Judge William Lee's dance career ended early, but he still gets a lot of use out of his tutu.
"You're not gonna get rich doing this, you're not gonna get famous.
You're gonna get hurt and you're gonna get bruises and you're gonna get bunions
and a bad back."
One of the 20th century's foremost choreographers, George Balanchine (1904-1983) is often credited as the man who brought ballet to the United States. His legacy lives on in the New York City Ballet Company, which he co-founded. Twenty years after his death, the NYCB returns to Saint Petersburg, Russia—Balanchine's birthplace—for a series of performances. Originally aired on PBS television, this extended cut of New York City Ballet: Bringing Balanchine Back showcases some excellent dance performances, giving viewers a peek behind the curtain at one of America's leading ballet companies.
Facts of the Case
The son of a noted composer, Balanchine began his ballet training when he was nine-years-old at the urging of his mother. He grew up in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and eventually graduated with honors from the Imperial Ballet School in 1921 and then from the Petrograd Conservatory in 1923. The following year he defected to the west. His fruitful early career included stints with the famed Ballets Russes in Paris and the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein persuaded Balanchine to move to the United States where he established the School of American Ballet in 1934. The New York City Ballet was co-founded by the pair in 1948 with Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as founding choreographers. Balanchine created over 450 works for ballet, opera and Hollywood productions.
With Balanchine at the helm, the NYCB performed in Saint Petersburg in 1962 and 1972. Participating in the city's centenary in 2003, the company's young performers had to measure up not only to the scrutiny of the Russian audience but also to the reputation of a giant. Filmed live at the famous Mariinsky Theater, their featured performances on this DVD are:
• "Serenade," music by Peter Tchaikovsky; choreography
by George Balanchine, 1934.
As a biography on George Balanchine, this documentary offers only a cursory introduction to the man and his work. Viewers who have never heard of him will at least get the idea that he was immensely influential to ballet in the 20th century, even if they can't pin down what it was that made him unique. The current members of the company include many veterans who worked with "Mr. B." One key personality is Peter Martins, who joined the NYCB in 1970 and has been the company's Ballet Master in Chief since 1990. The senior artistic staff shares fondness for Mr. B and express sadness that they're returning to Russia without their iconic leader. The majority of company's active dancers are in their early 20s, so they have no personal connection to Balanchine. Nevertheless, the man's shadow is definitely felt in the exacting standards that are demanded of them.
The dramatic angle that director Richard Blanshard tries to establish early on is that the company members want to prove they are worthy of continuing Balanchine's legacy. It's believable that some members share this sentiment, but it feels a little heavy-handed to suggest it is a cloud that hangs over the entire company. Blanshard backs off from this theme as the story develops and the film does not suffer as a result because the real human drama of people collaborating in pursuit of excellence is compelling enough.
The best part of this chronicle of the NYCB in Russia is seeing a piece in its various stages of life—from grueling rehearsal to amazing, magical performance. Individual stories, like the ballerina who has been waiting for her debut in a key role but still struggles with the moves, remind us how difficult it is to reach a goal. On their down time, the young dancers explore the city and meet some of the local dancers. One Russian ballet student reveals that Balanchine's connection to Saint Petersburg is downplayed by the authorities because he's regarded as a traitor. These casual moments also provide an interesting view of the city during the summer White Nights when the sun doesn't set at night due to Saint Petersburg's northern situation.
The performances are filmed in a straightforward manner with the cameras recording the action from the audience's point of view. These are live theater performances that have not been specially staged for the camera so they work just fine presented in this flat framing. Limited by the one perspective, the compositions are satisfying and manage to capture all of the movements. The added element that sets this film apart from other filmed stage shows is a camera that captures the action from the wings of the stage. A camcorder situated just out of sight behind the curtain gets the insider's view of the action in sometimes less-than-flattering close-up. The combination of these two vantage points—the audience's formal view of the stage with the dancers at a distance and properly lit; and the stagehand's up close and personal view of the performers covered in sweat, their bodies straining to maintain a pose—vividly brings these pieces to life. You can appreciate the precision and grace of the movements but there's no denying how intensely difficult it must be to make it look so good.
The dance pieces are cut for time but the editing is so seamless—in six of the seven cases anyway—that it almost feels like the entire piece is there. However, if you're intimately familiar with any of the pieces, you might be annoyed that a favorite section was left out. The one number that has an awkward cut is "Glass Pieces" where it abruptly goes from slow and quiet to fast and furious. Even though it takes its cue from music by Philip Glass, a gentler transition might have been less jarring.
The film's video quality is adequate but inconsistent, partly owing to the different equipment used. There is a lower quality camcorder that records some of the performances from backstage as well as some of the dancers' casual moments around town. The filmmakers' main camera does a good job filming the performances and some other scenes such as the rehearsals. The majority of the footage is sharp with a clean picture and strong colors. However, there are a few instances where the camera work is sloppy. In a couple of interview scenes, for example, the backgrounds are in sharp focus but the interviewee is not. For the most part, the camera successfully gives us an insider's view of the workings of the company without being intrusive. Given a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, it's a respectable presentation of a film assembled from various video sources.
The audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 Surround, which gives a nice fullness to the music heard during the shows and underscoring the film. The extra channel capability doesn't do much for the interviews. The voiceover narration by Kevin Kline (Trade) is heard clearly but tonally blends in too much with the soundtrack so that the information in his script doesn't register very strongly.
The supplements on this DVD include extended interviews with Peter Martins; ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy-Maslow, principal dancer Darci Kistler, and Valery Gergiev, conductor and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater—each one runs just over two minutes. Edited portions of these interviews are already seen in the feature program. The last supplement is a "Tour of the Mariinsky Theater" which is a wordless walk down the hallways and into the auditorium of the famed building where some of ballet's greatest have performed. Without any narration or introduction to guide viewers, the "Tour" feels more like an unfinished idea that was included to pad out the extras. All of the supplemental scenes are presented in a non-anamorphic, letterboxed 1.78:1 ratio.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The supplements that made it onto the disc are a disappointment. The obvious bonus material is the uncut record of the performances but they're nowhere to be seen and that's a real shame. Watching these amazing dancers work so hard to prepare for the shows, I really wanted to see the final product of their efforts. The excerpts from the shows that are included in the main program are fine but why not give us the entire performances? There's no runtime restriction on DVD supplements.
As a documentary on Balanchine, this film only provides a brief introduction to the man who reshaped modern ballet. The supposedly intense pressure of the NYCB's return to Russia isn't entirely convincing but the film still works as a chronicle of the event and a showcase of the company's many bright talents. Ballet fans will relish this insider's view of what it takes to prepare for and pull off a demanding show with the company that maintains the high standards of an icon.
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