Photo of Nancy Reynolds in Swan Lake by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Reproduced with permission.

Why Dance Matters II. Balanchine: First Thoughts Retrieved

Mindy Aloff—

Nancy Reynolds, while still a teenager, was invited to join New York City Ballet (NYCB), where she performed for George Balanchine as a member of the corps de ballet between 1957 and 1962. After retiring as a professional dancer, she earned her B.A. in art history, at Columbia, and worked as an editor at Praeger (where she convinced Lincoln Kirstein, cofounder of NYCB and the School of American Ballet, to bring his unpublished masterpiece Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet for publication, a volume she edited).

While nurturing her family, Reynolds wrote many books of her own about dance and dance history, including Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet (considered the key print account of the company’s past under Balanchine’s direct aegis) and, with Malcolm McCormick, the encyclopedic No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (recently published in a paperback edition at Yale University Press). Between 1979 and 1982, she served as the director of research for Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works—the catalogue raisonné of the choreographer’s oeuvre, whose ongoing version online she continues to oversee.

Publicity photo taken at a Dial Press book-launch party in 1977 for Repertory in Review, photographer unknown.

In 1994, Reynolds joined The George Balanchine Foundation, where she continues as the Director of Research and the concept director for the George Balanchine Foundation Video Archives, an ongoing project that she designed and established. It is here that her influence on Balanchine’s legacy and the field of ballet history is perhaps unparalleled. These archives have two divisions. One—dedicated to filming original and/or early principals coaching a younger generation of dancers in excerpts of the choreographer’s works—is called “The Interpreters Archive.” The other—dedicated to filming original cast members as, with younger dancers, they reconstruct excerpts of Balanchine ballets long out of repertory—is called “The Archive of Lost Choreography.”

Bart Cook coaching Mira Nadon and Davide Riccardo in the pas de deux from Agon, from The Interpreters Archive. Photo by Costas, reproduced with permission.

Each session is underwritten by a piano reduction of the score for that work played live. The mission is for the original principals to retrieve, insofar as humanly possible, what Balanchine said and demonstrated in creating their parts. The archives are not about correcting what is currently performed; they are about discovering what was conveyed when the ballets were being brought into existence. In addition, each archive includes on-camera interviews of the coaches, conducted by Reynolds or another dance critic, to give the context of the ballet being analyzed and probe aspects of the choreography. So far, the interviews alone constitute an anthology representing many of the English-language dance critics who have published in the U.S. over the past three decades. (Although the seventy-five video archives recorded so far are only available to the public through libraries that subscribe to them and/or via the Alexander Street streaming service, the interviews are available separately on YouTube.)

An important theme in the interviews is that the ballets evolved over time in light of Balanchine’s changing perspectives during subsequent cultural eras and the changing capabilities of new generations of dancers. That is, the textual identity of a theatrical work could change in terms of both the actual movement and its significance, its meaning.

An outstanding example is the Interpreters Archive interview for Concerto Barocco. There are two interviewees: Marie-Jeanne—the original “first violin” ballerina of the 1941 J.S. Bach masterpiece Concerto Barocco, set to the Double Violin Concerto in D Minor—and John Taras—a Balanchine dancer who saw the ballet when it was new and who staged it in Europe for Balanchine during the late 1940s. (Their interviewers were the British musicologist Stephanie Jordan and Reynolds.)

Maria Tallchief coaching Judith Fugate in Scotch Symphony, from The Interpreters Archive. Photo by Costas, reproduced with permission.

Taras pointed out that Balanchine’s approach to the Bach score in ’41 had a different tone from that of the ballet as performed today: In fact, Taras noted, eighty years ago, the American public’s attitude toward Bach’s music on its own, when performed outside church settings, was not characterized by the reverence that marks our time.  Balanchine was influenced by his admiration for the Trinidad-born, jazz-classical pianist Hazel Scott, who, in the parlance of the era, swung the classics. Among the elements of virtuosity that phrase signaled were witty musical timings and finger-breaking speed, as you can hear in Scott’s recordings now available online (such as her still hot, swung version of Bach’s Two-Part Invention in A Minor).

Marie-Jeanne and Taras went on to explain that consistent with those crackling tempi was a kind of ballet dancing that, to keep up with a hurtling Bach, included “loose knees.” Interviewer Jordan observed that in watching Marie-Jeanne coach the younger dancers’ movement, one saw “more earthiness to the style. . .a more weighted approach,” than one finds in performances of Concerto Barocco now. Marie-Jeanne added that, in her day, the ballet’s tempi were “not as slow as they do it today.” And Taras said that when he saw the ballet danced by Tanaquil LeClercq and Diana Adams in the early 1950s, it was “totally different” from the effect he remembered being produced by Marie-Jeanne’s cast in the ‘40s. By the ‘50s, the look had become “all straight knees,” he explained, and that changed not only the very steps of the choreography but also their poetic atmosphere. “There were no more ronds de jambe [a circling action of the pointed toe on the floor],” said Taras. “They became tendus [a simple line traced by the pointed toe].”1 With the loss of the loose knees and the speedier tempi went the secular playfulness of late nights at Café Society. The technical standards became more severe, colder; balances on quarter pointe rose to half-pointe; the low-down soared sky-high. You aren’t likely to see any production of Concerto Barocco today that evokes Hazel Scott’s jaw-dropping passagework on the keyboard, which she played in cabaret: Barocco has become a fully ecclesiastical experience. That’s how Balanchine left the ballet, and one respects his last wish. Still, it’s enriching imaginatively to hold in mind Mr. B’s early thoughts steeped in earth and fire as one thrills to the snow-capped peaks of his final choices.

Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Reproduced with permission.

The establishment of the Foundation’s Archives—and the meticulous process by which the films are shot and edited—provide an example of how one person, Nancy Reynolds—in this case, can set up conditions making it possible to reach into the past and bring back to our moment choreographic passages as the maker envisioned them, as well as the details of performances that lit them from within. The Foundation’s films are on deposit at libraries throughout the U.S., and they show portions of ballets—the oldest, Le Rossignol, being ninety-seven years old at this writing—that are intensely alive, thanks to the focus and energy of everyone involved in bringing each work’s earliest incarnation back into the room. These videos persuade, if only for a few moments, that their glimpses of ballet’s past—far from being dusty and antiquated, as it’s been called by the online magazine Jezebel: Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth—can sometimes feel younger and more adventuresome than ballet’s present in performance.


Mindy Aloff’s writing on cultural topics has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Threepenny Review. She is the editor of the anthology Dance in America and the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation.

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