Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Vol. LXV, No. 50
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Coldwell Banker Princeton Office

Prudential Fox and Roach, Realtors

Gloria Nilson GMAC Real Estate

Henderson Sotheby's International Realty

N.T. Callaway Princeton Office

Stockton Real Estate, LLC

Weichert, Realtors

Advertise in Town Topics

Iris Interiors

Advertise in Town Topics

Weather Forecast

Princeton Students Study Balanchine With One of His Former Star Dancers

Anne Levin

Last week, local ballet fans were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the work of 20th century master choreographer George Balanchine. Seven dancers from The New York City Ballet came to the Berlind Theatre on December 5 to perform excerpts, in practice clothes, from some of Balanchine’s most iconic ballets, from the 1928 Apollo to works from the 1960s and 70s. The free, late afternoon, program was a revelation to many in the audience, who gave the performers a standing ovation.

Some of the loudest applause went to the narrators of the program, former City Ballet principal dancers Heather Watts and Damian Woetzel. Ms. Watts, who this semester taught a course on Balanchine at Princeton University, put the lecture/demonstration together with Rebecca Lazier, a senior lecturer in the University’s dance department. Mr. Woetzel, Ms. Watts’s husband, is today the artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival and a frequent lecturer on many aspects of the arts.

“Genius Up Close: George Balanchine” was an open rehearsal, during which Ms. Watts and Mr. Woetzel dispensed advice on roles they danced themselves during their stage careers. After dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild performed a section of the duet from Apollo, Ms. Watts urged Ms. Peck to be a bit coy as she skittered across the stage, away from him. “Play with him!,” she said. “Go on, catch her,” she added to Mr. Fairchild as he tried to grip her hand. Later, when Ms. Peck danced a segment of the Dewdrop variation from The Nutcracker, Ms. Watts’ advice to “just hang there,” balancing on one leg a moment longer, turned what already looked like a perfect response to Tchaikovsky’s music into something even better.

“I’m doing what Balanchine did with us. He got us to do things we didn’t know we could do,” Ms. Watts commented a few days later during an interview in Ms. Lazier’s office. “He used to say, ‘Tell your children. Tell your grandchildren.’ So I’m passing it along. And I love doing it.”

Ms. Watts was younger than the University students she has been teaching this semester when she first encountered the great choregrapher at City Ballet’s training ground, the School of American Ballet. A self-acknowledged “bad girl,” she didn’t always play by the rules.

“Balanchine, to me, was a savior,” she said. “I was always involved in some sort of teenage drama. I was a hippie from California! But he kept finding ways to amuse me and keep me enthralled.”

Balanchine obviously saw something special in Ms. Watts, who joined the ballet company at 16 and was promoted to principal dancer rank 10 years later. “I guess he did have an interest in me,” she acknowledges. “But I just didn’t know it at the time. For me, he was more of a hero when it was happening. I liken it to being born rich. You don’t know what it was like not to be.”

Ms. Watts was among the last generations of dancers to work directly with Balanchine, who died at age 78 in 1983. He co-founded City Ballet several decades before with Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy arts patron who brought the Russian-born Balanchine to this country in 1933 to establish an American ballet tradition.

If the company was a big family, Mr. Balanchine was Daddy — or to Ms. Watts’ generation, Grandpa. “We loved him. He was the center of our universe,” she said. “Everyone was traumatized when he died.”

Ms. Watts retired from City Ballet in 1995, but Balanchine continues to fascinate her. What she has been trying to pass along to her Princeton students is not just the works of genius Balanchine created, but his unique personality as well. During the lecture/demonstration, she told the audience how he loved anything American, and would sing little ditties he heard in television commercials (“More Park Sausages Mom”).

“He was always interested in who we were and where we came from,” she said during the interview. “My father was an aerospace engineer. He would tease me in class. He’d say, ‘Your Dad can land men on the moon and you can’t land from a grand jete.’ He would personalize things.”

Teaching about Balanchine first occurred to Ms. Watts when her husband was taking time from the ballet company to study at Harvard University a few years ago. After her retirement from dancing, she had co-written a cookbook, and worked as a contributing editor to the magazine Vanity Fair, which she continues to do.

“Damian was going to Harvard. I taught at the Boston Ballet a bit, but what I really wanted to do was teach an academic course about Balanchine. I sort of talked my way into it at Harvard. Then they asked me to do a studio course the second semester, also on Balanchine.”

Ms. Lazier read an article about Ms. Watts’ teaching at Harvard, and got in touch with her. “We had a lunch that lasted four hours,” she said. “I knew this was somebody I wanted to bring to Princeton.”

The Princeton students taking “Repertory and Choreography: George Balanchine” have done rigorous reading and analysis as well as dancing. Some have extensive dance training; others are novices. “We didn’t audition anyone, we interviewed them,” said Ms. Watts. “It’s a broad range of experiences in one class, which presents interesting but not impossible challenges. I’m a firm believer that water seeks its own level. Each person’s goal is their own. We’ve worked hard to even the field emotionally, and the less experienced dancers who are working on their own goals with Mr. Balanchine have been able to improve by leaps and bounds.”

The dancers performed a section of “Agon,” one of Balanchine’s most complex works, during the Berlind lecture/demonstration, counting out loud to keep up with the score by Igor Stravinsky. They will dance more Balanchine excerpts at the University’s Spring Dance Festival February 24 and 25.

“I’m teaching the generous part of Balanchine, the part that they can take with them,” Ms. Watts said. “The dances he made speak of such universal, big issues in their abstraction. And their connection to music is so deep. It’s like reading a great novel or looking at a great painting. They take our sensibilities to a higher plane.”

Return to Previous Story | Return to Top | Go to Sports

Town Topics® may be purchased on Wednesday mornings at the following locations: Princeton — McCaffrey’s, Cox’s, Kiosk (Palmer Square), Krauszer’s (State Road), Olives, Speedy Mart (State Road), Wawa (University Place); Hopewell — Village Express; Rocky Hill — Wawa (Route 518); Pennington — Pennington Market.
Copyright© Town Topics®, Inc. 2011.