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TV Review: PBS revives special to honor Balanchine

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

By Jane Vranish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"People dance. While I'm here they dance that way," said George Balanchine. "When I am gone, they will continue dancing, but somebody's going to rehearse them differently, so it will all be a little different, with different approach, different intensity. So a few years go by and I won't be here, so it will be my ballet, but it will look different."

"American Masters"

When: Tonight at 9:30 on WQED


That time is now, when a generation of dancers has not had the privilege of studying, talking and dancing with Balanchine, who died in 1982. So the PBS series "American Masters" has resurrected "Balanchine, A Tribute to Excellence" to celebrate the centennial of the Russian-born choreographer's birth on Jan. 22 and acquaint young artists with a pictorial history of American ballet as we now know it. It will be aired on WQED at 9:30 tonight.

Any ballet fan today watches dance that has been enormously influenced by Balanchine's style and, more importantly perhaps, by his radical teaching techniques that established a new standard of speed and attack.

The program originally aired in 1984 and meticulously chronicles ballet's enormous growth during Balanchine's career at the New York City Ballet.

Part I of the 90-minute documentary traces the life of the young boy nicknamed "Rat," his training at the prestigious Maryinsky School in St. Petersburg and his early interest in choreography. He went on to join the famed Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where he produced the still-stunning "Apollo" and "Prodigal Son," and other ballets that since have been lost.

A significant meeting with Lincoln Kirstein brought Balanchine to America, where he drew the hustle and bustle of New York City onto the ballet stage with programs designed to "blur the distinction between high art and entertainment." Entranced by it all, he successfully ventured into Broadway shows, including "Babes in Arms," "Louisiana Purchase" and "Cabin in the Sky," movies such as "On Your Toes" and even Ringling Brothers, with a piece designed for elephants and set to Igor Stravinsky's "Circus Polka."

Part II explores Balanchine the artist, spending much time on his prolific relationship with Stravinsky, resulting in 39 collaborations out of Balanchine's lexicon of 400 ballets.

Despite the historic nature of that collaboration, Balanchine's vision also encompassed opera, pop, Americana and neoclassical ballets, of which there are luxurious chunks on view, including several casts of "Apollo," Mikhail Baryhshnikov in "Prodigal Son," "Serenade," "Four Temperaments" and a tasty view of Balanchine playing Drossel-meyer in his "Nutcracker."

Local fans might spot former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Patricia Wilde in "Square Dance," which Balanchine choreographed for her, and a short segment where the pair use "hand" language to make a dance to "Yankee Doodle."

But what is most surprising is the staying power of Balanchine's enormous body of work. Even using tapes that don't have the computerized superiority of today's film, 30-year-old ballets virtually leap off the screen, and the dancers' technique still dazzles.

And Balanchine was indeed prophetic about dance in the years after his death. The New York City Ballet, now under the direction of Peter Martins, has seriously taken this American master at his word in preserving the spirit of his art.

Post-Gazette dance critic Jane Vranish can be reached .

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