Dancing Balanchine

Houston Ballet is presenting the company premiere of George Balanchine’s 1941 masterpiece Ballet Imperial through Sunday, June 9 on the program Journey with the Masters. Performing the works of George Balanchine presents special stylistic challenges for a dancer, especially those who didn’t grow up training in a school heavily influenced by the Balanchine style.

Sara Webb and Artists of Houston Ballet_MG_4806-2

Principal dancer Connor Walsh has performed many ballets by George Balanchine.  In this blog entry, Connor shares his experiences of finding the correct musicality of Balanchine’s works and the impact of the coaching of two highly regarded répétiteurs of Balanchine’s work, Victoria Simon and Merrill Ashley, who coached and staged Ballet Imperial for Houston Ballet.

  1. Which ballets choreographed by George Balanchine have you danced the lead in?  In what ways did they push/develop you as a dancer and an artist? 

Connor:   I’ve been fortunate enough to dance the lead in Apollo, Tchaikovsky Pas de deux, Ballo Della Regina, Theme and Variations, Western Symphony, Symphony in CRubies and Diamonds. Each ballet presented its own set of challenges for me that has helped me improve and approach my work in a different way.

ConnorWalsh_Apollo

Ballet: Apollo; Dancers: Connor Walsh and Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

  1. What are the particular challenges of dancing the Balanchine style for a dancer who didn’t grow up training in the Balanchine style?

 Connor: As I mentioned before every ballet is filled with its own challenges. But when it comes to Balanchine’s style, I would say it is in his musicality. The musicality his steps require is both his ballet’s biggest challenge, but also the key to mastering them.

When first approaching his work I tried to give equal effort to every step that I did, but I was finding that even with all of my effort, something was missing. I didn’t feel as if I was dancing poorly but I wasn’t quite getting the correct style.

Since Balanchine’s work is so classically based, it is hard not to approach them with the same technical emphasis as other classical ballets. But once I began to open my mind about why Balanchine dancers dance with a slightly affected style, I started to realize that it wasn’t without reason. More often than not, it is to get the most out of a step within the musicality that is required.

So now when approaching Balanchine’s work, I try to find the correct musicality before anything else in hopes of understanding what part of the step is the most important — and will clearly allow the audience to see the music coming through the steps.

IMG_7465ConnorWalshArtistsofHoustonBallet

 Ballet: Apollo; Dancers: Connor Walsh and Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

  1. How is Balanchine’s legacy transmitted through stagers such as Victoria Simon and Merrill Ashley who taught and coached Houston Ballet dancers in Ballet Imperial? What special nuggets of wisdom have they shared while working with Houston Ballet’s dancers that have resonated with him/stayed with him?

Connor: It’s very special to work with people who performed for Balanchine himself and have danced and seen his works performed at their best. It  is important for dancers to bring their own imagination to their dancing. But it is equally important to hear exactly what Balanchine had in mind for certain sections. Or there may be some underlying symbolism that may not be obvious, but is incredibly valuable.

Merrill-Ashley-and-Connor-Walsh_Dance Talks

 Courtesy of Houston Ballet

  1. You did extensive research on the great Balanchine ballerina Merrill Ashley and her work with Balanchine to interview Ms. Ashley for Dance Talks sponsored by Houston Ballet on April 15 at the Center for Dance. Did you come across anything in your research that was particularly impactful?

I had a blast doing research and eventually interviewing Merrill. She made my life extremely easy for two reasons. One, she had a very rich career. Two, she was a real pleasure to talk to.

What I found most impactful was that Balanchine’s style and approval did not seem to come easy to her, so throughout her career she had to work extremely hard. Through her hard work and dedication she gained a true understanding of what she was doing. Some dancers have such natural gifts that they often never have to learn what makes them great. But Merrill’s greatness came from hard work and gaining knowledge that she can now pass on to other dancers.

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From May 30 – June 9, 2013 Houston Ballet offers up a mixed repertory program titled Journey with the Masters featuring the company premiere of Ballet Imperial, George Balanchine’s tribute to Marius Petipa and Peter Tchaikovsky, alongside revivals of Jirí Kylián’s exuberant and joyous Sinfonietta (not seen in Houston since 1997) and Jerome Robbins’s The Concert, a laugh-out-loud ballet depicting a group of concertgoers at a performance with keen insight to human behavior.

Tickets may be purchased by calling 713-227-2787 or by visiting www.houstonballet.org.

Ballet: Ballet Imperial; Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Artists of Houston Ballet_MG_5031-2

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