Physical musicality and the Balanchine tradition

George Balanchine has been regarded by many as the foremost ballet choreographer. He was also the founder and longtime creative director of the New York City Ballet—one of the nation’s premier ballet companies. Although George Balanchine is no longer living, his creative works and particular balletic style have been preserved through the Balanchine Trust.

During the first week of October, Director of Dance Joseph Morrissey and the Interlochen Dance Company welcomed Balanchine repetiteur Deborah Wingert to the Hildegard Lewis Dance Building for two three-hour master classes over the course of two days.

Wingert began the class by teaching the students her own personal warm-up, designed to help the students make the transition from pedestrian to dancer. She encouraged dancers to focus on the warm-up, saying, “There’s nothing ‘autopilot’ about this.”

Wingert next led the students through a series of barre fundamentals, interspersing each set with words of wisdom and good humor. “The floor’s not that interesting,” Wingert told one student who had been watching her feet. “If you want to see gray, look at my hair!”

As the students worked through the exercises, Wingert began introducing the nuances of the Balanchine style. Wingert used common items, like a hair tie or a dollar bill, to reinforce her lessons. “That’s a Balanchine port de bras,” she said as she used a hair tie to teach a movement to a student. “You’re picking something up, you’re looking at it, and you’re giving it away.”

Wingert was accompanied at the dance building by pianists Tymn Wallace and Steve Larson who both performed through the duration of the class, even during the fundamental exercises. Balanchine is, as Wingert said, “physical musicality.”

“Physical musicality” is part timing and part expression. “You’re early, you’re late, or you’re ‘I don’t know,’” said Wingert as the students practiced with the music. “‘I don’t know’ is the worst.” Wingert was also quick to compliment students who were emotionally attuned to the music. “You were feeling it!” she told one dancer. “The worst thing you could do is to dance super technically and forget the emotion.” She quickly added a caveat: “Or you could get too emotional and forget the technique.”

The class moved off of the barre, and the lessons turned to arm position. “Balanchine 101,” Wingert announced: “Never let your arms go outside of yourself. If they cross, the cross at the center line.” Arms are key in Balanchine style; while many schools neglect arms during leg drills, Wingert advised the importance of full-body practice. “If you want to dance and have your arms in beautiful positions, you have to practice with your arms in beautiful positions. Then the audience looks at you and says, ‘She’s a Balanchine girl, she’s got beautiful arms.’”