Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze was born into an artistic family of Georgian Russians in 1904, yet he is best known as the ‘father of American ballet’ because, as George Balanchine, he created the New York City Ballet and towered over mid-century choreography. Indeed, he is now regarded as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, his name inextricably linked with the modernisation of classical grammar and with the notion of musicality in dance.
Even now, thirty two years after his passing, his flair continues to inspire and influence. No surprise then that this Manhattan giant will be the centre piece of the West Australian Ballet’s upcoming season, Embraceable You.
Indeed, principal dancer and choreographer Jayne Smeulders is nothing short of ecstatic to be involved in an evening of ‘Mr B’. “He’s one of the most inspiring choreographers ever. I’m greatly influenced by him. His musicality, and the way he uses the music, I find phenomenal. You can see the music through the dance. It’s like the dancers are actually singing the music through their bodies.”
Balanchine’s innovation was to divest ballet of its attachment to fairy tales and courtly drama, insisting instead that music rather than narrative sit at the core of dance practise. “When I’m choreographing I remember that,” Smeulders reveals, “and I listen really hard to the music over and over to try and get the right steps to fit the music.”
Although born in the capital of Russian ballet, St Petersburg, Mr B refreshed the language and shifted the emphasis, no doubt influenced by the modernist verve of America in the 30s.
“Yes, we’re human beings dancing. We’re not playing a character or becoming a role, we’re just dancing to the music,” Smeulders explains. “I think he really identified and felt much more comfortable in America and really fitted with the culture and with Broadway.”
As part of Embraceable You the WA Ballet will be presenting three of Balanchine’s works: Concerto Barocco, Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux and his Gershwin scored masterpiece Who Cares?, which comes complete with classics like It’s Wonderful, I Got Rhythm and Lady Be Good.
“It’s one the best ballets ever made,” Smeulders raves. “It’s so beautiful to dance and to watch and the music is phenomenal. To hear the orchestra playing that music; you just can’t beat it really.”
Even though WAB’s Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella was recently in New York judging an international ballet competition and auditioning dancers, this was not the impetus for Embraceable You. According to Jayne Smeulders the truth is much closer to home. “Every dancer wants to dance Balanchine works but we’ve never really done much of it here. It’s very technically challenging for the dancers but it’s also very enjoyable. So yeah, I guess it’s just as simple as giving the dancers the opportunity to dance Balanchine works. Also, audiences love it.”
For Smeulders though the programme has an extra dimension. Her own work, the Balanchine inspired Tarantella will be the fourth item on the bill. “It’s really a showcase piece. It’s about fast footwork and technique, virtuosity and big jumps and lots of turns. The dancers have to be strong, fit and fiery. No meek waifs. Very much like what Balanchine liked to see from dancers.”
The key challenge here is clearly one of differentiation and integration; in other words, different enough but still fitting into the programme. This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that Mr B once created his own tarantella. While admitting this was an issue, Smeulders was able to pick her way through the maze. “I’ve seen his work before but I didn’t want to go back and watch it because I didn’t want to be thinking of those steps when I was creating my own,” she elaborates. “His tarantella is a little bit quirkier than mine, whereas mine is a little bit more traditional in terms of a tarantella. His was one couple; mine has two ladies and two men.”
Also challenging for the company is the fact that they will perform to live accompaniment in the form of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Unlike dancing to tape, working with live music requires extra attention to timing. As Smeulders describes it, “You never know what tempo you’re going to get. It might be faster one night, or slower; and that’s why we rehearse with a pianist because it’s also live and we don’t get used to one speed.”
For Perth ballet fans fronting up to His Majesty’s for Embraceable You it means a fresh take every night. However, the Balanchine magic is assured. “Clean lines and entertainment,” Smeulders declares. “The Gershwin music helps too. When the curtain goes up and they’re playing Strike Up The Band you can’t help but jig along, can you?”
Embraceable You will run from May 15-30 at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth. For info and tickets visit www.waballet.com.au/whats-on/embraceable-you.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.
Photo source: WABallet.com