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SPOTLIGHT:
BEHIND THE SCENES
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Behind the Scenes at the New York City Ballet

by Rachel Rabkin
February 27, 2003
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
212.875.5456

Behind the Scenes at the New York City Ballet

By Rachel Rabkin
February 27, 2003

There we were: Me (a freelance writer) and a group of about 20 mostly older people, who seemed to be retired from what I could tell. Who else but retired people and freelancers are free in the afternoons to attend working rehearsals of the NYCB at Lincoln Center? I feel a little sorry for the working masses, who are unable to be there, because getting to see the company on stage perfecting their steps, fine-tuning choreography, and receiving instructions from Peter Martins himself before the actual performance that night is a luxury I wouldn't want to miss.

How did I and these other select few get to experience the NYCB in this intimate setting? It's simple: I paid 75 bucks to become an Individual-level Guild member of the NYCB, which entitles me to go see four working rehearsals and attend several talks with the principal dancers for free for a whole year. The other people in our group may have paid more money to be higher-level Guild members, which entitles them to even more special events. But for me, the working rehearsals were really what I wanted. And I was not disappointed.

The afternoon started out in the lobby of the New York State Theater at 4 pm, at which time we all got instructions from one of the Ballet's volunteers. She told us where we were to sit (in the first mezzanine), that we were to be quiet, and that if we had any questions, she would answer them. She also let us know that the company had been rehearsing since 10:30 am, so they were nearing the end of their day. We were allowed to stay and watch until 6 pm.

When we entered the theater, it became clear that the company was rehearsing Vienna Waltzes, choreographed by George Balanchine. The stage was adorned with trees (the setting for Tales from the Vienna Woods, Op. 325) and the pianist (who was there as accompaniment instead of the orchestra) was playing the familiar waltz to which I have danced in ballet classes since I was a little girl. The featured ballerina for this scene, Rachel Rutherford, was wearing a pink, off-the-shoulder ball gown and was twirling across the stage with her partner. Even though the rest of the company was not in costume (they were wearing a mish-mash of sweats, leotards, and other ripped warm-up clothes), the ballet mistress, Rosemary Dunleavy, was onstage calling out directions, the technicians were continuously changing the lighting, and the company stopped dancing every few minutes while Dunleavy made adjustments to dancers' placements, I was as enchanted as I might have been had I entered a magical forest. Being there, watching only parts of the ballet, getting an inside peak at what goes into making the performance work, was maybe even more engaging than an actual performance.

I was enjoying the fluid balancés and turns when Rutherford's partner (I couldn't tell which dancer he was) lifted her into the air, and I heard a loud rip and a gasp from Rutherford. The music stopped. Rutherford had ripped the bottom of her gown. Dunleavy examined the damage and called for wardrobe. Rutherford scurried off-stage and came back a few minutes later with her dress looking as good as new. They proceeded with the rest of the waltz gracefully and then it was time for the next scene.

Voices of Spring, Op. 410 was the following piece and the featured dancers were Miranda Weese and a male dancer I'm pretty sure was Robert Tewsley. (You can probably tell that I am more fascinated by the female ballet dancers then I am by their male partners. I know that male principals are outstanding and powerful but something about the delicate grace of a ballerina in a flowing dress just consumes my attention). The scene was rehearsed in the same fashion as the first scene. The waltzes were interrupted repeatedly by a clap of the hands by Dunleavy so that she could make corrections here and there. Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief, also called out directions. At one point Tewsley was told to loosen his grip on Weese by Martins. "Robert, you're holding her too tight," he advised. And then it was on to Explosions Polka, Op. 43.

This scene featured Aesha Ash and again, a male dancer I couldn't recognize-probably a very famous NYCB principal (forgive me). As the name suggests, Explosions Polka, was the most bouncy and energetic of all the movements. The dancers really did explode onstage unlike the mellifluous waltzes of the other scenes. Dancers were jumping through each other's arms and legs and doing quick polka-like steps. It was fun and lively, but not seamless. I was reminded that I was watching a rehearsal when Ash got bonked on the head while she was prancing through a human bridge made by other dancers. She took it in stride and laughed, and then quickly recovered in time to do her pique turns. It seemed to all be in a day's work. A special treat was that the dancer who performed Ash's role in 1977 in the original production of Vienna Waltzes, Sara Leland, was there onstage to help out. The stage was filled with skill and camaraderie that spanned generations. As Ash and her partner finished up their portion of the rehearsal, they laughed, put their arms around each other walked off-stage.

Next came the Gold and Silver Waltz, featuring Jenifer Ringer (and partner). Ringer was dressed in a gorgeous black gown and looked as elegant as ever. She fit right into the glittering society café scenery. But then, a low voice down below reminded me again that I was at a rehearsal when he asked the pianist to slow the music down. "Let's make it a little more schmaltzy," he said, using a very technical term. I looked down to find the voice's owner and saw a gray-haired man seated in the front row of the orchestra behind a music stand with a little light attached to it. I think he might have been the principal conductor, Hugo Fiorato.

Finally, came the last waltz, Der Rosenkavalier, featuring Kyra Nichols in a magnificent white, layered gown with a long train in a grand, mirrored ballroom. She performed effortlessly-except for an incident with her lovely dress: As she was doing a grand developé, part of her train got caught on her leg. She asked the pianist to repeat that section of the waltz a few times so that she could get used to the dress. After while, she seemed to have mastered the move. Just before 6 pm, when we Guild members were to leave, we saw the end of this glorious ballet. Dozens of waltzing couples flooded the stage (including the dancers that had been featured earlier), each of the women in the same magnificent white dress that Nichols wore and the men…well, they were in sweats and t-shirts, but I could imagine their tuxedos. The overall effect was marvelous and elegant. The mirrors onstage made it look as though there were twice as many couples twirling about, and it created a white wonderland that was perfect for the final waltz.

With that, one of the NYCB volunteers told us that our time was up. We reluctantly gathered our belongings and left the theater-the company still rehearsing. Ballet-goers that evening were in for a treat.

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