In the Master's Footsteps

One of George Balanchine's ballerinas trains a new generation of dancers, making sure his work will live on beyond this, his centennial year.

May 12, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

The dance students glide - and sometimes stumble noisily - across the gray wood floor. Their hair is pinned back in tight little buns, their toes are crammed into pointe shoes. The choreography has brought them center stage, staggered in four lines, with two girls lying on the floor in the middle.

Judith Fugate stops the rehearsal. Something is wrong.

It is day six, hour four of rehearsals for George Balanchine's ballet Serenade. The dancers - students at the Baltimore School for the Arts - are exhausted. But their attention does not waver. All eyes are on Fugate, a longtime Balanchine ballerina who is passing on her bred-in-the-bone knowledge of Serenade to this new generation of dancers.

"Let me look at my notes," she says. She puts on her reading glasses and consults a worn piece of loose-leaf notebook paper. She walks over to a lead dancer, lying on the floor. "I think I want you on your elbow rather than your hand," she says. Yes. Much better.

Fugate's notes are always out but she doesn't look at them often, even for so fine a detail as elbow or hand. Instead, she relies on her memory. She learned the dance from Balanchine himself, or Mr. B, as she and the ballet world call the master choreographer. After performing Serenade hundreds of times during her 23-year career with the New York City Ballet, she knows it cold.

"It is like a gunshot to me when I see something wrong," she said. "It stands out. There are a lot of very visually memorable moments in Serenade. They are indelibly marked in my brain."

The George Balanchine Trust - which licenses all performances of the great choreographer's ballets - depends on that indelible memory. Fugate is a repetiteur, which means the Trust dispatches her around the world to stage Balanchine's ballets. For the past two weeks, she has taught Serenade to the afternoon dance students at the School for the Arts, preparing them for performances that begin tomorrow.

The Trust carefully selects who can perform Balanchine's work. Dance companies or schools apply for a license, which is granted only to those deemed skilled enough to dance the fast-paced and technically challenging ballets. And the contracts stipulate that all the works must be set by a ballet master or mistress selected by the Trust.

Born and raised in Russia, Balanchine came to the United States in 1933 and fell in love with his adopted country. Here he choreographed classical ballets, but also more plebian pieces for Broadway, Hollywood, and even a group of circus elephants. He created a uniquely American style of ballet: athletic, fast, informal. Ultimately, he founded what is now one of the top ballet companies in the world - the New York City Ballet. This year would have been his 100th birthday, which has spurred a renewed interest in his work.

But his centennial is not why the School for the Arts decided to put on Serenade. The school's dance director, Norma Pera, happened to hear the student orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C and thought, "Let's do Serenade," the Balanchine ballet set to that music. After some lobbying, the school received its license last year, no small feat.

"We don't actually license to high schools," said Barbara Horgan, the general director of the Trust. "We do to universities and schools that have people who are capable of performing it." The Trust made an exception for the Baltimore School for the Arts after receiving glowing reports of the students' skills.

The arts school, founded in 1980, is a part of the Baltimore City public school system. Its 318 students gain entry by competitive auditions within their performing disciplines. Last year, more than 1,100 students applied for 100 spaces.

The school has danced parts of Balanchine pieces before - concert versions of Who Cares? and Raymonda Variations, several movements in Stars and Stripes - but this is its first full-length ballet by the choreographer. And, in Serenade, the corps de ballet - the non-lead chorus of dancers - is the focus of the action rather than any individual dancer. So a deep bench is needed to perform it well.

"It is hard to find 17 girls, all at once, who are strong enough to do this dance," Pera said. "This year we have that."

When they secured the rights, they also got Fugate. At 47, she is as sprightly as a twentysomething. She's tiny and graceful - a compact body with sinewy limbs and a small head - the model Balanchine ballerina. Wearing light ballet slippers with the soles stained black from countless hours of practicing, she trots around the studio and puts each dancer in the correct position. She knows exactly where each should stand, where she should look, which foot she should start on and whether she should lead with her elbow or her wrist.

"Shoulders up like the prow of a ship," she instructs at one point.

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