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George Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive Project  Reports

Notes on Nancy Knot Mann coaching Reminiscence

by Leigh Witchel
DanceView, Spring 2001
copyright © 2001 by Leigh Witchel

Balanchine arrived in the United States in 1933 with the intention of starting a professional company, “but first a school.” When the American Ballet first performed in 1935, Reminiscence was on that program. It was the only premiere; Errante had been performed by Les Ballets 1933, Serenade and Alma Mater by the School of American Ballet. To a series of short pieces by Benjamin Godard, it was meant as a showpiece; a set of divertissements each recalling a common setting for classical or character dance; a polonaise, a ballerina, peasants dancing a tarantella, all introduced by a commedia dell’arte figure. As Nancy Knott Mann, one of Balanchine’s first students at the new School of American Ballet recalled, “He was reminiscing about old Russia. Bits of ballets he had been in. It opened with a Grand Polonaise, like Sleeping Beauty.” For Leda Anchutina, a tiny, brilliant dancer, Balanchine tailored a sparkling but difficult variation, demanding technique and endurance and filled with turns. A picture of Anchutina in Reminiscence shows her in a simple classical tutu. Tiny and with a hint of ripeness to her cheeks, her looks might remind a later generation of ballet-goers of Deirdre Carberry.

John Martin in the New York Times called Reminiscence, “The real hit of the evening”. The Dancing Times reported it “Has thus far proved to be the most popular ballet in the repertoire.” Lincoln Kirstein was a good deal less kind; he brought Balanchine to America to pioneer a modern, American ballet, not to import what he considered a stale retread of the Russian ballet. “To me it represented everything banal, compromising and retardative in the philosophy of what we should not be doing.” The ballet had a brief performance life; changes were made to it when the American Ballet performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1936, then the ballet was dropped from repertory. At the Met, Balanchine dropped dances for principal dancers not available, and added different ones for those he had. The ballet’s very nature as a series of customized dances made it fragile in repertory; it was the sort of thing it was easier for Balanchine to create anew than revive. His habit was to scavenge the best parts from old repertory to form the current one.

Like many of Balanchine’s lost works, that would probably be the end of the story but for a series of coincidences. Last year, the George Balanchine Foundation embarked on a project entitled The Popular Balanchine to document his work on Broadway and on film. Mann worked with Balanchine in two musicals, I Married an Angel and Louisiana Purchase, and so was interviewed for that project. Anchutina and Mann were both students at the School of American Ballet and good friends. About 10 dancers came to Balanchine when he arrived in America because of the rumors of a company starting. But the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came to the United States on tour and was so successful the company needed to break in two and add American dancers. Mann left SAB to join the Ballet Russe. Anchutina also danced with the Ballet Russe, but went on to dance with Balanchine in his company, and later to become Mrs. André Eglevsky.

When Mann saw Anchutina perform the variation, she thought it was marvelous and resolved to learn it, which she did solely from watching it in performance. She and her husband Michael, trying to provide work for themselves, put together a nightclub act. At that time, there was a tradition of show dance coming from concert dance; Balanchine was choreographing for Broadway, so was Massine. Martha Graham had performed in vaudeville. Mann and her husband performed the Swan Lake, Act II pas de deux, then she would perform the variation from Reminiscence and her husband would perform a variation. Mann wore a similar costume to Anchutina when she performed it, as the tutu also suited Swan Lake.

A tiny, delicate woman in a matching outfit of wine-colored velvet, Mann offered her own reminiscences on that time and the ballet. Her pictures from her career, sepia and yellowed, show a young ballet dancer with a high forehead and wide-eyed, beautiful face in an arabesque in Fokine’s Carnaval or swooning backwards in her husband’s arms. Looking at the photo of herself and her husband she remarked, “After trying this [their more classical act] in nightclubs we decided we had to do something a little simpler. So we went Viennese.”

The mood in the studio as preparations began for Mann to teach the variation was pleasantly mysterious and anticipatory. Like someone about to receive and unwrap a promised gift, no one knew exactly what to expect, but everyone enjoyed waiting to find out what it would be. Before the taping Nancy Reynolds, the Director of Research for the foundation, showed me the piano score of Godard’s fifth Valse Chromatique (Op. 88) that Mann saved with the musical cuts taped over in white paper, simply amazed that it had survived and saved them the difficulty of figuring out the alterations. In her interview, Mann explained that she simply saved the score for 65 years “like a scrapbook.”

The variation required a solid technician and Ashley Bouder, one of the newest members of New York City Ballet, was selected. “We needed someone to do all those fouettés,” Reynolds remarked. Bouder is the latest of a bumper crop of talented young dancers trained by Marcia Dale Weary at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet who have all joined NYCB within the past five years. Talented and noticeable even at the age of eleven, she was a sober little girl who could do the most astonishing feats without ever cracking a smile, a Quaker on point. She was as serious in 1999 when I last saw her perform with CPYB; her sobriety was disarming in one so young because it was so incongruous. By the time of the 2000 SAB workshop, she danced the lead in Stars and Stripes and had a dramatic change of stage personality, projecting with ease. It was a pleasure to watch a little girl become a young woman onstage as time went by.

Bouder opted to learn the variation in soft slippers and change to pointe shoes once she knew it. Mann commenced without ceremony teaching the variation in chronological order. After the entry, there is a low sweeping movement of the right arm, and Bouder pulled herself up onto pointe as she turned around. Mann remarked later that Anchutina’s introduction may have been shorter. Mann danced this variation in nightclubs where never knew from where she might enter, sometimes having to make her way across tables. She began teaching from the actual start of the dancing.

The music is very straightforward, but Bouder was instinctively musical about where the variation was heading, able to sense the logic of the construction from Mann’s indication, who sat as she taught. Her movement was more restricted and mostly indicative of the step. The steps are firmly on the music, and Bouder could hear them, and even anticipate them from the way pianist Nancy McDill played. Bouder bit her lip when she knew she was late. As well as complimenting the dancer after the session, Mann profusely complimented McDill’s playing, saying she was doing half the work for Bouder.

After the dancer introduces herself with a series of bourrées on pointe from side to side, there is a circle of little jumps with both legs kicking back behind. Aware of Balanchine’s tendency to recycle, I immediately associated it with a similar step in Valse Fantaisie where the dancer soars around the stage in leaps separated by runs on pointe. But here Balanchine seemed more interested in the pointe work than the insouciant little jump in between. After the session had ended, Mann remarked in an aside on that step, “I couldn’t make her do this, because I never saw anyone do this but Anchutina, but she landed from those [jumps] on pointe.”

After the circle were Italian fouettés to a series of développé extensions to the front falling to plié in arabesque. The variation is charming and vivacious and very speedy. It fit Bouder like a glove and she worked to flesh out a full picture from what Mann said and indicated. A series of jumps took a few tries, with details added on each iteration. Finally, Mann marked in her chair as Bouder walked the steps watching her to understand the syncopation of the transition steps between the jumps.

A second circle comes near the end of the variation; this one piqué turns to fouettés. Bouder flicked her leg from front to back as she changed direction. “Arms sharper, like a knife” Mann corrected. “Accent the front. Even sharper.” The second half of the variation feels almost like a competitive tumbling run, from the circle it heads immediately into fouetté turns in place, starting with a double turn and then a double every fourth turn. The dancer comes out of the turn to take a flirtatious balance for as long as she can hold it, and then leap off in the opposite direction.

We’ve now unwrapped our gift and we can see that it’s a wonderful trifle, but packed with steps. It’s obvious from it that Anchutina had to have been a natural turner. There’s a tremendous desire to try and discern the Balanchine of 1935 from this variation of about a minute in length, but it is like trying to figure out what an elephant looks like from having only seen its trunk. What we can see is how different the emphasis in training was 65 years ago. We congratulate ourselves on how much more technical dancers are today than they were; the fact is this variation is such a test of endurance that a sturdy and gifted dancer like Bouder with very good training can barely get through it. She asks to film it in sections. We’ve certainly learned over the years, but some of the “improvements” are merely changes over time in training to suit our present tastes. Classical dance has become more sculptural than kinetic in emphasis over the years; a dancer would never think to attempt to land from jumps like Anchutina did on point because it can’t be done through any sort of academically correct intermediary position.

Bouder put on her pointe shoes and filmed the variation in two halves. It was like watching a steeplechase. McDill suggests slowing down the tempo for the fouettés in the circle to pace the variation better. After a run, Mann corrects the développé/plié series to move more, longer, and push off into the plié, rather than Bouder falling under herself. The emphasis on daring and amplitude seems comfortingly familiar to Balanchine watchers, but “bigger” and “more” meant something slightly different when the dancer was Anchutina or Caccialanza than it did when the dancer was LeClercq or Farrell, or now Kistler and Whelan. “Push with your back toe.” Mann corrected, as Bouder’s frustration gradually became apparent. Mann wants almost a jété out of the extension forward, and Bouder can’t quite figure out how to do it from that position without sacrificing her placement. In 1936 that wouldn’t have been an issue. At the end of the concentrated rehearsal and filming Bouder nailed her fouettés but couldn’t insert the doubles. It was just too grueling. The session ended with Bouder exhausted and Mann making a final revision of the position of the arms in the fouettés in a circle, bringing them down first, then overhead.

This little bauble has been out of repertory for 65 years, and brought back by serendipity and the fact that a dancer with a sharp eye and a sharper memory liked a piece of choreography enough to steal it to dance it herself. Do we have any way of knowing how authentic her memories are? Once the tapes are edited, the foundation will show the footage to surviving dancers from that era to correlate whatever recollections they have with what Mann taught. There is no unassailable source for the choreography; there’s no way to know if Mann changed a step or an arm when she watched the variation when Anchutina performed, or if she filled in the gaps in her own memory when reviving it on Bouder. The possibility exists, but the variation looks like whole cloth, not piecemeal. The steps fit together logically and fit the music. There is little reason to suspect that it isn’t what Mann danced. If there is no “signature” that allows unrefutable attribution of those specific steps to Balanchine there is enough in the steps and the style to trust that the choreography was of that era. Serenade may have survived in repertory and premiered at around the same time, but it has undergone so many adaptations to suit succeeding generations of dancers that it always seems contemporary. With this session, we’ve been provided with a miniature view of ballet in the 1930s.

 

 

 

 

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