of ballet may fade, and allow men to dominate as happened in the 18th century.
One way or another, the art of ballet is bound to change. Just now, though, ballet still reaches its highest peaks in the roles made for women in the 19th and 20th century. But there remains life, American life, in the old art yet. And there’s no better sign of the health of American ballet today than the fact that it has produced a generation of 21st-century women, who are claiming this rich fare with talent and hunger.
Adji Cissoko, Gary Ray Rush Photography
Natalia Osipova & Carlos Acosta in Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton.
Photograph: Matthew Murphy
Dance Theatre of Harlem
Sara Mearns in Cortège Hongrois.
Photo (C) Paul Kolnik.
Sara Mearns headed to the stage of Koch Theater, dressed in the new tutu for Symphony in C. Photo by Nick Bentgen, Courtesy NYCB