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Mr. B’s “Technique” February 17, 2013

Filed under: ballet,ballet class — theworstat @ 6:33 am

One of our contributors brought this subject up in a comment, and I think it’s worthy of exploration.

Certainly the NYCB dances (at least in Balanchine ballets) differently from any other classical ballet company in the world, and students at the feeder school, SAB, are specifically taught Balanchine technique during their training.

I seem to recall Gelsey Kirkland saying at one point that she felt this technique was unhealthy.  I don’t think she teaches it at her school, but I’m not sure.  I know she has for decades been searching for a safer way of dancing.

Other ex-NYCB dancers worship the technique, however, and have created academies that teach it in various parts of the U.S.  For a while, Maria Tallchief operated the Chicago City Ballet, a training/feeder company for the NYCB, and actually produced one future NYCB ballerina from among her students.

But I know little of the Balanchine technique except for some specifics that are obvious to everyone.  Although I enjoy some of his work (Serenade comes to mind), I have never particularly enjoyed the Balanchine concept, nor bothered to learn much about it.  It may be true, however, that he contributed toward bringing us the very tall, skinny, hyper-flexible and athletic ballerinas so much in favor today.  Back in my day, had I been more gifted, I probably would have been prodded to apply at SAB, given my height and perpetual lack of fat (anywhere, except between the ears).  It would have been the only place I could have gone.  In fact, years later someone actually asked me if “in a former life” I had been an NYCB dancer.  By that time I had already not taken a class in a decade, and I burst out laughing.  Not even in my dreams, I remember thinking.

Anyway, here is an article written by an actual ballet teacher that gives a bit more detail:



5 Responses to “Mr. B’s “Technique””

  1. Jennifer S. Says:

    Seeing as how many ex NYCB stars are the recipients of hip replacements, I’d say the technique has its drawbacks. Also the number of frequently injured NYCB ballerinas might shed light on the bastardization or extreme usage of Balanchine’s supposed preferences. Some ex dancers with Balanchine connections like Suki Schorer, write books proclaiming that Balanchine is very specific in technique or that there are only certain correct ways of Balanchine technique being used. What they disregard to mention is the one, known constant in Balanchine’s approach to rehearsing dancers. That is his respect for bringing out the best in his dancers while respecting their individuality. So what he may have told one dancer may not have applied to another dancer. Sure there are constant themes or refrains Balanchine was known to be adamant about, such as the way to use the hands, exaggerated turnout and extensions, or just preferring musical dancers who can phrase well. Those are just some examples, but to suggest there are inflexible “technique” syllabus to train dancers to fit his choreography is to suggest Balanchine was just as inflexible and backward thinking as his despised Soviet school and choreography. He thought it emphasized empty tricks at the expense of everything else. For instance look at Balanchine’s love of expressive feet, specifically lightness and expressive footwork. The gargouillade is a step he loved to incorporate in choreogaphy, and is iconic in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux’s ballerina variation. Not many ballerinas can do justice to it yet it is not a flashy step that makes audiences clap in awe. Contrast that to Soviet style overuse on easy but flashy, grande allegro steps such as grande jetes. Balanchine hated the Soviet philosophy of dancing generally speaking, remember he came from the Imperial school where influences flowed from Italian, Scandinavian, and French schools. However, that is not to say he was stagnant in his way of thinking, when he admired certain ways with technique (even Soviet), he was known to emphasize those points during classes with his company.

  2. theworstat Says:

    Your comment reminds me of a quote (quoted from memory, so it will not be verbatim) from Gelsey Kirkland’s sister about Gelsey while she was at the NYCB: “Balanchine used dancers like a painter used color. Gelsey was (the color) red.”

    In the 1970’s, I remember hearing that the NYCB went through about twice as many pointe shoes as your average major ballet company. This tells one a bit about how grueling their regime was and is. They also have at least twice the principal dancers of almost any other company. I hadn’t known about the extreme hip injury rate, but then again, I did know about Suzanne Farrell’s hip replacement relatively early in life.

    To the point, some people have questioned whether this is an actual technique or a style. I’ve always felt it was a technique, and one that can be damaging to the dancers. But if it was a style…well, then we have more flexibility, and the possibility that if this “technique” is being taught, it is necessarily being taught wrong because it’s not something every dancer can manage, or rather, they have to learn to manage it in their own way.

    That brings up the subject of the Balanchine Trust…another post entirely.

  3. Jennifer S. Says:

    NYCB former principal Merrill Ashley had a total hip replacement when she was only 30, so did former principal Judith Fugate after retirement, also Gelsey Kirkland, Toni Bentley also formerly of NYCB had hers when only in her 20s, Edward Villella had to have 3 hip replacements, then there are other less known NYCB corps dancers who retired early due to hip replacements like Kristin Sloan. More common surgeries though seem to be knee, ankle, and back surgeries, for example Darci Kistler had multiple back surgeries.

  4. theworstat Says:

    Here’s an article on ballet/dance and THR’s:

    Seems there are no statistics on the subject. Maybe we can check THR ratios by looking through bios, but it would be a lengthy and difficult process.

  5. atlantic Says:

    One issue for me is that the technique requires dancers to NOT put their heels down after jumps. This is contrary to everything I have ever heard from any style. I know Kirkland suffered from tendonitis and it is no surprise why.

    I think hip problems could be prevalent among dancers in general. However, I wonder, is it turnout in general? Or forced turnout? High extensions? Overuse? Probably a combination.

    I think I mentioned this before, but it seems that NYCB dancers dance more than their counterparts at the Mariinsky or Bolshoi. I would be interested to know the statistics of dance injuries in Russia. However, I do feel that NYCB dancers just seem to be injured all the time.

    I don’t generally agree with Erica Conrad, but he is correct about US training. Most US dancers have received erratic training. In addition, we do not have a solid training school for teachers. Even in college programs, it seems that there is a lot of poor technique being taught. Many studios (i.e. dance moms) are clearly not teaching proper dance technique.

    This goes for SAB as well. I know the vast majority of the company has spent some time there, but some only a year or less. Look at the NYCB roster and try and find a dancer that has actually went a full 9 years there and then made it in the company. There are very few. It seems that they just take dancers that already possess good technique and ‘finish’ them in the Balanchine style.

    So I would say Balanchine had a style, but it is not a technique.

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