Michael Cerveris is no stranger to playing real-life figures in musicals: Juan Peron in Evita, Wilson Mizner in Road Show, Kurt Weill in LoveMusik, and John Wilkes Booth in Assassins (for which he won a Tony) are among the men he's inhabited. Straight plays, however, are a different matter. "That's a shorter list," Cerveris said, as we talked just down the hall from the dressing rooms of Nikolai and the Others before an evening curtain this week.
Even more select: portraying George Balanchine, as Cerveris does in Richard Nelson's play. Given the magnitude of the choreographer's genius, it may come as a surprise that, 30 years after his death, relatively few movies or TV shows or plays have been devoted to dramatizing him. Cole Porter was very much alive when Cary Grant portrayed him in Night and Day, and Glenn Miller had only been dead a decade when Jimmy Stewart created his screen portrait in The Glenn Miller Story. More recently, seeming scores of TV movies have been made about the Kennedys and Clintons.
Addressing the topic, Cerveris said: "It isn't just that there are still so many people alive who knew and loved Mr. B. and who might have things to say about the portrait. It's that he comes down to us as somewhat elusive: how do you turn him into something with broad outlines that the public can relate to?"
Cerveris's assignment was more subtle, less Hollywood: a beautiful, intelligent, nuanced portrait written by Nelson. "Richard gave me a complete character to play," the actor said, "but I wanted to know more about him." So Cerveris set about talking to some of major figures in Balanchine's life: among them were Peter Martins, the ballet-master-in-chief of New York City Ballet; Jacques d'Amboise, a dancer and choreographer with a long association with Balanchine; and Suki Schorer, a ballet mistress and teacher who was a dancer with NYCB from 1959 to 1972.
"I came to realize that everybody has their own version of Balanchine, so the fact that I may be playing a version slightly different from their memories became something I had to come to understand," Cerveris said. He cited a line in the play about whether dancers, once they fall, can ever regain audience trust for the rest of the piece. "Some people told me that that wasn't what Balanchine believed - that he thought sometimes a dancer fell from an admirable excess of energy and vitality." When Cerveris mentioned this to Nelson, the playwright cited a source - the writer, editor, and longtime NYCB board member Robert Gottlieb - that was consistent with the play's interpretation.
Cerveris, who grew up in West Virginia and attended Yale, said that his research into Balanchine was a kind of lesson in philosophy. "You are reminded that absolute truth is very elusive. When asked the same question, Balanchine, like most people, may have given one answer to one person and a different one to someone else."
In his research, Cerveris said he found it helpful to ask people specific questions about Balanchine. "I would ask them how he sat, how he held his head, where he put his hands." Cerveris added: "I tried to combine these small details with the broad outlines to come up with my portrait." The actor also credits Nelson; David Cromer, the production's director; and his colleagues onstage for helping him craft his portrayal. "I also need to mention Paul Huntley," Cerveris said, referring to the master wig designer of Nikolai."Many people who knew Balanchine have told me how great my wig is," Cerveris remarked.
Cerveris said that portraying Balanchine has been a reminder to him of how hard ballet dancers work in the rehearsal room, a process that is in some ways different than what actors go through when preparing a show: "Dancers have to really push their bodies." He added: "Everything is beautiful at the ballet - but it isn't always pretty."
Though it can be memorable. Cerveris remembered a rehearsal-room moment that took place more than 30 years ago. "It was at the School of American Ballet," he said, "where I was watching my sister, Marisa, in a class." (Marisa Cerveris was a member of New York City Ballet from 1982 to 1991.) "Suddenly, the temperature of the room changed: the girls stood straighter. I didn't have a view of the door that had opened, but I felt a presence behind me." Cerveris kept watching the dancers, and it was only a few minutes later that he had a clear view of who the presence was.
Balanchine, of course.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.