Kings of dance
Ryan Summerlin July 31, 2011
The famous choreographer George Balanchine once said, “Ballet is woman.” He thought women were lighter, more flexible. He felt they moved more beautifully. “He is not the king,” Balanchine said. “But she’s the queen.”
For Balanchine, the woman was the muse. Balanchine – who created the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet and shaped 20th century dance – “dedicated his art to her,” he said in another famous quote.
So where does that leave the male dancer in Balanchine’s works? Is he merely the prince, like in “Swan Lake,” the quiet support that twirls the ballerina around and around?
“The quote makes people think that man is not important in Balanchine’s repertoire,” Vail International Dance Festival Director Damian Woetzel said. “But it’s not necessarily the case.”
Woetzel, along with New York City Ballet’s Master in Chief Peter Martins, who worked with Balanchine, and a cast of dancers from New York City Ballet’s MOVES, the company’s newly formed traveling group, will explore this question Tuesday at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.
Billed as “The Male Dancer by Balanchine,” the evening is part of the dance festival’s UpClose series, a rehearsal-style event that’s part lecture, part demonstration and part fully staged performance. Woetzel describes UpClose as removing the fourth wall of a studio to let the audience see something truly special, and during this night, UpClose will take a behind-the-scenes look at the male roles in some of Balanchine’s most legendary choreography.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than a woman dancing,” said Robert Fairchild, principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. “When she gets on the point, there’s a mesmerizing effect and everyone feels that.”
As a male dancer, Fairchild said he’s not bothered by the quote but understands what Balanchine was saying. Fairchild spends 50 percent of his time as a dancer partnering with women. So a lot of his career is “all about the girl.”
“I’m there to support her to do things that she wouldn’t be able to do on her own, and that’s a very special thing. It’s somewhat selfless,” Fairchild says. “But the fact that Balanchine was gracious enough to make such iconic roles for the male dancer, he knew that we had something going on, too.”
And by iconic, Fairchild means “Apollo,” choreographed by Balanchine in 1928 and his first work scored by Igor Stravinsky, marking a celebrated partnership. In the ballet, you watch Apollo, god of music, with the help of three female muse realize his own strength and talent as a musician, fully qualifying him as a god.
“Apollo is a wild, untamed youth who finds nobility through art,” Fairchild says. “As a guy, we want to feel like that, standing on the edge of a cliff looking out, that is for me, that is Apollo.”
Joaquin De Luz, fellow principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, feels that people often misinterpret the quote. Yes, De Luz admits, Balanchine really liked his women, their beauty and their form. But he couldn’t possibly have thought that ballet embodies only women, De Luz says, because Balanchine made so many incredible pieces for men.
“He created specific works for male leads, and that was not the norm, especially in the time that he did it, in the ’20s, when he created ‘Apollo’ and ‘Prodigal Son,'” De Luz says. “This was a time of ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Giselle’ when only women were the lead.”
De Luz says Balanchine was responsible for making the male dancer relevant and helped many male dancers emerge as stars throughout history, like Edward Villella, who successfully melded masculinity with grace and beauty.
Even the way Balanchine choreographed partnering was an evolution for ballet, De Luz says. Balanchine made it more American, more modern, “more New York.”
“He made the partnering sophisticated,” De Luz says. “While showing the woman, the beautiful qualities of the woman, making the woman as good as possible, the man is also important. The two of them together, it’s almost like you don’t see the man manipulate the woman. You just see the woman moving.”
Ballet is woman … As Fairchild says, “It’s a complicated quote and a complicated subject. Balanchine said that, yet he made so many rich gems for us men. Maybe he did that so we’d stick around to partner.”
The role of the male dancer, in Balanchine’s mind, is full of layers, perfect for peeling over the course of the UpClose performance. Fairchild and De Luz expressed what a “brilliant” format the UpClose series is because it gives audiences, especially first-time ballet goers, a deeper insight into the art form.
“Especially in a time when its all about ‘So, You Think You Can Dance,’ which is amazing, but ballet has a lot going on. It makes you appreciate what you’re seeing,” Fairchild says.
De Luz says “The Male Dancer by Balanchine” is something he would want to go see himself (if he wasn’t working in it). He thinks the subject matter is particularly important because as a young boy growing up in Spain, he remembers watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance for the very first time and it sparked his interest in becoming a dancer.
“It’s important for the audience and the young to see men dancing, and think it’s cool, too, that it’s not just lifting the women in tutus and all that,” De Luz says.
Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail, and she absolutely thinks male dancers are cool. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.