Teaching Balanchine to a new generation
Like many who stage the work of George Balanchine, Francia Russell danced for him while at New York City Ballet (1956–1961). Unlike her fellow répétiteurs, she began teaching the work under the choreographer’s watchful eye, and she became NYCB ballet mistress in 1964 when she was just 26. Two years earlier, Balanchine had sent her to Canada to stage Allegro Brillante for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. “I went in fear and trembling,” Russell says. She took with her a spiral notebook in which she’d written down every step of the dance. Russell relied on that notebook, and her memory, to teach the ballet.
Russell’s staging methods haven’t changed significantly since then, although she now has almost two dozen meticulously detailed notebooks, one for each Balanchine ballet she stages. She has traveled the world for The Balanchine Trust, from Russia to Seattle, where she and her husband Kent Stowell were co-artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet for 28 years. She continues to stage work for PNB, including, at the time of this interview, Agon and Concerto Barocco for the company’s 2013 engagement in New York City.
Dance Teacher: Where do you begin the staging process?
FR: I use everything available, body and brain for sure, but I always use notes, because memories aren’t trustworthy. We alter things without the intention of doing so. The longer I’ve worked on staging ballets, the more I realize not only each detail is important, but it’s easy to lose tiny fragments, and then the mosaic of the ballet doesn’t come together the way I want. I’ve always taken copious notes for the ballets I stage. Except there are a couple—Serenade and Symphony in C—I’ve staged so many times and danced so many roles in them, that if the music starts, the steps just come out of me.
DT: These days performances are available on videotape. Do you use them in the studio when you are teaching?
FR: I use videotape as an aid to memory. I seldom bring videos into the studio until I have taught the choreography. I think the process of transmitting what the choreographer wanted is so important—and in ballet, it’s so personal—that to lose that and just rely on videotape doesn’t seem real to me. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned point of view. To learn from videotape is not the same as to learn from those of us who were in the studio with Balanchine. Plus, a videotape is a record of one performance. It may be wonderful, or it may be flawed. I do often talk to the dancers about the ballet they are about to learn, something Balanchine never did!
DT: What do you mean when you say you take notes?
FR [pulling out a worn spiral-bound notebook]: I wrote down Ballet Imperial when reviving it for New York City Ballet. Every step, every count, every port de bras is in here. I generally have patterns and special added notes on the left side, opposite all the steps on the right side, all the counts along with all the steps.
FR: Yes. I went in a room by myself, danced the whole thing and wrote it down. Some ballets I had to go around and pester the [NYCB] dancers. They would see me coming and run, because I was always asking questions. “Show me what you did right here in the four Ts [The Four Temperaments]. What’s this variation?”
DT: Did you ever ask Mr. Balanchine for help with this?
FR: No. I don’t know a single choreographer who really knows his or her ballets. If he staged his own work, he’d want to tinker, or change it.
DT: Do the counts in your notes correspond directly to the musical score?
FR: Even Balanchine didn’t always count the way Stravinsky would have. He counted what we could hear. The dancers in New York City Ballet at that time devised our own counts. Because in some places, things we could hear in the orchestra, those were our signposts, like a buoy out in the water. But Mr. B had innate musical abilities. He trained at the conservatory, he played violin and piano. “It’s all in the music, dear,” he’d tell me. When I was ballet mistress, our offices were side by side, with a connecting closet. Balanchine studied all those scores, played and played them. I’m not aware that he planned steps [to the scores]. He planned numbers of people, groups, entrances and exits. But when he made up the steps in the studio, the music was inside him.
DT: Once you get into the studio, how do you begin teaching the dancers?
FR: I start from the beginning of the first movement, generally. I ask the dancers to stand in fifth position, then I call out the steps. Sometimes I have to physically demonstrate. It’s not beautiful, but I can do enough that the dancers can tell what I want.
DT: Do you assume that dancers have the necessary technique to perform Balanchine?
FR: I do teach a lot about pointe work, port de bras and épaulement, because if the technique of a Balanchine ballet is difficult and uncomfortable for the dancers, they get all rigid and straight and lose all the beauty of the movement. Balanchine always, always, always talked about the importance of tendus for the development of the feet, ankles, indeed, the entire body. Making the feet work like hands is what he always wanted. Or, he said, “like an elephant’s trunk,” how flexible that is, no joints.
FR: There isn’t really a Balanchine technique; it’s Russian classical ballet. But he asked his dancers for more: higher, bigger, slower, faster, everything more. And no time to sit and think, in preparation. He’d say, “If you’re going to do a pirouette, just do it.” Unfortunately, there are exaggerations that he used to make a point. Exaggerated hands, for instance. He didn’t want what he called Royal Ballet paws, so he had dancers exaggerate like they were holding a cup of tea. He wanted people to dance on the balls of their feet, for the lightness and swiftness, but the heel goes down and comes up again. You are not dancing around on demi-pointe, which is destructive.
DT: You went to the Kirov in 1988, the first person authorized to stage one of Balanchine’s ballets at the company where he trained and first performed.
FR: I had a really hard time with them. There was a sort of reluctance; the attitude was terrible, especially the principals. It became clear nobody knew anything about Balanchine. It was just the beginning of glasnost. I had a wonderful interpreter. I said, “We’re not going to rehearse this hour. I’m going to tell you why I’m here and who I represent.” I told them about Balanchine, what I could conjure up: his life, the speed and musicality he wanted in his ballets. I assured them that if they gave themselves over to the process open-mindedly and generously with their bodies, they were going to love it in the end. And most of them did.
DT: Is there a line between carrying out Mr. Balanchine’s vision and bringing your own artistic interpretation to his work?
FR: I’m sure I put myself into the ballets, and there must be people who disagree with that. I try to feel the foundation, the technical aspect, the steps, the choreography, from the time I was in New York City Ballet. I’ve retained it from there. And then, my memories of what Mr. Balanchine said, what he wanted here or there. You know, I feel it’s important to pass on what he said, but I’m sure it’s all filtered through my taste, my memories. And you know how fallible that can be! DT
When Balanchine died on April 30, 1983, he left behind dozens of ballets in active repertory at New York City Ballet and at dance companies around the world. The George Balanchine Trust was established in 1987 to manage the choreographer’s artistic legacy. After a company receives the rights to perform a Balanchine ballet, the Trust sends a répétiteur, or stager, to prepare the dancers and to oversee the production. “A stager is someone who should have all the information, the steps and the choreographer’s intentions,” says répétiteur Francia Russell. “They should be able to oversee the costumes, the lighting, spacing onstage, to work with the orchestra in the theater. They are responsible for every step of the production.”
Marcie Sillman is an award-winning arts reporter based in Seattle. Her radio stories have been featured on NPR, Voice of America and other networks.
Photos from top: by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet; by Martha Swope, © New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; by Fred Fehl, courtesy of Gabriel Pinski