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The Way it Was

Early this week, the world of New York City Ballet was enlivened by the arrival of more than two hundred dancers, all former members of the troupe. The company is celebrating its 75th year of existence. Some of these dancers, like Robert Barnett, age 98, were there practically at the very beginning. Barnett joined in the company’s second season, in 1949, as did Barbara Bocher Henry, who signed up when she was only fourteen. The two were often partnered onstage in the four years they overlapped at the company. Both traveled to New York for the festivities.

George Balanchine with dancers of the New York City Ballet. Image from film, In Balanchine's Classroom, photograph by Martha Swope

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Wendy Whelan, associate artistic director of New York City Ballet, was largely responsible for locating and bringing together this sprawling family of Balanchine dancers, each of whom, it seems, has many stories to tell. The celebration is a valuable and heartening counterpart to the sometimes bleak picture of Balanchine that has emerged from recent accounts of his temperament and behavior in works like Mr. B, a new, comprehensive biography by Jennifer Homans.

A big reunion took place at the theater on Monday the 18th, followed by a salute to the entire cohort of dancers, past and present, after the performance of “Jewels” the next night, opening night of the fall season. (The orchestra is threatening to go on strike for improved conditions and pay, but opening night went ahead as planned, after a rally by the musicians outside on the plaza.) Sandwiched in between these big events, the Balanchine Foundation corralled seven veteran dancers to discuss memories from their early days at the company’s affiliated school, the School of American Ballet. SAB, as it is known, turns 90 next year. 

The discussion, which was filmed, was hosted by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and moderated by a former NYCB dancer, Delia Peters, who spent two decades in the corps de ballet, beginning in 1963. Peters then went on to study law and join the Board of Advisors of Fordham University. Besides her, the seven included Bobbie Barnett and Barbara Bocher, Joysanne Sidimus, Nancy Reynolds, Janice Cohen Adelson, and Edward Villella, all of whom began their career at the company in the late forties and fifties. Villella was one of the junior members of the group—Bocher referred to him at one point as “little Eddie.” Their memories of the school, then located on the fourth floor of a building at Madison Avenue and 59th street, with large windows that looked out onto the street, were vivid and spiked with emotion, as if the events they were describing had happened the just day before. 

Seven former dancers of the New York City Ballet discuss the early years of the company. From left: Edward Villella, Joysanne Sidimus, Nancy Reynolds, Delia Peters, Janice Cohen Adelson, Barbara Bocher Henry, and Robert Barnett

Those memories are being collected by the Balanchine Foundation in order to create a record of the style of teaching that predominated in those early years at the school. Absent on this day was Barbara Walczak who, in a way, was the spirit behind the proceedings. As a student at the school and a dancer in the company—which she joined in its first year—Walczak notated the classes of her teachers. Those notations have been collected by the Balanchine Foundation and are available online. Soon, they will be reconstructed with the help of the company’s current dancers, and filmed. 

In those early days, almost all of the faculty at the school was Russian. They were survivors of the Bolshevik Revolution who had made their way to New York via various paths, usually involving Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and its offshoot companies. Anatole Oboukhoff had been an important premier danseur at the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, and had partnered Anna Pavlova on the stage of the Mariinsky; his colleague Pierre Vladimiroff had been a favorite of the choreographer Michel Fokine; his wife, the elegant, unusually tall and lithe Felia Doubrovska, created the role of Polyhymnia in Balanchine’s “Apollo” and the Bride in Nijinska’s “Les Noces.” Muriel Stuart, born in London, was the exception, but she had studied with Anna Pavlova and danced for Pavlova’s company in the nineteen teens and twenties. 

Their teachers had included Enrico Cecchetti, Sergei Legat, and Mikhail Oboukhoff, Anatole’s uncle, who also trained Nijinsky. They were a direct link in the chain leading back to the pre-Revolutionary Russian technique of Petipa, Ivanov, and Fokine, the same tradition that had formed Balanchine. The pianists, too, were part of this history: Nicholas Kopeikine, for example, “escaped the revolution by jumping off a train, hidden in a pile of shit,” writes Homans in Mr. B, her biography of Balanchine. Bocher recounted how, when Stravinsky visited the studio carrying his orchestral score for “Firebird,” Kopeikine had sat down at the piano and, on sight, played out a piano reduction for the dancers. These were people of extraordinary talent and exquisite training. 

It is difficult to overestimate the aura that surrounded all of them

It is difficult to overestimate the aura that surrounded all of them. Each had a distinct personality and approach. They played off of each other. It’s clear that their students revered them, lived to please them, and basked in even the slightest nod or suggestion of approval, and accepted even teasing as positive attention. Barnett recalled that Oboukhoff used to pinch his Achilles tendon during the slow exercises in the center, fix his fingers, and place his arms in the correct position so he could “feel his back.” “I loved him,” said Barnett, with real emotion. 

Even as children they had been aware of the life experience these teachers brought with them into the studio. These artists, who had grown up in a different and lost world, carried their former lives with them, lives steeped in the mystique of pre-Revolutionary ballet. They were the defenders and preservers of something precious, all the more precious because it existed only in their memory, and through it, in their teaching.  

None of these former dancers recalled asking questions, or even speaking in class. Times have changed, and such reverence is no longer admired. “It was sink or swim,” Nancy Reynolds said at one point, “we had to figure things out for ourselves.” Bocher, who spoke so lovingly of her teachers, left ballet completely at the age of 18, and wrote a book, The Cage, about the emotional damage she experienced during her short career, mainly at the hands of the choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Nancy Reynolds (middle) in class with Anatole Oboukhoff. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Reynolds

There is a real chasm between their experience of ballet training and that of dancers today, an almost un-crossable divide. And no-one would argue that things aren’t, in many ways, better, healthier, more humane, more scientifically and anatomically-based. And yet the love and awe with which these seven dancers spoke of their teachers, six decades later, was real, and justified in its own way.

The discussion of the teachers’ contrasting teaching styles was particularly interesting. Oboukhoff was the most physically challenging. “We were drained at the end of those classes—in fact we were already tired after the barre,” Bocher said. She described how he helped develop her formidable strength, through the repetition of clear, simple exercises that built up their bodies even as they exhausted them. Her former partner, Bobbie Barnett, remembered that Bocher could promenade herself on pointe, without the help of a partner. Bocher explained that this was because Oboukhoff had helped her perfect her arabesque by pulling at her middle finger and telling her to place it “opposite your nose,” and then taking her foot and placing it “directly behind your head.” This way, she said, “I had no trouble holding a balance.” The teachers were very hands-on, everyone agreed, and spoke little. 

Muriel Stuart had a dry English wit. She once told a student who was cowering in the corner, and who kept dipping her toe in the rosin box to deflect attention, that “all the rosin in the world won’t help you now.” But she also passed on to her students the lessons she had learned from Pavlova, particularly her fabled lightness. “It was all about pulling up here and tucking there,” explained Delia Peters. She trained them methodically, step by step, so that when they learned something new, they were ready for it. “By the time we were in pointe class, in B division, we were ready for double pirouettes,” said Peters.

There is a real chasm between their experience of ballet training and that of dancers today, an almost un-crossable divide

Vladimiroff, whom the dancers referred to as “Vladi,” gave excruciatingly slow adagio exercises, which they were expected to execute with an air of serenity and calm. He particularly loved the music of Chopin. “Oboukhoff was ballet boot camp, Vladi was performance,” explained Peters. It was during one of these excruciating adagios, as she slowly revolved on one leg, that Bocher was chosen to join the company by Balanchine. He had been standing in the doorway. After class, in the hall, he asked her “will you dance for me?”

Balanchine also taught class from time to time. His classes were meant to challenge the students, particularly their musicality. “He would give us exercises in which we had to execute steps in five counts over music that was in four counts,” remembered Joysanne Sidimus. “And then, when I danced his “Concerto Barocco,” I realized it was the same thing.”

Both Vladimiroff and his wife, Felia Doubrovska, liked to give exercises that contained sequences of steps from the great ballets. Doubrovska was partial to Petipa’s “Sleeping Beauty.” But sometimes she dipped into more recent repertory. Janice Adelson remembered that in one class, she asked her pupils to perform a sequence from Balanchine’s 1928 ballet “Apollo.” The young dancers were not aware of the origin of the steps, or of Doubrovska’s connection to them. She was offering them a gift, a small, precious jewel from her own past. 

She was a famously elegant woman, who wore light chiffon dresses, the hem of which she raised slightly, with delicate fingers, in order to show off her exquisite footwork. On that day, as Adelson and her fellow classmates skittered around the room on pointe, Doubrovska watched them closely. She was wearing a beautiful Hermes scarf, in different shades of blue, around her waist. When the music stopped, she took the scarf, walked over to Adelson, and placed it around her waist. “I was stunned,” Adelson said. Even as she recounted the story, she still seemed stunned by the gesture.

She had never worn the scarf. It was too precious. Instead, she placed it in a box, wrapped in tissue, “like a relic.” Every so often, she said, she takes it out, unfolds it, and lets it breathe. Trapped in its weave is the faintest whiff of Doubrovksa’s perfume, Bellodgia.

“I look at it,” said Adelson, “and Doubrovska’s face is there, in front of me.” 

Marina Harss


comments

Marina Harss

Even better!

Paul Boos

While Barbara Bocher Henry was clearly a gifted strong technician, when asked to confirm Robert Barnett’s memory of her executing an unassisted arabesque promenade en pointe, she could not take credit. She could however do it unassisted on demi-pointe and once remembers doing 10 pirouettes en pointe at La Scala!

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