If you've ever attended a performance of a classical ballet in North America, then chances are you're familiar with the work of George Balanchine. From The Nutcracker to Swan Lake George Balanchine choreographed close to the entire classical canon during his life. However he was more than just a choreographer, as Balanchine was responsible for re-defining how classical ballet was danced the world over.
Until 1933 Balanchine worked and lived in Europe, leaving his native Soviet Union when he was twenty, and was exposed to, and learned from, some of the great geniuses of ballet including the great Ballet Russes of Monte Carlo. In 1933 he immigrated to the United States at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein, where he would spend the rest of his life perfecting his vision of what dance should be through the company he and Kirstein established, the New York City Ballet.
After a few fits and starts, the New York City Ballet didn't really get off the ground until after WWll when they established themselves as one of the premier companies in the world. Twice since the company was established, in 1962 and 1972, Balanchine took them to Russia to give performances where they were received enthusiastically. So it wasn't too surprising to find the company heading to St. Petersburg in 2003 to perform for a week's run at the world renowned Marinsky Theatre in Balanchine's native city in honour of the hundredth anniversary of his birth.
On November 11, 2008 City Lights Media is releasing Bringing Balanchine Back, a documentary made about the 2003 visit, on DVD. Originally aired on PBS stations, the DVD version of the documentary includes forty minutes more footage than was originally broadcast on television. Narrated by Kevin Kline, the film follows the company from its rehearsals in New York in preparation for the tour to its final curtain call at the end of its week-long run in St. Petersburg.
Not only does Bringing Balanchine Back tell the story of the company's tour to Russia, it also gives the viewer a fascinating look into the backstage world of professional classical ballet at the world class level. We quickly see there is nothing at all glamourous about being a ballet dancer as their days are spent in physically demanding classes followed by equally grueling rehearsals. As current ballet master and former principal dancer Peter Martins notes, nobody goes into ballet for fame or wealth, you do it because you love it.
We follow one young dancer who is scheduled to perform her first principal role during the tour, as she frantically tries to learn the steps for her part. Two weeks before the tour she had suffered a leg injury that had prevented her from rehearsing and she is struggling to make up for lost time. The cameras follow her into the final rehearsal with the full cast before her big night, and it's obvious she's not ready as she makes mistake after mistake. In the end the missed rehearsal time was too much to overcome and she is pulled from her lead role. She tries to put a brave face on it — she will still be principal dancer in another ballet later in the tour — but you can hear her heartbreak in the way her voice trembles as she talks about it.
Of course there's also the whole logistical nightmare of transporting a ballet company and all the sets they are planning on using for their performances halfway around the world. The technical people have a day before the run starts to "hang" their sets (most theatres use what's known as a fly system where sets are hung on rigging high overhead and lowered down onto the stage by a series of pulleys) and focus the lighting to fit their requirements. However if they think they've got problems, that's nothing compared to what faces the music director as she has been given only a week to teach the orchestra the scores for the ballets they don't know.
Facing these types of obstacles, not to mention that the entire corps de ballet is suffering from jet lag, it seems a miracle that they are able to perform at all, let alone perform up to the standards that are expected of them by a Russian audience. Unlike North America where ballet is still considered something a little suspect by the majority of people, in Russia it's as much a part of their cultural heritage as sports are over here. Yet somehow, as is always the case, the dancers rise to the occasion and perform wonderfully. Even the orchestra vanishing for forty minutes during the intermission on opening night for some extra rehearsal, leaving the dancers in limbo as they wait for them to come back, doesn't manage to damage their concentration.
One of the great things about Bringing Balanchine Back is of course the dance itself. Not only have they filmed fairly substantial chunks of the company's performances during the week's run, it has to be some of the best filming of dance that I've ever seen. Far too many times dance is filmed through one camera pointed at the stage from the middle of the theatre so all you see are a bunch of little figures looking like music box figurines moving around. For these performances they have used multiple cameras so we are able to draw in close enough to the principles when they are soloing to see the expressions on their faces, as well as draw back to see the entire corps as required.
There are also cameras in the wings as well, so we get to follow the dancers onto the stage as they make their entrances and hear the sound of their toe shoes thudding into the wood floor. Watching the corps de ballet go from their standing starts to floating on air in the matter of seconds it takes to get onstage from back stage is to be reminded of the magic of theatre and, more importantly, the magic of ballet.
The DVD Bringing Balanchine Back is a wonderful record of the New York City Ballet's journey to St. Petersburg to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of their co-founder's birth. However what I think is even more important is that it gives people an opportunity to both go behind the scenes of the ballet and gain a better understanding of what it takes to be a dancer, and to witness the magic and beauty of dance up close. That, to me, seems a highly appropriate way to celebrate the legacy of the man, George Balanchine, who almost single-handedly established classical ballet in North America.