A great teacher - 1943 - 2024
by John Clifford
Balanchine teaching at the School of American Ballet
BALANCHINE AS TEACHER
Without question George Balanchine was the greatest teacher I’ve ever known.
This rather grand statement is because he was a teacher of how to live life, as well as how to dance classical ballet as he knew it. No need here to go into his background or training methodology, or even his technical innovations, because those have been very well covered in Suki Schorer’s book, Suki Schorer on BALANCHINE TECHNIQUE, and her video series, The Balanchine Essays. I will however try and cover things left out of those two sources.
When I first took Balanchine’s class, I was 19, and had just joined the New York City Ballet. Balanchine had seen my choreography in Los Angeles, (all in my autobiography, BALANCHINE’S APPRENTICE: From Hollywood to New York and Back) and he then invited me to choreograph at his School of American Ballet (SAB). Within six-weeks he invited me to join the company.
Even though I was already a professional dancer appearing regularly on TV, ( The Danny Kaye Show and other TV shows) and had worked with some of the era’s major dance-makers and teachers, including Eugene Loring, Hermes Pan(Fred Astaire's choreographer), Willie Covan (Eleanor Powell's tap teacher), Tony Charmoli (the foremost choreographer for television of his day, 1960’s-1980’s) Asaf Messerer, Maya Plisetskaya, Stanley Williams, André Eglevsky, Pierre Vladimiroff, George Zoritch, Irina Kosmovska (Balanchine’s favorite Los Angeles teacher), Natalia Clare, and more…
nothing prepared me for the rigors of Balanchine’s company class.
After that first class my muscles were burning so much, I thought I’d never walk again.
Needless to say, it got much easier after I was used to it…but that first day? Wow!
It was a combination of the speed, faster than Messerer’s class, or Piere Vladimiroff’s, (both gave barres no longer than 15-20 mins) and the repetition. Balanchine gave tons of tendues, but only one grand plie in first, second, and fifth, at the start of his barre. It wasn’t so much that everything was fast, but everything he wanted had to be done absolutely perfectly.
This quest for perfection was a constant in all of his classes. He did not “invent” in his classes as some have recently stated, (so much bad information out there) but he did push limits. He would often give us brain-teaser combinations with simple steps like jetes and pas de bourrees, but put together in unexpected ways, because he’d say, “The brain is a muscle too.”
In other words, he wanted us to wake-up. He never “choreographed” in class, nor asked us to do anything outside of the normal ballet vocabulary. Also, on some days he’d spend the majority of the center working on one particular step…or steps, like pirouettes, port de bras, or even just glissades. (His glissades were very similar to the Bournonville stye, as were much of his petit allegro combinations). He’d stand in the wings for every single performance…in those years 250 a year… and the next day give us combinations to clean up what he didn’t like he saw the night before. His eye missed nothing, and his attention to detail was supernatural.
Lastly, it was his kindness, sense of humor, and respect for us as dancers, and as people, that really impressed me the most. He had a stern face, but he was anything but. Daily he showed how much he cared for us. He always sensed when we were tired and would tell a joke (sometimes pretty long ones), to lighten the mood. I asked him about this, and he said he just knew when we needed a rest. His famous quote of “Now is all there is,”is what he meant. He wanted us to live in the moment, and not miss a thing. It was/is a great way to approach life!
John Clifford rehearsing dancers in SERENADE
Teaching Balanchine ballets to students brings a special joy. Unlike some professional companies that are steeped in their own styles and traditions, students are generally more open…and hungry for the challenges of Balanchine’s choreography. Here I am teaching SERENADE to the students of the Kirov Academy in Washington DC. It was their first attempt at Balanchine, and I taught some classes there too, and much of it was filmed for IN BALANCHINE’S CLASSROOM, but was cut from the film, as was my teaching at MMAC and interview. I found this strange as more than most I had been teaching and staging Balanchine for years. Oh well…In that film I found some odd statements from some that barely took his class, and was sorry not to hear from others like Verdy, Farrell, Kent, McBride, and men like Ib Andersen.
John Clifford in rehearsal with Balanchine
John Clifford giving class