"Nikolai" actors who want to know about George Balanchine, one of the play's main characters, have dozens of books and videos available for consultation, most of them right next door to LCT at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. Among living sources, meanwhile, few know more about the great choreographer than Peter Martins, the Ballet Master in Chief of New York City Ballet, the company that Balanchine founded with Lincoln Kirstein.
Not long ago, Martins very graciously accepted an invitation to talk to the "Nikolai" actors and creative team. The other day, he made good on the promise by showing up at their rehearsal room to speak about Balanchine and about "Orpheus," the ballet whose making is a central subject of the play. "Balanchine," said Martins, "hardly ever did a lot of coaching of dancers while one of his ballets was being rehearsed." Among the exceptions were "Orpheus" and "Apollo." "Balanchine was very specific about 'Orpheus,' about what he wanted from it." Martins said. He added that while the steps in the ballet are not among Balanchine's most complex, its requirements are very precise.
Martins said that Balanchine was "the wisest man I've ever known." As well as the calmest: "In the many years I knew him I heard him raise his voice only once."
Balanchine reserved his energies not for anger but for choreography, music, and food: he famously liked to cook, and Martins mentioned having conversations with him on the street outside a grocery store near Balanchine's West 67th street apartment. Martins also told a story of how Balanchine once invited him to a Russian Easter celebration and filled a hamburger bun for him with mounds of caviar. Martins added that Balanchine also had a fondness for Aquavit, a bracing, Scandinavia-produced beverage.
Returning to the subject of choreography, Martins provided some essential details about Balanchine's approach to his work. "I asked him about his process," Martins said. "He said that it wasn't rocket science. 'You respond to what you hear. What I do is listen and make steps.'" Martins hastened to add that Balanchine wasn't being falsely modest. "He had a very clear, very direct philosophy."
Martins shared a few of Balanchine's slightly more specific explanations. "From the waist up, ballet for him was personal: dancers were given a lot of freedom to make the ballets their own. From the waist down, he would say that ballet is impersonal: that's where the movement is much more precise and specific."
Martins became more technical when he spoke about how the ending of "Orpheus" evolved over the years. But as I am not a dance specialist I will not wade into those waters. What's more, Martins was not addressing the "Nikolai" cast as he would a panel of dance professionals. He was at rehearsal to impart a few helpful Balanchine basics and stories, which he did beautifully.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com