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.
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.
Let's not identify this "Baiser" moment as a policy U-turn, however. Ms. McBride, 75, who lives in North Carolina, was making a rare visit to New York, to speak about Robbins. In the absence of Mr. Martins, who would usually have coached the "Baiser" principal roles, the interim team leading the company saw an opportunity for her to coach the ballet she originated. There is no indication that comparable invitations will be issued to other alumni.
Yet isn't this the very moment to do so? Ms. McBride was a company luminary for almost 30 years. This spring brings a season of ballets to commemorate the centenary of Robbins; she created roles in several of them ("Dances at a Gathering," "In the Night," "The Goldberg Variations," "Opus 19: The Dreamer" and the rarely seen "Dybbuk") and in the Balanchine-Danilova production of "Coppélia."
Last year was the 50th anniversary of Balanchine's "Jewels." In the years leading up to that anniversary, six original principals — Ms. Verdy, Mimi Paul, Ms. McBride, Edward Villella, Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise — coached the roles they created, but outside New York, notably in Seattle and Miami. Excellent work has also been done by other Balanchine Trust stagers. (My mind flies to the Boston Ballet's 2009 production of "Diamonds," coached by Maria Calegari.)
Ballet devotees love to think that the cherished dancers of yesteryear can sprinkle fairy dust over any ballet to restore its allure. Actually, there have been many mishaps. Some original-cast dancers have been known to change the details of the choreography. Others have insisted so pedantically on specific details that they have spoiled the ballet's larger atmosphere. In several cases, the best stager has been not the dancer who created the lead role but the ballet master who discussed the choreography in detail with its maker.
And in the Balanchine world there is a particular problem nicknamed Versionitis: Balanchine made so many changes to his ballets that his alumni squabble over which is best. Some believe that Balanchine's final version of a ballet was his best, others that his first one was, but either way the rule gets modified somewhere to suit personal taste.
It's quite a minefield. But Ms. Fairchild's social media post guides us to the gold at its heart: Ms. McBride brings "nuggets of wisdom" about what Balanchine said that illumine a ballet that Ms. Fairchild has already loved dancing. Other ballets in the City Ballet repertory could use a few such nuggets, while memories endure.
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