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Mindy Aloff
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Profile of School of American Ballet's Suki Schorer: Stager of The Four Temperaments for the 2007 Workshop

by Mindy Aloff
July 17, 2007
New York, NY
School of American Ballet
Petite Suki Schorer was invited by George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet (NYCB) when she was 19 years old. The daughter of Ruth and Mark Schorer, the esteemed literary biographer, she had already been performing professionally with the San Francisco Ballet in her native California since she was 15, and so she never attended the School of American Ballet (SAB) as a matriculated student—although, as a member of NYCB, she certainly took classes there with Felia Doubrovska, Stanley Williams, and other illustrious teachers. Still, during her years as a dancer with the company (a little less than a decade and a-half) Schorer was an assiduous student of Balanchine's daily company class. In the 1960's, she became a principal dancer for Balanchine, who made many parts for her that showcased her brilliant exactitude, especially in allegro; her unshaded vivacity; and her hummingbird delicacy of physique as well as of technique in major works that include The Figure in the Carpet, Don Quixote, Midsummer Night's Dream—where she danced the Butterfly whom Oberon partners, and the often overlooked yet luminous ballet poem La Source, where she was the original second lead.

However, Balanchine also noticed early on that Schorer was an excellent teacher. Still, what does that mean? To start, she possesses both extraordinary powers of observation and a prodigious memory for such technical refinements as how each toe of a woman's foot is supposed to function in a point shoe, and she can not only enumerate every variety of pas de chats in the ballet lexicon but also can tell you which one Balanchine used in which ballet for which ballerina. Yet a quick eye and a prodigious memory are not, in themselves, enough to make for excellence in the classroom. Schorer happens to have a warm personality and to enjoy people; but even those qualities aren't enough to make a teacher great. A truly great teacher of ballet dancing is an example of multitasking on the highest level—someone who knows how to break down an action through words and demonstration so that she can efficiently and decisively convey its architecture, its logistics, options for its performance, and, when relevant, its history, in verbal and physical communication that a working student can quickly process, while also keeping track of her students' individual learning rates and of any injuries that might affect their abilities to execute the movement. A great teacher exercises powers of analysis, memory, communication, judgment, taste, social sensitivity, and concern for individuals, all at the same time. Balanchine encouraged Schorer to conduct class at SAB while she was still in her early 20's, long before she retired from the company and became a permanent member of the faculty, in 1972. Now the Brown Foundation Senior Faculty Chair at SAB, she is also the author of a book about ballet for children (her own daughter, Nicole Macoutsis, is a longtime student of Middle Eastern dancing) and a landmark and authoritative study, for adults, on Balanchine's pedagogy, Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique, written with Russell V. Lee. In Schorer's spare time, with her partner, Art Collier, she develops her mastery of the complexities and nuances of Argentine tango, for which she is admired by professional exponents of that challenging, improvisatory dance, sometimes compared to chess in the demands it puts on memory for dance phrases and spontaneous decision-making.

For dance audiences, however, Schorer is cherished for yet another achievement: her high-octane stagings of Balanchine ballets for SAB students. Each June, in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater of The Juilliard School at Lincoln Center, two or more casts of advanced students from the school give three performances over a three-day period. The annual event, called Workshop Performances, marks the end of the school's winter term completed by fulltime students and anticipates the summer term, when aspiring SAB students from around the country travel to New York for intensive study and, often, consideration for fulltime admission and scholarships in the fall. These days, the program for the workshop usually consists of ballets by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and SAB's current chairman, Peter Martins, with an occasional historic work from the international repertory. When Balanchine founded the workshop, in the 1960's, he wanted new choreography on the program every year. In recent times, however, the new works have come every few years, and nearly all are by artists connected in one respect or another with NYCB.

This year, in a tribute program to Lincoln Kirstein, the school's cofounder, as part of the celebrations for the centenary year of his birth, SAB's advanced students tackled Martins's Les Gentilhommes (staged by Russell Kaiser), a 1987 Handel ballet for an ensemble of men that was originally dedicated to the late SAB teacher Stanley Williams and whose SAB staging this year commemorated the tenth anniversary of his death; a pas de deux from Martins's new Romeo + Juliet (staged by Kaiser and SAB faculty member Sean Lavery), a ballet developed on SAB students; Lavery's classical Mozart ballet, Twinkliana (staged by the choreographer) for some of SAB's younger students; most of Balanchine's 1958 Gounod Symphony (staged by SAB faculty member and alumna and former Balanchine soloist Susan Pilarre), a lustrous work of whose exquisite choreography for the corps de ballet Kirstein was especially fond; and—in a brand-new staging by Schorer—Balanchine's 1946 masterpiece The Four Temperaments, made for Ballet Society, NYCB's immediate antecedent.

All of the works on this year's Workshop program, apart from Twinkliana (originally made for Barnard College students in 1989), had been given their premières by NYCB, and both Gounod and The Four T's have been performed at previous Workshop Performances in other stagings. What made Schorer's effort especially fitting as a tribute to Kirstein is that her staging did more than iterate the company's current production exactly: in a scholarly manner, she started from scratch, as if she were reconstructing Four T's rather than reviving it. Although The George Balanchine Foundation has sponsored attempts to reconstruct choreography, such as the 1945 version of Mozartiana, which has been out of repertory for decades, to my knowledge no other leading stager of Balanchine's work has put such energy into taking a fresh look at a ballet that is still being regularly performed.

Schorer had never staged Four T's before. She had danced it for Balanchine, though, and she explained in a recent conversation that her various parts "were in me from way down deep from 45 years ago." This staging proved a kind of journey for her, and she underwent it with thoroughness.

She began by studying tapes of recent company performances; of the televised film that Merrill Brockway, overseen by Balanchine, had directed for "Dance in America"; and of two earlier Four T's productions by NYCB ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy and Pilarre for SAB workshops in the 1990's. Schorer then attended Dunleavy's rehearsals of several sections with the current NYCB cast and re-learned some sections on her own body. She looked at historic films, including one from 1946 of the ballet's earliest cast and a CBC film from the 1960's, with Schorer, herself, in the cast. (Both are in the Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.) She studied a complete notation and elaborate notes made by Victoria Simon, a respected stager for The Balanchine Trust. She listened to four different musical performances to fix a tempo for her pianist, Nataliya Pinelis, who played for both rehearsals and performances. She showed the students tapes from The Interpreters Archive of The George Balanchine Foundation, which presented Maria Tallchief rehearsing the "Sanguinic" section, as well as a film of the late Todd Bolender, the original soloist in "Phlegmatic." And, at key points in her rehearsals, she brought in a range of Four T's alumni and current performers from NYCB to look over what she had set on the students and to comment: among them were Jock Soto, Merrill Ashley, Sean Lavery, Susan Hendl, Renee Estopinal, Tom Gold, Peter Frame, Charles Askegard, Sofiane Sylve, Albert Evans, and Ask la Cour. An exhaustive process—but, as Schorer noted, a helpful and educational one. "In the beginning, it [Four T's] was a foreign language," she said, "and, suddenly, it was my tongue." She added that, of all her Balanchine stagings (she has done some 35 for Workshop Performances, including excerpts), she had spent the most time with this one. "Musically it's more complicated," she said. "And different sections have different looks. It's a classical ballet but not all straight classical dancing. In 'Sanguinic,' for example, the dancing begins very flat and then becomes jazzy. This ballet was a breakthrough for him [Balanchine], the first since Apollo, and it anticipates Agon and Symphony in Three [Movements]."

At the SAB rehearsal I attended, Schorer—who has undergone operations to replace her hips—was continually hopping onto the higher of two barres at the front of the studio in order to gain a full perspective of each of the several casts she was coaching. Assisting her from a chair on this occasion was former NYCB principal and current SAB faculty member Jock Soto, one of the finest exponents of classical partnering in the history of the company. Schorer's corrections to the students were myriad and, at that point in the rehearsal process, so close to the performances and so late in the arduous school year, they solicitously concerned the dancers' varied physical ailments: Given this dancer's injured toe, could she sustain this balance? Given that dancer's sore muscle, did he need an adjustment in a plié? Soto's critiques were few—however, each one made a dramatic difference: If the danseur before him were to shift his thumb one inch on his partner's waist, they'd both be able to achieve the partnering sequence much more easily; they immediately demonstrated, to their flushed delight, that this was true. Or: when the danseurs lift the ballerinas while running from wing to wing during the finale, in an image reminiscent of planes taking off on adjacent runways, Soto remembered that when he performed that sequence, the guys not only lifted their partners but actually threw them—while running—overhead and then caught them. It was a difficult fillip to the choreography but also, as the dancers could instantly recognize, a thrilling one.

When a master choreographer dies, his or her repertory effectively breaks into pieces, like a smashed glass. Every dancer who performed a part under his direction carries away a piece. Usually, it is the first cast, on whom the choreographer made the dance, who curate the largest fragments, but not always; and if, as with The Four Temperaments, those originals are no longer available (or no longer alive)—or the choreographer's later recensions of a work are preferable aesthetically and/or technically to the first effort—a stager must synthesize many editions of the ballet from several periods. That is, the reconstruction process requires more than community collaboration: it needs an artist overseeing the whole who makes the spontaneous hard decisions when different executants disagree or when—owing to differences in body type or ability or constraints resulting from injury—the dancers performing the reconstruction have to have the logistics of the choreography adjusted, or when contemporary audiences need to be shown a sequence in a way that will make them see the images and overarching architecture that the choreographer intended and feel the full effect of the artistic purpose for them. At the Workshop Performances—where the Paul Hindemith score was played by the virtuoso Juilliard orchestra and the piano solos by Pinelis, who had been present at every rehearsal—Schorer's Rosetta Stone staging of this ballet was so sharp, inevitable, and multi-textured that many longtime company observers thought it far better than the production now performed by NYCB. "They will remember the steps and forget the idea," Balanchine was once quoted as saying about how dancers would treat his legacy after his death. Suki Schorer, a chessmaster extraordinaire of dancing, remembers both.
Advanced students perform Balanchine's 'The Four Temperaments' at the School of American Ballet's annual Workshop Performances, June 2007. Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust

Advanced students perform Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" at the School of American Ballet's annual Workshop Performances, June 2007.
Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Suki Schorer in class at the School of American Ballet

Suki Schorer in class at the School of American Ballet

Photo © & courtesy of Katsuyoshi Tanaka

Puanani Brown and Joshua Thew perform Balanchine's 'The Four Temperaments' at the School of American Ballet's annual Workshop Performances, June 2007. Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust

Puanani Brown and Joshua Thew perform Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" at the School of American Ballet's annual Workshop Performances, June 2007.
Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Suki Schorer teaching at the School of American Ballet, 2004

Suki Schorer teaching at the School of American Ballet, 2004

Photo © & courtesy of Ellen Crane

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