George Balanchine
George Balanchine teaching at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center (circa 1964), as seen in Connie Hochman’s In Balanchine’s Classroom | Credit: Martha Swope

Finally, the ballet movie everyone’s been waiting for without really knowing it. 

In Balanchine’s Classroom — the title workmanlike and unprepossessing, like the man himself — offers the first anatomization of George Balanchine’s essence as teacher and choreographer. It’s no dry catalogue of word and image, but a gorgeous, ever-shifting panoply. Its hundreds of excerpts, in studios and on stages, offer clues — often in black and white, sometimes flickering, sometimes hazily dreamlike images — to the pressures and passions that drove him and, in turn, his students. They were to inherit his teaching, his style, his New York City Ballet. 

The companies and the dancers that Balanchine’s heirs helped to develop spread the strength, the amplitude, the musicality that was to define new ballet, changes in content and quality often hotly debated as the art form moves, and morphs, forward.

The film’s director, Connie Hochman, studied at the School of American Ballet and danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Her documentary, a decade in the making, gathers digitized video from the vast resources of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. In addition, the Balanchine Trust let her film former dancers who, after retiring from performing, travel the world teaching the style, the repertory.

The New York City Ballet’s past and future Balanchine dancers are in nearly every frame, in the classroom and in performance. The headliners are a murderer’s row of American ballet of the 1950s–1980s: Jacques d’Amboise, Merrill Ashley, Gloria Govrin, Heather Watts, Suki Schorer, and Edward Villella. 

The film opens with a bang, not a whimper, as Balanchine looks back at his childhood in St. Petersburg, his entry into the dance division of the Imperial Theatre School, 1917 and the Russian Revolution, noting, “There were no rats, cats, or dogs. We ate them all” as famine swept the war-torn city. With a small cadre of dancers, Balanchine, 20, took off to England, obtaining permission to travel on the pretext of a brief summer tour. They never returned.

They came to the attention of the impresario Serge Diaghilev. He spent four years with the Ballets Russe. In 1933, Balanchine met Lincoln Kirstein, the heir to the Filene’s Department Store fortune, who persuaded him to come to America and start a ballet company. Famously, Balanchine is said to have said, “But first, a school,” and soon after his arrival in Manhattan in 1934, the School of American Ballet was born. After several unsuccessful attempts at creating a ballet company, in 1948 the New York City Center invited Balanchine to create the New York City Ballet. 

George Balanchine
George Balanchine (1960s) as seen in Connie Hochman’s In Balanchine’s Classroom | Credit: Ernst Hass

Balanchine taught company class every day. This is not a film about Balanchine’s other life, to the extent that he had one. Balanchine’s personal relationships with his ballerinas (four of whom he was married to) are not noted. Nor is any of the dance world gossip, sniping, scandal, and uproar, nor the battles for control of the company after Balanchine’s death in 1983 at age 79. You won’t miss it. 

The movie is here to talk about, and show, the work. About the art. About George Balanchine’s way of working differently with every dancer, depending on their needs — and his. About the Balanchine dancer’s complement of nigh-mystic devotion, confusion, pain, exaltation, and frustration, lasting throughout and maybe beyond their career. In that, it tries, often successfully, to give us a glimpse of the mind of a genius, and sense of what Balanchine was about, and what Balanchinian neoclassicism, the long-handed shorthand often used for the genre, has been passed down to dancers and audiences today. 

In the classroom, minus costumes and makeup, with tights and leotards, pointe shoes and slippers, barres and a pianist, Balanchine works the dancers. It looks brutal. It’s elemental, or maybe it’s impossible. Do a tendu, the foot extended, pointing forward. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. 32 tendus. 64 tendus. Dancer after dancer notes the endless repetition, the endless demand for perfection in every exercise.

Jacques d’Amboise talks to a young student (2015) as seen in in Connie Hochman’s In Balanchine’s Classroom

Dancer Darla Hoover: “Like lightning. You think you’re not going to get out alive. I never heard of anyone dancing as fast as we did. It was always more, more, more, more, more.”

 And after you point that foot, “Put back very carefully.” A few more quotes:

Jacques d’Amboise: “It’s like I was a pupil of Einstein.”

Gloria Govrin: “He was never satisfied.”

Heather Watts: He asked me, “Who told you to do it THAT way?!”

Other comments: 

“No, dear, try again.” (He called everyone “dear.”)

Said Merrill Ashley, “I committed myself to taking class whenever he taught. His emphasis on pointe work,” using the entire foot rather than just the front, “was a new frontier.” 

It began in Balanchine’s classroom. It moved on, and it continues.

Edward Villella, founding artistic director of Miami City Ballet, on teaching new dancers: “You pass it on. It’s the only way the art form moves forward.”

Merrill Ashley, who danced with City Ballet for 31 years and became a superb Balanchine teacher, gets the last word here: “Dancing for Balanchine was the privilege of a lifetime, like working with angels,” or, she said, “with the god who only knows four words, and keeps repeating them: ‘Come dance with me.’”

In Balanchine’s Classroom is playing at the Smith Rafael Film Center Oct. 2–3. More information at the RFC website.

In the Los Angeles area, the film plays through Oct. 7 at the Royal on Santa Monica Blvd. and the Town Center 5 on Ventura Blvd. It’s at the Newhall on Lyon Ave. and the Playhouse 7 on E. Colorado St. through Sept. 30. See details here.