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George Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive Project  Reports

Notes on Melissa Hayden Coaching at PNB

by Leigh Witchel
DanceView, Autumn 2000
copyright © 2000 by Leigh Witchel

The George Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreters Archive project has made a deliberate effort to make their archival work national in scope, working with companies other than New York City Ballet with strong Balanchine traditions to broaden the perspective of their preservation. Melissa Hayden, NYCB’s most enduring star, traveled to Seattle on a sunny weekend in March, 2000 to work with Francia Russell’s dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Three ballets in which Hayden created roles, Agon, Divertimento No. 15, and Episodes, were examined. The project team was uniquely qualified, the three key people involved (Hayden, Russell and Nancy Reynolds, the Director of Research of the Foundation) were all in the original cast of the Ricercata, the section of Episodes being examined.

As well as the collective memories of Hayden and Russell, video played a key role in the filming of Agon and Episodes. It runs against conventional wisdom to see the originator of a role rely heavily on video, but without it, this taping could not have gone forward. Three source tapes were consulted. Hayden began by watching a later tape from NYCB with Maria Calegari, barking at it all the while, telling the dancing image what’s wrong with the steps, all details and counts. We watched one voice from the past arguing with a ghost in the machine. She instructs the dancers, Lisa Apple and Jeffrey Stanton, both principals with the company, “I want you to look at this part here. . .” and then watches the action on tape further. “No. . . not really, but yes and then I’ll make it real.” The second tape, also looked at briefly, was filmed in Berlin in 1973, with Renée Estópinal and David Richardson as part of an infamous filming that Balanchine never allowed to be released because of its eccentricities. The same running commentary occurs during its viewing. It’s all a question of details, as she says more than once in the weekend, “It’s a matter of the timing.”

The crucial tape is from 1969 with her and Francisco Moncion. Hayden didn’t feel she remembered Episodes clearly enough to set it until she ran across that tape among her possessions. The 1969 filming was done at City Center at the impetus of Jerome Robbins as part of his efforts for the archive of choreography he had founded and underwritten for the New York Public Library. A few ballets were filmed at this time; Raymonda Variations and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet were among them. Russell and Kent Stowell, her husband, had left the company at this point, but came back to assist on the filming of Brahms-Schoenberg, the tape of which is significantly different than the present day version at NYCB. This record formed the basis of the PNB production of the work. The dancers worked on these filmings without pay and early in the morning, with Gordon Boelzner accompanying on piano. Hayden recalls the circumstances: “It was too fast. Gordon Boelzner played everything too fast. I remember Raymonda. Jacques was so angry about his variation.” Wisely, the pianist, Allan Dameron, gets up from the piano at that point and brings his score over to watch the video.

Hayden talks of the circumstances of the archive tapings: “Probably it was 9 o’clock in the morning. They didn’t want to do it. Remember Jacques wearing all black against a black background in Raymonda? He didn’t want to do it. I didn’t mind doing it.” To which Russell responded immediately, “Of course you didn’t. You didn’t mind doing anything.” Hayden is tiny and energetic, a bête de scène who lives for the stage. Russell and Hayden were in the company at about the same time, though Hayden for a good deal longer. Russell moved into staging earlier in her career. She is a true balletmistress with an eye and mind like a steel trap. Like a cryptographer, she can decode an archival video almost in the time it takes her to watch it, and her memory is detailed and organized. Russell proves invaluable at structuring the initial learning process and keeping things moving. Hayden thanks her and says it would have taken twice as long without her. For Hayden, memory is a livelier, more fluid thing, with overlays of events and emotional shadings. They work well together in their disparate styles, and Russell is enough of a lady and good hostess to defer to a guest in her home. It was Hayden’s home before her; Hayden was the previous director of the company before Russell and Stowell began their tenure as co-directors.

The PNB dancers are conscientious and quick on the uptake. Neither Apple nor Stanton has ever danced Episodes, so the session doesn’t begin with style, just steps and counts. Hayden teaches the dance almost entirely on counts, but the metric nature of this choreography lends itself to that. Either the counts are sung as the melody or sometimes the steps form a chant: “Up-and-a-pli-é-show-your-hand.” Like most present-day ballet dancers, Apple and Stanton are most comfortable if they just deal with the steps first. They add style once they know what the steps are. Stanton fights to make his body go not as it might if a step was choreographed on him, but in fidelity to the past.

Running the first minute of the dance they do it with dubious smiles questioning their very correctness. “Is this right?” they are asking with both their eyes and bodies. By the second or third repetition Apple is starting to find a yielding modesty in the way she exposes her long neck to our view. She is one of the patrician blondes one thinks of when one thinks of PNB. Stanton, because she is relying on him for support, is still trying to make sure he’s where she needs him to be. After the steps are taught come corrections to the spatial arrangement. Learning the Ricercata without the corps de ballet adds complications; Hayden needs to explain that a certain step moves not only on the diagonal, but through four women who aren’t there. Style begins to be expressed; Hayden takes Apple by the hand in a supported turn and gets her to be daringly off-balance as it ends in an extension to the front. The performance instinct that made Hayden a star isn’t immediately transmitted to these dancers; the style in this coaching session doesn’t reside underneath the steps. It’s right within them. In these sessions, how Apple and Stanton do the steps, what musicality and rhythmic accenting is used is what Episodes or Agon means. Balanchine’s steps are rich enough to be approached many different ways, but this direct one is immediately successful; they are constructed to look good this way.

Dameron is playing a transcription of the Ricercata done for organ from a source unknown to him, although the Webern orchestration has a different coloring that is importantly clear to Hayden, it’s the same notes. Dianne Chilgren, the pianist for the Agon taping, had worked for Balanchine. She is working from the two piano reduction of Agon made by Stravinsky, but further adapted to a single piano. PNB is blessed with gifted rehearsal pianists, but the difference in sonority between a piano and an orchestra frustrates Hayden, she feels important musical cues are lost. At one point during the Agon filming she opts to have them dance to the orchestral accompaniment from the video rather than a piano.

Agon is a more problematic matter. Louise Nadeau, tiny, but thin and long legged, and the two men, Christophe Maraval and Oleg Gorboulev, come in early to go over the second pas de trois. There are a few possible source tapes as references for Agon; the earliest is a 1960 kinescope from the Canadian Broadcasting Company. PNB’s production of Agon is based on multiple sources, with Russell responsible for setting the women’s parts and Peter Frame the men’s. In the second pas de trois as done at PNB, the woman’s variation is based on the 1960 tape as Violette Verdy performed it; the male duet as it was danced by Frame himself in the 1980s.

Hayden has opted to use the 1973 tape of the Berlin filming as her reference because she taught Karin von Aroldingen the variation herself a year before the taping, and felt she did it well. The deficit is the cinematography is disastrous, with so many shots of isolated body parts and obscure filming angles that certain steps still are an issue of memory.

Hayden starts changing details in the entrée almost immediately, focusing on a series of swivel turns. She first moves them from traveling on the diagonal to traveling straight across the stage. She then changes them from being done on half pointe to almost on flat, and the dancers inadvertently creep back to doing them on the diagonal. Nadeau has danced this part (and very well) for several years, but that’s not an asset here, her familiarity with a slightly different version is a source of confusion for her.

Hayden concentrates on the swivel turns, insisting they are done by each dancer one count apart. The problem is the piano accompaniment is almost impossible to count at that moment and the dancers are used to cueing that part visually rather than musically. The process is slow going but even through the inconsistencies, Hayden is working toward specific details and rhythmic style. Unfortunately, Hayden had only requested two hours to work on Agon, because of the dancers’ supposed familiarity. It becomes apparent that it will take them at least that long to unlearn what they know.

Hayden moves on to the final steps of the entrée, which Nadeau does as a balance in arabesque and a penchée. Hayden asks for the first balance to be more daringly in penchée to begin with, going to a deeper penchée to finish. “It’s a trick,” she explains simply. “Does that feel comfortable?” Hayden asks. Nadeau smiles the same sweet smile she has managed throughout and says yes, but no one believes her.

Hayden goes on to the male duet, which the men dance well. Maraval is a very plastic dancer with excellent facility and enthusiasm. Gorboulev is new to the company and this is not his native repertory. He remains guarded, just trying to figure out what Hayden wants. Hayden consults the 1973 tape to teach the duet. However, by the time of that filming, the ballet was over 15 years old and changes had already crept into it. Though the present session was ostensibly to be of the original version, a double tour for the two men in their duet that was in the 1960 tape but switched to entrechat-six by the Berlin taping remained an entrechat in this taping.

Hayden watches von Aroldingen on tape, interjecting occasionally, “No, she’s wrong” as the image from three decades ago dances. Nadeau begins the variation and importantly, Hayden almost immediately takes out most of the pushing and twisting in the hips. “Show the legs and feet.” she instructs and the variation immediately has a crisper look. Little passés are done with the accent sharply up. “You’re listening to the music and then stepping.” Hayden instructs, “You’re the music.” In actuality, it seemed like the delay that prompted that correction came about because Nadeau was attempting to watch Hayden dance in front to accurately duplicate her. Nadeau is getting nit-picked and grilled, but Hayden’s changes amount to a style. For all the corrections, Hayden seems to like Nadeau, as she likes all the other dancers. “She looks like Patty McBride” she remarks to Russell. “Is she your swan queen?”

In the finale, Hayden reinserts an en dedans turn à la seconde for Nadeau where Gorboulev comes in to get her and bring her to arabesque. It’s very tricky because it’s at the wrong angle for him to comfortably reach her, perhaps why it was removed. Hayden attempts to demonstrate to Gorboulev and Nadeau how to make the turn work, having her turn in a higher extension, but Nadeau accidentally smacks Hayden in the head with her leg. “I get killed for my art.” she observes. By the final taping of the section, Gorboulev has not figured out how to make it smooth, but he has at least made it workable.

It’s an exertion for Hayden; by the end of the session she is fatigued not only physically. “I’ve reached a saturation point.” she announced after concentrated work on Agon. For both Russell and Hayden, it’s been more than 40 years since the parts were created and nearly 30 since they danced any of them. In Episodes where there are fewer differences of text there are few conflicts. During the taping, Russell has brought in her notes on Agon, including her notecards on which she has all the counts of the ballet written down. Russell was also in the original cast of Agon, and she sat quietly to the side, interjecting sparingly and diplomatically, but she couldn’t stop herself from shaking her head or involuntarily flinching at a few differences. The taping provided a very useful illumination into the style Hayden wanted for Agon but textual questions, most importantly of what changes might have been made to the ballet before the earliest available taping in 1960 remained unanswered.

Episodes rehearsals after and on the following day again move smoothly and swiftly, and turn out to be the gem of the sessions, going well beyond conservation to advocacy. In the press of repertory at NYCB, the Ricercata has become pedestrian, even a part to be given to an injured or out-of-favor dancer. “It was always treated very lightly somehow.” Hayden mused. Her coaching and the dancers’ efforts show it to be anything but pedestrian. Watching the dance being put together is like watching a masterpiece emerge out of the mist. The dancers are still uncertain of the gestalt of the dance, but they show the steps so that you could see what it is that Mr. B wanted; a musical and structural fidelity to Bach and Webern, so intricate and yet so simple and direct. Even in a day-lit studio without the corps de ballet, one could see why Russell recalled that dancing the Ricercata “was almost like being in a cathedral.” Though the dancers are unsure, it becomes evident that a specific rhythmic accenting gives the piece its “perfume.” The dancers also have the advantage of having the proper style built into their repertory, but being a tabula rasa concerning this specific choreography.

Questions get answered. The man moves on count six of the initial theme in a way that recalled a Graham contraction. Latter day audiences and dancers, knowing the history of the co-production with Graham and wanting to make links might assume it was one. But the movement isn’t according to Hayden; it’s done in the back but primarily with the legs, the objective being to bring them together as quickly as possible. When Stanton tries to do the movement more energetically after a correction, she interjects, “Too contrived.” The woman’s sinking to kneel through a grand plié on pointe supported by the man takes on the air of the Wedding pas de deux in Sleeping Beauty, but in reverse. A brushing step that kept giving Apple trouble rhythmically gets spoken in rhythm (“One-and-second, step, brush!”) to solve it.

The taping of the dance is done out of order, the end of the pas de deux after the female solo is filmed first, then the female solo and finally the beginning. Hayden runs over to the pianist to conduct him and keep the tempo taut. She is energized by the final session, and is a dynamo, happily coaching and reminiscing about other ballets including Waltz Academy, a little known Balanchine ballet done for Ballet Theatre that was the first Balanchine she ever danced. Russell gets up and cues the dancers when necessary; they rely on her as a second memory.

The coaching sessions of Divertimento No. 15 at the end of the filming take far less time than budgeted, and in their brevity seemed like a fascinating postscript. Carrie Imler, recently promoted to soloist, dances the second variation for Hayden. Like the dancers in Agon, the two women doing variations from Divertimento have already danced them during their schooling (Imler at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Kaori Nakamura at the School of American Ballet.) The variations in choreography are fewer and less painful to change; neither dances the ballet in active repertory. The second phrase of the second variation is a series of hip twists falling and traveling forward, presently into a lunge. Hayden deletes the plié into the lunge, having the dancer travel forward onto a flat foot. The change probably came about to use up more space; Divertimento might have gotten many of its changes in the move from City Center to the State Theatre.

She adds a series of ports de bras to a diagonal of entrechat-trois and echappés, but she can’t quite recall it, one of the five in the series keeps eluding her. We’re left at the end with something probably closer to the original. Hayden’s musicality is subtle and dependent on the orchestration; the piano again frustrates her. In the end though, she works barely 15 minutes with Imler, pronouncing her lovely and her version of the variation in concert with her recollections, the changes being again “a matter of timing.”

Nakamura demonstrates the sixth variation with a sharp clipped and specific rhythm that seems familiar, recognizable from Suki Schorer’s settings for SAB. Though Russell had taught her the variation the week before Hayden’s visit, it turns out Nakamura had also learned the variation in 1989 for the SAB workshop performance, but danced the fourth variation instead. We saw an overlay of both teachers. “When Francia taught me the variation, I found my body remembering what Suki told me.” Nakamura said after.

Hayden is also happy with Nakamura and again makes few changes. A series of rélévés into passé and arabesque emphasize the position in passé rather than that in arabesque. In corrections like this one and Hayden’s correction to the passés Nadeau did in Agon, one saw a musical approach to Balanchine significantly different than the present one at NYCB. The emphases on phrases were musically and visually upwards and not always into extended, pictorial positions like arabesque, but also fleet, transitional poses. The spacing of a group of glissades and piqués goes from turning back on itself to simply moving back and forth. Russell reminded Hayden of this change; again it seemed like it might have been a change made for the larger stage of the State Theater. A change to a 16 count phrase is recalled (“It was two fives and a six”), but not well enough to insert. The final diagonal, now step-over and en dedans turns reverts to repeated turns with the left foot in rélévé sur le cou de pied. It’s one of those steps that’s quite hard, almost harder than the visual payoff, perhaps what instigated the change.

Balanchine made an astute remark to Claude Bessy about posterity (Ballet Review, Fall 1995), “They will remember the steps but they will forget the idea.” The most notable thing about the Interpreters Archive sessions in Seattle was that they were the reverse; a step or detail may have been different, but the idea behind them remains vibrant. The Interpreters Archive is aptly named. Balanchine is not here to tell us his ideas behind the ballets; at this point we only have his voice at one remove. The quality of the filming is dependent on the quality of the interpreter, and his or her ability to communicate to the dancers what is needed. Hayden’s view of Balanchine is exactly that, but its specificity in details and musicality render her perspective invaluable. Her advocacy of a certain role, the mere fact that she is willing to expend the effort to argue in its defense and rehabilitate it is as compelling in its own way as any claims of accuracy. It is fortunate the foundation is working to document those voices at one remove before they are lost.





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