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Mr. B. - a play and a DVD

by Marian Horosko
October 26, 2008
New York, NY
Geogi Mentonovich Balanchivadze (1904-1983) asked his company to call him "Mr. B." He was the subject of Martin Zimmerman's "Three Movements", an Heiress Production, a not-for-profit organization, that played at the Studio Theatre, Theatre Row on 42nd Street, October 17-26. It is probably one many plays, fiction and satires about this famous Russian-American to come.

The one-act play had 3 thinly disguised characters: Balanchine played by Mike Timoney, Maria Portman Kelly as Tanaquil Le Clercq and Erin Fogarty as Suzanne Farrell, all three fine Actors' Equity members. The names have been changed to Alexei, Sonia, and Lindsay; the setting is the 1950s in New York and Petrograd, USSR, with no intermission.

There will be as many books, plays and videos about Mr. B. as there have been members of his New York City Ballet since 1948, when he finally had a small concert group, 22 girls and 11 boys, all of whom had had previous professional careers. It was before the move to Lincoln Center's New York State Theater with his dancers thereafter from the School of American Ballet.

Many inaccuracies and twisted facts as recounted by author Zimmerman were saved to a great extent by director Maura Farver's sympathetic direction and choreographer Avichai Scher. To mention only one error, Sonia, who plays Mr. B's ballerina wife who became a polio victim, says that Alexei couldn't dance because he had only one lung. True, he didn't reach the level of classical dancer but danced walk-on character roles in the Diaghilev Company and character dance for a New York City Ballet fund-raiser with his then ballet mistress, Vida Brown. Even as a teen-ager, he was more interested in creating choreography than dancing. He contracted tuberculosis as an adult, spent 3 months in a sanitarium and lost one lung as a result. This was at a time when he was supposed to become the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. But fate brought him to our shores.

Sonia is made into a shrew. None of her wit (although sometimes biting), courage and forbearance were given credit. It was a painful time for all of us in the company and the audience; for Mr. B. it was tragic.

Mike Timoney, following the script, plays Mr. B. as somewhat lecherous. None of his charm, concern for every member of his company and total dedication to producing artists…a 24-hour job, even if it meant marrying some of them…was part of the characterization. He reeducated dancers with no academic legacy, little exposure to the arts in a courteous, old-world manner. Traits of his courtesy, appreciation of female dancers through an admiring look, the gentle offering of a hand, is no longer seen in the interpretation of his ballets. His musicality in his works is subtle. His pre-rehearsal company classes were always experimental. He was not a pedagogue, but a choreographer. If you didn't do you own warm-up barre before his class you didn't get one from him. Some dancers never showed up, ever, for that reason.

Mr. B. took the Broadway #104 from 79th Street where he lived to the City Center Theater where the company was then playing in the 1950s. The ride was an amusing production with his aisle imitation of people walking down the street—never mean—but more like an idol of his, Charlie Chaplin.

Dancer Erin Fogarty did a fine job as Suzanne Farrell, his last ballerina, on a postage stamp stage, to credible movements by choreographer Avichai Scher. Ironically, Le Clercq from the time she was a young girl seemed destined to tragic roles: wheelchair poster girl for the March of Dimes when she was a child; looking at the face of death in a mirror in Mr. B's "La Valse" and burning up as a paper doll in "Jeux d'Enfants." The Salk vaccine was made public just one day after she was diagnosed in Denmark at the end of a long, European tour.

The play requires another act, one that shows his resilience and ability to go one working despite past wars, failures and disappointments. No, he did not die of Alzheimer's, as rumor had it, but Jakob Creutsfeld disease from a fatal injection taken, he believed, to help him work longer.



On the lighter side, a recent DVD release, "New York City Ballet: Bringing Balanchine Back," created by City-Lights Media, with Kevin Kline as narrator, recounts NYCB's trip in 2003 to St. Petersburg, Mr. B's birthplace. It preserves in 80 minutes, full-length early works, "Serenade," "Symphony in C" and "Western Symphony" with interviews and reactions from the Russian audience.
Mr. B, the play

Mr. B, the play

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

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