“God creates. I assemble …” – George Balanchine, “Ballet Master”
A choreographer is like a landscape architect, using – in lieu of plants – human bodies to construct a living aesthetic arrangement. The great choreographer George Balanchine, in fact, spoke of his “garden” of dancers, each one possessing distinct qualities and blooming in different seasons. An architect formalizes shrubs, flowers and rocks into unique patterns to suit and enhance the terrain. Similarly, a choreographer builds a framework of dancers moving in a particular manner to expressively illustrate the music.
An ideal ballet master marries musical knowledge and a deep understanding of the work with the authority and ability to elicit desirable results from the dancers.
A ballet master (or mistress) is a gardener of sorts, nurturing the integrity of a choreographer’s design. In the construction of a new work, the ballet master oversees the dancers, identifying problems and noting possible solutions.
Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet faculty member and Men’s Program Coordinator, Simon Ball, is working alongside choreographer Alan Hineline as he crafts a new ballet: “Jukebox.” The ballet, set to music from the 1950s and 1960s, fuses social dance styles of that era with traditional ballet steps.
Asked about the benefits of working on a new ballet, Simon explains, “The students are really part of the creation process. For some, this is their first opportunity to be choreographed on. Equating it to a parental experience, it’s almost like watching your child eat a new food for the first time. Initially, there can be a lot of funny faces being made … but then they just want more!”
After a work is completed, a ballet master is responsible for maintaining the piece. As a gardener waters plants and meticulously prunes straying vegetation, a ballet master guides the dancers so they may thrive within the ballet’s atmosphere, and corrects misinterpretations or bad habits that have crept into the composition.
The best ballet masters have a fine eye for detail and are adept at handling large, complicated ballets. With her computer-like ability to retain steps, counts and formations, Rosemary Dunleavy was chosen by Balanchine to assume the role of ballet mistress in the 1960s, while she was dancing with the New York City Ballet.
I became an apprentice with the company in 1991. After a few hours in the studio, Rosemary had taught the corps de ballet “Symphony in 3 Movements,” a high-energy neoclassical ballet set to a complex, driving score by Igor Stravinsky. A couple of days later, the full cast was in the final rehearsal onstage with the orchestra; the ballet would be performed that evening.
“ … the best part is when you’re surprised by certain students. When they are put in a different situation than the class setting, personalities really shine through … ”
The musicians roared into the opening crescendo, and we burst into action. Soon, someone was late. The spacing was wrong. There was a near collision.
Rosemary clapped a signal to the conductor, and the music trailed off into silence. She quickly showed us the specific paths we had to take in order for the kaleidoscope pattern to unfurl without incident. She turned to the conductor and said, “Take it from the ‘drags’; we’ll pick it up.” Looking back at us, she directed, “Girls: this is 10 counts before Wendy’s pique circle. WATCH your lines! 5 men and Jock: you’re waiting offstage left; listen for the chords, and then count your 2 fast 8s.”
After a couple of additional brief commands, she had efficiently cued 32 dancers and 60 musicians to our respective duties. An ideal ballet master marries musical knowledge and a deep understanding of the work with the authority and ability to elicit desirable results from the dancers.
CPYB’s June Series is three weeks away, and the students are busy preparing for a diverse and exciting repertoire, featuring over 20 ballets in just five performances. Each faculty member is working as a ballet master or mistress for multiple pieces. While it is a daunting responsibility, it’s an incredibly rewarding process.
As Simon notes, “the best part is when you’re surprised by certain students. When they are put in a different situation than the class setting, personalities really shine through. There are times when you remark to yourself or even out loud, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was in you!”
Amanda Edge is on the faculty at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. During her professional dancing career – at New York City Ballet and on Broadway – she attended Fordham University, where she discovered a fondness for writing. She works as a répétiteur for The George Balanchine Trust staging a number of George Balanchine works and is stepping excitedly into the world of choreography, creating her own new works!