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DEVIL IN THE DETAIL: Balanchine Wizard Helps KC Ballet Prep for Fall Performances

They are an elite group: the dancers and choreographers who worked and trained under George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of modern times, over the course of a half century. After the great Russian-born émigré’s death in 1983 they scattered, spreading the Balanchine technique, methodology and artistry throughout the world. Some became choreographers, others headed up ballet companies and continue to do so. A select few have been chosen by the Balanchine Trust as répétiteurs, who “set” the choreographer’s works on other companies when they contract to perform them — a strict requirement for the licensing of Balanchine’s works.

One such master choreographer is Susan Pilarre, who danced with the New York City Ballet from 1963 to 1979, became a soloist in 1971, and joined the faculty of its School of American Ballet in 1986. Susan is the brain and the brawn behind next week’s fall program of the Kansas City Ballet, as she spent several visits here setting three Balanchine classics on our local dancers. The program, which runs from October 14th to the 17th at the Lyric Theatre, includes Mozartiana and the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, both to music of Tchaikovsky, and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, a rare comic-serious work with music by Richard Rogers that originally formed the final part of the musical On Your Toes. Bruce Marks’ Lark Ascending, to music of Vaughan Williams, rounds out the program; the Kansas City Symphony will perform live in the pit.

Susan is one of the Trust’s most wide-ranging répétiteurs, and she can set almost all of the major Balanchine works. Small wonder: She entered the School of American Ballet at age 11 and joined City Ballet at age 15. As a teacher at the school, she coaches students every year in a year-end performance of one of the ballets. “They’re steeped in it,” she says of her students, some of whom have found their way to the Kansas City Ballet, “the way we were.” Getting the right Balanchine look is in the small things, she says, and in the timing. “It’s all about the detail, the things that happen between the arabesques. There’s nothing generic about it, everything is completely specific: where the head goes, where the hand goes, and what count it happens on.”

Kansas City Ballet has its own Balanchine roots, beginning with the tenure of the late Todd Bolender, the former Balanchine dancer who led Our Town’s company from 1980 to 1996. Susan says she can still see some of that legacy, most notably in a dancer like Kimberly Cowen,who worked directly with Todd. In a recent coaching session at the Ballet’s downtown studios, Susan watched carefully as the dancers ran through Slaughter on Tenth AvenueMichael Eaton and Aisling Hill-Connor danced a pas de deux, gangsters dueled, and comic waiters cavorted like Keystone Kops. “Comic or not comic, everything with Balanchine is timing and music,” Susan remarks later. The “story-within-a-story” emerged slowly, that of a jealous dancer who hires a Mafioso thug to kill his rival during the premiere of a new ballet.

Like other Balanchine veterans, Susan remembers George Balanchine as a sort of father figure whose world view was all-encompassing. “We were his family,” she says, adding that each year around his birthday (January 22), former NYCB dancers get together for a reunion.

“He was amazing. Very rarely did he lose his temper. And he was incredibly funny. And a genius. To be in a room with him when he was making dance was just amazing. He used to always say, Ok let’s go back and see how it looks. Because if it didn’t look right … but it always looked good. Nine times out of 10 it would look fantastic, and we would go on. He was so quick.”

Is there a hierarchy among the dancers at reunions, with the principals, say, at the head of the table? Susan laughs at the notion. “Goodness, no. That was the point, it’s a shared experience. No matter who was the “high priestess,” everybody in the room was essential. It was like being a part of a great painting: He made you feel like he couldn’t do that painting without you.”

The Kansas City Ballet performs three works by George Balanchine and Bruce Marks’ Lark Ascending on its fall program, from October 14th through the 17th at the Lyric Theatre downtown. For information and tickets call 816-931-2232 or go towww.kcballet.org.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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