Students of the School of American Ballet in “Signs” by Gianna Reisen for SAB Workshop. Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

Twinkle Twinkle, Little Stars

School of American Ballet's annual workshop

Performance
School of American Ballet's Workshop
Place
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, June 4, 2022
Words
Faye Arthurs

It’s hard to explain the School of American Ballet’s annual Workshop performances to outsiders. Workshop is a year-end ballet recital, but when the students’ families gather in the lobby afterwards to shower their children with flowers and tell them that they were wonderful—and just like real ballerinas—they are speaking the truth. This year, the advanced levels at SAB danced the Fourth Movement and Finale from George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” a feat that many professional companies cannot pull off. It is a technically demanding piece that requires at least forty bodies, including twelve men who can do triple pirouettes. Many troupes don’t have that depth. SAB had it even though the New York City Ballet siphoned off nine dancers from the top class over the course of this year to bolster its Covid-depleted ranks. SAB also presented a world premiere by alumna Gianna Reisen, an in-demand choreographer to major companies.

A sports analogy is perhaps helpful. Workshop is like the NFL Combine and Draft Day rolled into one. SAB is one of the most prestigious ballet schools on the planet. In addition to being City Ballet’s main artery for new talent, it feeds into companies all over the world. Numerous Artistic Directors attend Workshop to scout and offer contracts to the capstone class members. And the Mae L. Wien Awards, given to a few students of outstanding promise every year, are basically ballet’s Heisman Trophies. This year’s recipients—Henry Berlin, Alyssa Douglass, and Charlie Klesa—have already accepted professional contracts from the Australian Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the New York City Ballet, respectively. SAB could not hold Workshop performances the past two years due to the pandemic, so it was thrilling to have this tradition resume over the past weekend. And it was practically essential for the global talent pipeline and the ballet economy after the long coronavirus hiatus.

Workshop was especially meaningful this year due to two personnel milestones as well. Kay Mazzo, who has led the school for forty years, is stepping down from her Chairman of Faculty position at the close of this semester. She will continue to teach weekly classes, but this was her final Workshop at the head of the school. It is hard to picture the school without Kay in charge, she is one of the most venerated people in the industry. I can’t think of another teacher who is so demanding but in such a sweet, softspoken way.  She’s so kind, but so tough. Kay is elegant and precise—a woman who commands respect with every fiber of her being. And though she was faced with the pandemic and crises at City Ballet towards the end of her tenure, SAB sailed on irreproachably. It also transitioned seamlessly into a more inclusive institution on her watch. There are notably more students of color every year, and the ones performing in this year’s Workshop wore skin-colored tights and pointe shoes as if it had always been that way. The same-sex partnering in Reisen’s ballet felt organic as well. Kay guided SAB’s evolution in a no-fuss, dignified way—just as she always comports herself.   

Students of School of American Ballet perform “Symphony in C” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

This year also marks Suki Schorer’s 50th anniversary at SAB. I could write pages and pages on Suki, whom I adore. She is the legend responsible for codifying the Balanchine technique and shaping SAB’s entire curriculum. In a pre-show tribute, Kay called Suki the “trailblazer.” Before Suki joined the faculty, SAB was staffed by European and Russian greats who employed various old-world methods. When Suki started teaching, she took what she learned in Balanchine’s daily company class and translated those principles for her students—acting like a balletic Rosetta Stone. As Balanchine revolutionized classical technique to fit his vision, Suki passed it along to her pupils in real time. In 1999, Suki wrote (with the help of her dear friend Russell Lee) “Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique”—the definitive text on Balanchine’s ethos. Today, SAB is distinguished foremost by its allegiance to the Balanchine style—the energy, the quickness, the daring. Nobody embodies these traits more than Suki herself. She darts around the classroom demonstrating, getting down on the floor and correcting foot angles, and generally outdancing her charges as they try valiantly to match her zeal. Fifty years into her teaching career, she has not lost any of her pep. To watch her move, you’d think she was not yet fifty years old herself! Aptly, she staged the sparkling “Symphony in C” finale for this year’s Workshop.     

After the opening remarks from Mazzo and Jonathan Stafford, SAB’s Artistic Director, Reisen’s “Signs” had its official premiere. “Signs” was set to Philip Glass music played live onstage by pianist Michael Scales, who was joined quietly by dancer Olivia Bell in front of the curtain. She stood casually at the piano and nodded to him for the piece to begin. The curtain lifted on four couples slow dancing, a clever nod to the fact that Workshop is also sort of SAB’s de facto prom. Bell ran through them, joining their ranks at times, but maintaining her aloofness throughout—even when she found her own slow dancing partner on occasion. She made strong, clear shapes interspersed with moments of pliancy that ran the length of her spine and into her tailbone. She was terrific, and she will be an asset to the Joffrey Ballet, whose corps she is slated to join.

Olivia Bell in “Signs” by Gianna Reisen. Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

Throughout “Signs,” Reisen moved her dancers about the stage expertly. I liked a vertical line of dancers moving in unison, with soloists intermittently breaking away and reabsorbing into it. I also liked a draping motif for the couples. In the past I’ve found Reisen’s penchant for complicated hand gestures obfuscatory. But here, the students made the many signs—hands covering their mouths and eyes, hands framing their brows like whalers searching from a crow’s nest, hands aiming like pistols—look natural. (And perhaps the work’s titular acknowledgment helped to integrate them.) I liked too whenever a dancer went into wizard mode, commanding a group to shake their hands as if they were being electrified. These odd touches added characterization, and overall Reisen did a wonderful job of providing the students with an artistic, emotional outlet, while also supplying them with technical challenges.

Reisen did this particularly well at the end of the central pas de deux. She had the principal couple (Grace Sheffel and Henry Berlin, both great) repeatedly separate and start to run away from each other into the wings, but more of the cast kept meeting them at the edges and forcing them back together center stage. At the end of the section, Bell led the pair offstage without looking at them—an Orpheus snapshot—while trailing her arm behind her just as the corps exits in Balanchine’s “Serenade.” The cast was clad practice clothes in near-periwinkle, “Serenade” blue too. There were quotes from several NYCB repertory staples, but Reisen made everything her own. A partnered back walkover step was a neat update on “Stravinsky Violin Concerto’s” Aria II. And a short, explosive solo for Mia Williams had everyone talking at intermission. Where did she come from? Yuma, Arizona. Apparently, she was discovered by Katrina Killian on a national audition tour. She will return to the school next year; and she is definitely one to watch.

“A Suite for Kay” followed and consisted of four solos danced by small groups. It was funny to see seven Sugar Plum Fairies onstage at once. Space was tight: smartly, they didn’t hold wands. All together in their long pink tutus, they resembled more the Waltz of the Flowers. But they did not behave like a corps of Flowers moving in unison. Solos are meant to be individual showcases, and “Suite for Kay” upheld this principle. It was fascinating to see solos performed en masse—even if the slight differences in approach made it a little like watching popcorn pop.   

Next, the youngest children at SAB performed Jerome Robbins’s “Circus Polka” under the whip of their teacher Arch Higgins, who was gentle and debonair—his handsome white curls tumbling out of his top hat. One never has to be nervous for the wee levels at SAB, they get the most performing experience of all. They had already danced “Circus Polka” for the big leagues, performing on the NYCB stage during last month’s Stravinsky Festival. (One only worried that they remembered it after their recent run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the company.) Although “Circus Polka” resembles a processional défilé at times, the music is irregular and challenging. The Stravinsky sharpness is evident even in the costuming. Two of the groups of children are dressed in classic, gender-reveal shades of pink and blue. But the third group’s powderpuff tutus are acid green. Already, these tiny pros are making real art—with wit and a point of view—not just summarizing classroom lessons onstage. At the end, instead of spelling out Stravinsky’s initials, they made “S. S.” for Suki Schorer.

Suki Schorer takes a bow at School of American Ballet’s Workshop. Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

Suki’s contribution closed the program. “Symphony in C’s” Fourth Movement is a high-stress, shot-out-of-a-cannon number for the principal woman. When Kali Kleiman launched into her tricky turning solo with utter calmness, it was clear that she would make it to the finish line in one piece. They all did, beautifully. The semicircle of corps ladies tendu-ed with close-to-Suki Schorer crispness in the finale, which is probably the finest compliment I can pay them. Suki’s staging was crystal clear throughout, which, fittingly, stressed the classroom aspects of the piece. “Symphony in C” is crowded, with a lot going on, but much of it is very basic ballet (in the Balanchine way, of course). For example, Jack Morris floated clean, plain entrechat sixes against the corps ladies’ down-accented relevé sequence around him. The complexity derived from the musical and spatial contrasts, not the steps themselves. Though there are little off-balance accents here and there. And Balanchine plants an unusual through-line: the male leads in the first and second movements do multiple sets of pirouettes in place in their finales, as does the second movement female lead—almost like they are practicing turning on the sidelines during a class. Overall, there is a “try, try again” feel to the choreography. And the fourth movement lead gets to practically redo her whole solo once she reenters in the finale—thorny “Bizet” turn and all. Kleiman landed it both times, for the record.   

Through the ballet’s many difficulties, no one in the audience was more invested in the students’ success than their teachers—amongst whom I happened to be seated. When Anna Jacobs stayed up on pointe while rond de jambing into fourth position on her second pirouette of three, Suki cheered in the audience. And when the lights dimmed just before “Symphony in C” commenced, Susan Pilarre (another wonderful pillar of the school) and Marjorie Thompson (an excellent instructor from the Pacific Northwest Ballet School) both wished Suki fervent “merdes” as if she was going to perform herself. But in essence, she was. Ballet is passed down from body to body. I haven’t donned a pointe shoe in six years, yet, as I sat in the audience, I felt the gravitational pull of all the familiar bodies around me. There were my former SAB teachers, my former City Ballet colleagues who are now SAB teachers, and surprisingly, even former castmates of mine still on the stage. It made me smile to remember how I married Arch Higgins many times over in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” back when those curls of his were jet black. And I was astonished to see Henry Berlin, with whom I’ve shared the stage for many a “Nutcracker” Party Scene, looking so confidently mature in leading-man roles. To pass through SAB, whether you end up with a professional ballet career or not, is to join its constellation of bodies educated in a highly specific kind of motion. All the little stars shone brightly on Saturday afternoon, but after fifty years as a supernova, Suki’s incredible light extends to the far-reaches of the ballet universe.      

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