Balanchine's Hit Parade

This will be the most important letter I will ever write you ... My pen burns my hand as I write: words will not flow into the ink fast enough. We have a real chance to have an American ballet. . ." The year was 1933, and Lincoln Kirstein, a rich young Harvard graduate with a passion for modern art, had just been introduced in London to the Russian emigre choreographer George Balanchine. Now Kirstein was writing to his friend Everett Austin, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. Could Austin help him raise funds to bring Balanchine to America? Here was the plan: "To have a school of dancing, preferably in Hartford ... [Balanchine] would take 4 white girls and 4 white boys, about sixteen yrs. old and 8 of the same, negros.... The ballets I have discussed with Balanchine out of American life are these--

"Pocahontas: classical ballet with decor from American primitives; music from 17th century English suite de danses.

"Custer's Last Stand: After Currier and Ives, the circling Indians; corps de ballet shooting at the chief dancers in the center. Ponies.. . . "

It didn't happen, or at least it didn't happen quite as Kirstein envisioned it. Balanchine hated being in Hartford-too provincial-so the whole operation was moved to Manhattan. There, alas, Pocahontas never leaped across the stage, and no pony trotted into the repertoire of what would become the New York City Ballet. As for "negros"-to this day, the NYCB is overwhelmingly white. But Kirstein was right: he had the future of ballet in his hands. Masterpieces rippled from the studios where Balanchine worked; he was refurbishing classical technique to serve a modern imagination and in so doing he redefined an art form. This spring, 10 years after his death, the NYCB celebrates his legacy by dancing it-73 ballets in eight weeks, and every program a dazzler.

Critics have been debating the quality of the NYCB's treatment of Balanchine's choreography practically since his funeral, with some complaining that details are eroding and ballets are losing their identity without his supervision. Yet Balanchine himself seemed anything but possessive about his work. In the last few decades, as fledgling ballet companies sprang up around the country, he generously lent his ballets even to troupes with a fraction of the technique and sophistication of his own company. As a result, his legacy is not confined to New York City; it is an international treasure. And eventually, the companies catch up to the choreography. "Of course ballets change-dancers change and techniques change," says John Clifford, a former NYCB principal who stages, Balanchine's works for other companies. "But Balanchine ballets are strong enough to withstand most anything."

Today some 70 companies perform Balanchine's work. "The wonderful thing about Mr. Balanchine's ballets is that there is a cornucopia, there's something for everyone," says Barbara Horgan, head of the Balanchine Trust, which administers most of the works. "Someone might ask for 'Allegro Brillante' because they have 10 dancers, but they forget that you need a knockout ballerina. So we say, 'Look, you're not going to look good in this, let's think of something else'."

Right now the most ardent champion of the Balanchine repertoire outside the NYCB is probably Edward Villella, formerly one of Balanchine's most prized dancers and today the founder and artistic director of Miami City Ballet, where neatly half the repertoire is by Balanchine. While other ambitious young companies in need of a glittery, full-evening work choose "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty," Miami does Balanchine's "Jewels," three abstract ballets ("Emeralds...... Rubies," "Diamonds") of great splendor and difficulty. Villella himself originated the male lead in "Rubies," and Miami dancer Marin Boieru dances the part with a streetwise zest that is Villella all over. "I think those of us who had the privilege of being there, of being the raw material for that man's genius, have a debt," says Villella. "We have to pass that on." His company doesn't yet meet "Jewels" on its own turf-the dancers have disparate styles and abilities-but they're getting there. And the goal makes sense. "His ballets inform you as an audience, and they sure inform you as a dancer," says Villella. "The man showed us something new and fresh with everything he did." Something new and fresh-consistently, for more than half a century. Here's to Mr. B.