Nobody loves America like an immigrant. Maybe that’s why George Balanchine – who reached New York in 1933 with a genius’ command of choreography and a novice’s command of English – hurled himself into the culture of his new land.
His first U.S. premiere was “Serenade,” danced to Peter Tchaikovsky’s string music. But his second, “Alma Mater,” set Kay Swift’s snarky score to a satire of a college football game.
After that, Americana poured out of the Russian expatriate: dances for cowboys and gangsters, white bayou girls and black jazz singer Josephine Baker. He set them to music by Charles Ives and Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and John Philip Sousa – and in “Western Symphony,” which gets its second Charlotte outing this week, to the folk songs heard in John Ford’s movie Westerns.
The marquee name in N.C. Dance Theatre’s season-opening concert is “Carmen,” staged by Sasha Janes as a love triangle set in a North Carolina mill town in 1934. Folks who consider Balanchine the greatest American choreographer can’t wait for “Western,” which sets classical steps to the likes of “Red River Valley,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Golden Slippers.”
Patricia McBride did those steps – specifically, the ones in the slow second movement – under Balanchine’s gaze at New York City Ballet. Thirty years after his death, she’s recreating them at NCDT, where she’s associate artistic director and master teacher.
She hasn’t taken this responsibility lightly. A photo of Balanchine, aptly wearing a plaid cowboy shirt, stays on her desk. Another picture stays in her heart.
“A hush fell over the room when he walked in,” she recalls. “You could barely hear his voice. He never screamed; he was so gentle and humble. He showed you everything: He’d demonstrate for the women and partner them so the men could learn.
“He was a musician first. He’d look at a piece of music and make up a variation on the spot. And he never worked on a ballet beforehand: He created with dancers in front of him.”
Balanchine choreographed “Western” in 1954, the same year he designed the “Nutcracker” that remains City Ballet’s biggest moneymaker. Orchestrator Hershy Kay, who often worked with him, arranged Western songs into a symphonic structure: allegro, adagio (waltz), scherzo and rondo. (City Ballet often cuts the third movement, Charlotte will see all four.)
“The hardest thing to stage is the entrance,” she says, watching a rehearsal. “Hear the counts? They change constantly. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.”
Dancers must project a mixture of cockiness and elegance, self-assurance and classical poise: These characters conquered the prairie and had a good time doing it. So women have to strut en pointe , and you may hear an uncharacteristic slap of hand on hand.
“L’épaulement always matters to him,” says McBride, using the classical term for positioning of the upper body. “He always wants your head and shoulders to be expressive. He fought against the dancing zombies.” (She often speaks of him in the present tense. Point that out, and she says, “He was my mentor when I was 16. Some part of him is not gone for me.”)
She first danced the adagio in 1962, as a 20-year-old and NYCB’s youngest principal ever, on Balanchine’s triumphant return to Russia. The troupe began a tour the week before the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the height of the Cold War. “That was a strange time,” she says. “People were so tense.”
She hasn’t relied only on memory to stage the work. She has watched three videos (including one she thinks was a televised performance from a show at the Paris Opera) to recreate it and had New York costume designer Christina Giannini reproduce the original costumes.
Because McBride and her husband, NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, both danced for Balanchine, their Charlotte company has frequently mounted his works.
The pair first presented “Western” here in 2001, five years after taking over the company. Now, as then, the piece will test NCDT’s resources: It needs 32 dancers, so she’ll draw from the first and second companies and a handful of students.
“A new boy in the company told me, ‘This is my first Balanchine ballet. It’s so complicated,’” McBride says. “It is, but you don’t feel awkward or unnatural when you do his steps. The musicality is there, and it brings out that American spirit. I want the dancers to have fun with it.”
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