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Philadelphia Ballet returns to its Balanchine roots on Thursday, March 16, with Dancing with Gershwin. The triple bill spans the choreographer’s long career, from the sumptuously classical Ballet Imperial (Piano Concerto No. 2), created in 1941 to the spare modernism of his 1957 Agon, to the nostalgia of Who Cares created in 1970.
A return to form
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Balanchine’s death, so many companies will be honoring him as the father of American ballet. But from its founding, Philadelphia Ballet has been steeped in his repertoire. To gain more insight into this year’s all-Balanchine program, I talked with Colleen Neary, repetiteur and member of the Balanchine Trust. Neary worked directly with Balanchine as a student in the School of American Ballet and then during her 10 years as a dancer of New York City Ballet. She has been a Trust repetiteur, carrying on the legacy of his dances and his story, throughout her varied career as a dancer, teacher, director, and co-founder of Los Angeles Ballet. “Even as a child, I could sense his genius,” she said, “in the way he worked and how he thought. He brought everyday life into his work. He loved food, he loved life, he believed in living for the now and not thinking of the past or the future.”
Neary has returned to Philadelphia for several years, and she has grown to know the dancers as much as they have learned their Balanchine. As a repetiteur, Neary said, “You teach the steps and the quality and the style.” Perhaps most importantly, they “try to bring him alive within the work.”
For Balanchine, it started with the music. “He used to say that he would wake up very early in the morning and he would iron his sheets and listen to the music and try to visualize and learn it, and sort of pick a form and a style from it.” For the March 2023 triple bill, audiences will see three different styles and three different musicalities from three different time periods of Balanchine’s life.
A triple play
Ballet Imperial, set to the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, has the form of a classic story ballet like Sleeping Beauty but without the story. According to Neary, the movements represent a sort of prologue, a second-act love scene, and a third-act wedding. It is one of Balanchine’s first classical ballets and reflects his early training at the Imperial Ballet in Russia, but with the speed and footwork that mark his technique.
Balanchine set the modernist Agon to the music of friend and collaborator Igor Stravinsky (they met in the 1920s, when both worked with Serge Diaghilev at the Ballet Russe). “It’s very stark,” Neary said, “and as a repetiteur, I find that one of the hardest ones to teach. [The dancers] have to count, and they have to carry a rhythm almost like a conductor.”
Who Cares lightens the mood as Balanchine looks back with affection at the glamorous dance movies of the 1930s. Balanchine loved his work on Broadway and in Hollywood, Neary said, “he loved Gershwin, he loved Fred Astaire, he loved all the old movies.” In all three ballets, however, she notes that the pas de deux are special. “It’s not that they have tricks or big lifts or anything. It’s just the whole feeling. All three are different, but they all show a romantic side.”
What, When, Where
Dancing with Gershwin. Choreography by George Balanchine. Philadelphia Ballet. $25-$238. March 16-19, 2023, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philadelphiaballet.org.
The Academy of Music is an ADA-compliant venue.
Covid-19 protocols are posted on the Kimmel Cultural Campus website.
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