Critic’s Notebook: Nuggets of Ballet Wisdom From Bodies Trained by Balanchine

Last week Megan Fairchild, a New York City Ballet principal, posted a photograph on Instagram of herself and Joaquin De Luz with Patricia McBride. “What a pleasure and honor to work with this bright spirit on a ballet that is dear to our hearts!!!!,” she wrote. “Thanks Pattie for all your nuggets of wisdom! So wonderful to hear what she did in the role, and what Mr. B. asked her to do. We will cherish these last two days forever!!!!” One of the hashtags is #baiserdelafee.

These happy words require a few layers of explanation for nonspecialists. They also open up one of the biggest issues around City Ballet today. “Le Baiser de la Fée” (“The Fairy’s Kiss”) is a four-scene ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1928. And “Mr. B” is the choreographer George Balanchine, who first staged “Baiser” in 1937. In 1972, he choreographed the score’s dance suite, “Divertimento From ‘Le Baiser de la Fée,’” for New York City Ballet; and in 1974 he added the finale from the complete “Baiser.” This version had no scenery, no fairy and no kiss; it has remained in repertory ever since.

Balanchine made its lead roles for Ms. McBride and Helgi Tomasson, who danced them into the 1980s. Ms. Fairchild and Mr. De Luz, longtime City Ballet principals, have been dancing “Divertimento From ‘Le Baiser de la Fée’” for a number of years. And here’s the crucial issue: Why have even senior City Ballet dancers been deprived for so long of interpretive wisdom about this (and many other) Balanchine ballets? When Peter Martins was ballet master in chief (1983-2018), Ms. McBride was among the many creators of Balanchine roles who — as if in exile — were seldom if ever invited to coach their roles at City Ballet.

Mr. Martins retired under pressure on Jan. 1 after allegations of physical and sexual harassment. Over the decades, no single feature of his artistic policy has caused more grievance than this disinclination to bring in Balanchine alumni.

Dancers can learn their roles from various sources: videos, teachers, fellow interpreters of the same repertory. Many testify, though, that real illumination comes from those who studied roles with the choreographer, in particular with those who were part of his or her creative process. With the understanding that these teachers can pass on, steps can be transfigured by motivation, atmosphere, nuance.


Jerome Robbins, left, rehearsing his “Dances at a Gathering,” with Ms. McBride and Mr. Villella. Credit Bill Eppridge/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images

Mr. Martins’s departure and the recent deaths of the ballerinas Violette Verdy and Karin von Aroldingen, who both, like Mr. Martins, created roles at City Ballet for Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, remind us that direct links to Balanchine’s and Robbins’s foremost dancers are growing fewer. In recent years, there have been multiple occasions when the Balanchine or Robbins flames have burned more brightly and truly with other companies — Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Ballet Arizona, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet — because the artistic direction kept the style truer, often with coaching from those who helped to bring the ballets into being.

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