New York City Ballet: Bringing Balanchine Back (2008)

Like all devoted parents eager to promote their child's self-esteem, as a toddler I was enrolled in numerous activities, taking part in everything from tumbling to theatre and from the age of three, I distinctly remember beginning ballet. While no doubt at that age, the lessons probably consisted of a group of toddlers running around the room in pink tutus as a frustrated and overworked instructor tried to shout, "first, second, third, forth and fifth," in getting our arms and legs in the proper positions, as I grew I stuck with dance, later moving onto the combo of tap, ballet, and jazz.

And while I loved the beauty of dance-- despite never really getting why all of my friends and teachers raved about Cats which I knew little about aside from having an irrational fear of the four pawed creatures who meowed-- as an overly tall girl, I found that I couldn't quite mold my gangly frame into the elegance and grace they wanted. Standing nearly eye level with my instructors and being told I'd have to special order toe-shoes should I want to continue, I retired from dance at an early age but always remained entranced by it as both a musical film buff and arts lover.

From Astaire to Kelly to Fosse, dance has always fascinated and although I thoroughly enjoyed the tremendous showmanship of a touring Moscow company who played ASU a few years back, I was particularly mesmerized by my second encounter with dance via Ballet Arizona artistic director Ib Anderson's production of works choreographed Balanchine. From the elegance of the intricate fast paced footwork offered by small groups of impeccable principal dancers to the sultry and daringly provocative artistry set to the music of Stravinsky, I was hooked and also became immediately aware by just how influential George Balanchine had been on twentieth century dance as homage and allusions to his work seem to show up everywhere.

Having co-founded the New York City Ballet after leaving his Russian homeland as a young man, Balanchine became one of the most prolific and inventive choreographers, crafting more than 450 works for ballet, Broadway, opera, theatre, and Hollywood during his lifetime. Surrounding himself with a company of more than one hundred dancers, he took the lessons learned at the world-famous and legendary Mariinsky School of Dance in St. Petersburg, Russia and created his own uniquely abstract yet amazingly deep brand of dance "which would ignite an aesthetic firestorm," as narrator Kevin Kline notes in this exquisite newly released documentary from City Lights Media.

Bowing onto shelves on November 11, New York City Ballet: Bringing Balanchine Back chronicles the historic visit the company-- headed up by director Peter Martins-- took to St. Petersburg, Russia in 2003, thirty years after the death of the company's beloved and incomparable, "Mr. B." Returning to Russia for the first time since Balanchine brought the company there at the height of the Cold War in both 1962 and 1972 in a decision that was met with both "applause and criticism," on both sides since as an interviewee notes, having left his "motherland," some considered Balanchine to be a traitor, Martins prepares his dancers for the ultimate test.

With an exceedingly large company of ninety-five dancers where the average age of the performers is just twenty-one (with numerous participants having studied together since the age of eight in premiere New York City dance schools), the New York City Ballet is known as one of the busiest dance companies in the world performing anywhere from fifty to seventy-five ballets in a calendar year comprised of two seasons and touring performances. Working hard to master Balanchine's overwhelmingly fast-paced, exceedingly complex and "extremely musical" choreography, the company strives to perform Mr. B's dances as well or better than they were staged when the man himself was alive, as a veteran principal dancer from Balanchine's original company notes-- thereby fulfilling the promise that the man had originally made for the company to continue to thrive after his death.

In this engrossing behind-the-scenes look which originally aired on public television, we're given an unprecedented backstage access to all aspects of the company. We get an insider's look at the production and historic journey, witnessing the grueling rehearsal schedule and jam-packed lives of the dancers who risk injury and juggle nerves in a twenty-four hour travel schedule only to be faced with just one day off in Russia, the technical team that has to negotiate the color and size of lights and scenery to get just the right shade of blue, the musical direcor who has a hard time rehearsing with an orchestra that doesn't seem to be on the same page with her musically, a physio team prepping for any injuries or disasters that could arise, as well as the major challenge of the venue itself.

From dealing with the Mariinsky Theatre's raked stage which provides an entirely different rhythm for the dancers used to performing on their flat surface back in the states (making each step more dangerous and difficult) to the constant scrutiny they face by the Russian dancers and audiences associated with Balanchine's alma-mater who seem ready and anxious to critique any misstep, this amazing DVD boasts crystal-clear sound and picture quality.

Beautifully transferred to DVD with a Tour of the Mariinsky Theatre and additional interviews totaling forty minutes of previously unreleased extras, while it's sure to be a coveted item by dance enthusiasts and ballet buffs, it also provides an inexpensive alternative to witness the magic of Balanchine as performed with strict attention to detail and authenticity by the renowned New York City Ballet right from your living room.

Far cheaper than a plane ticket to both NYC and Russia, not to mention without the added expense of accommodation and performance ticket price that must have been endured to the privileged attendees who came for the 300th anniversary of the theatre during St. Petersburg's annual White Nights festival that coincided with the centennial of Balanchine's birth, it also boasts some additional ballet clips of the hip and daring choreography from Jerome Robbins as well as the company's director Peter Martins. While the standout performance clips include staging from the "Symphony in Three Movements" complete with an amazing introduction of several highly energetic women dancing perfectly in sync and extraordinarily fast, I was also delighted by Balanchine's "homage to his adopted land," in his spoof on America in the "Western Symphony."

Sure to make one nostalgic for their youth in ballet shoes or eager to check their newspaper for local dance performances, above all Bringing Balanchine Back is a celebration of the love and passion that Martins astutely argues the dancers must have to work in an industry that won't offer them fame or fortune but injury instead. A true testament to the beauty of dance and the importance of preserving the classic and influential works of the prolific Balanchine and others which serves as a soulful reminder that America should continue to invest in becoming a great exporter of high culture, City Lights Media's New York City Ballet: Bringing Balanchine Back will be available on Tuesday through exclusive retailers such as Amazon.com (see below)-- no tutus or experience necessary.

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