April 18 to 26, 2015
Patricia McBride lived a dancer’s dream: Her mentor was George Balanchine
This was normal for McBride, then the New York City Ballet’s principal dancer (now the associate artistic director at the Charlotte Ballet), but working with Balanchine would have been a dream come true for aspiring ballerinas around the world.
He is known as an artistic genius in the ballet world. A gifted choreographer responsible for changing the face of dance and famous for the New York City Ballet’s ” Coppélia” and “The Nutcracker.” And this man personally invited McBride to join his company when she was just 16 years old.
Balanchine and McBride would work alone in a studio, not speaking much. Balanchine would cue the music and dance in front of McBride. A pianist himself, musicality was of the utmost importance to Balanchine. He wanted the dances to flow naturally, so he let the music do the speaking. McBride followed along behind him, learning the steps. Forty-five minutes later, McBride would have a new solo in her repertoire.
“He worked so quickly and he didn’t have to experiment with you. He knew exactly what you could do,” McBride said in a phone interview. “Once something was made to you, you had to remember it forever. You were the guardian of the choreography.”
Balanchine trained McBride for a 30-year career with the New York City Ballet. She danced over 100 ballets in that time, including 30 choreographed just for her. When she performed her final ballet in 1989, McBride was showered with 13,000 roses and a standing ovation.
But McBride did not leave dance behind. She went on to teach at Indiana University and then took over the Charlotte Ballet in North Carolina with her husband and dance partner, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 1998. She’s now 72 and still teaches eight ballet classes at a time, on top of running rehearsals for performances like The Nutcracker.
This lifelong dedication to dance has been noticed by the outside world, too.
Earlier this month, McBride walked down a red carpet in Washington, D.C., to be honored for her commitment to the performing arts. She mingled with Tom Hanks and Sting, had dinner with John Kerry and met the Obamas. She was given a rainbow-colored Kennedy Center Honors ribbon and listened to actress Christine Baranski praise her accomplishments.
It was a celebratory weekend all about honoring the ballerina (among other honorees), but McBride was quick to thank others in our interview. Especially Balanchine, her mentor.
Theirs was an intimate setting to work in, but Balanchine was more than a teacher to McBride. She looked up to him as a role model and desperately wanted to please him. McBride‘s own father left her family when she was just 3 years old, so Balanchine stepped in to fill that role.
“I grew up without a father so he was everything to me — the man I most admired and just the most wonderful role model anyone could have,” McBride said.
And their relationship was not lost on the outside world.
“A true muse for George Balanchine, he created many ballets especially for her,” said Larry Attaway, executive director of ballet at Butler University. “She was one of the most remarkable ballerinas of the 20th century.”
McBride still remembers leaping for joy when Balanchine invited her to join the New York City Ballet Company all those years ago — and did not hesitate to give up a normal teenage life for one of endless rehearsals, travel and intense dedication.
Balanchine took McBride under his wing and trained her to dance his ballets, many of which are still performed around the world today. She traveled to Tokyo, Italy, Germany, London, Paris, South America and Russia to dance, including five performances for U.S. presidents. Leading roles in her repertoire include the Sugarplum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” and Colombine in ”Harlequinade.”
“I cherish the ballets made for myself by Mr. Balanchine,” McBride said in a phone interview. “He never lost his temper. He was quiet, humble, the genius of the 20th century. He changed the face of what dance is today.”
Balanchine was her teacher, her mentor and inspiration during her long-lived dancing career. He pushed her and drove her to perform at the highest possible level, but he was also kind and patient — a notable trait in the perfectionism-driven world of ballet.
“In the beginning, he taught you how to hold your fingers, use your head, hold your shoulders, how you glissade, bourre — the exact way he wanted you to do the steps,” McBride said. “It was relearning the whole Balanchine technique.”
He was not a man of many words, but when he did offer praise, it stayed with McBride for years to come.
“After performances he would say, ‘Good, good.’ He never really gave a harsh word. I don’t ever remember him saying, ‘That was awful,’ ever. He didn’t praise that much, but when he did, it was wonderful. He would say, ‘I loved how you used your eyes, you were mysterious.’ It would make you feel like a million dollars.”
Balanchine passed away in 1983, but McBride carries on his legacy by teaching her students his ballets with patience and kindness. She gives her students at the Charlotte Ballet Academy praise and talks highly of her “beautiful dancers.” She believes in nurturing her students and making them feel secure in themselves.
“Mr. Balanchine wanted me to be myself. He didn’t want me to look like anyone else,” McBride said. “I love teaching our company dancers the Balanchine ballets. I try to give them what was passed down to me and what I learned from him. They dance it so beautifully. It also keeps me close to Mr. Balanchine. He’s with me every single day.”
Paris is luxe. London is Continental (and English speaking). Germany is FREE. Russia is difficult. New York is….well, New York. So many cities have so many dance offerings, it is truly thought consuming to go over all of the pros and cons of applying to or travelling to any of them. Sometimes it is just easier to stay at home while everyone else goes to summer programs. Yes. It is that time again. I am greatly overwhelmed, not just with the choices and options, prices and amenities, teachers and classes, but with the basic idea of sending my daughter away for any length of time to a place that by most measures of criteria can still be termed a very expensive summer camp.
If your child, like mine, located your passport and carried it around like a toy for the second year of her life onward, only wanted bags and purses from Toys r Us, and then decided she liked to mix with old friends two towns away instead of blending in to her new surroundings, only buys dancewear and shuns anything not dance related (even school), and whose cell phone is permanently attached to her hand-you may have the same problem I do. She is a dancer who has no problem leaving home and not looking back. I guess they all call when they have a problem, but are they old enough-not just to go away to a program, but to make decisions about what they want to do with the rest of their lives, without the benefit of our own experiences?
Sadly, going away is not my daughter’s problem. The problem is whether these experiences are worth the several thousand dollar investment each year in the long run. Would it not be better to encourage them to stay at home, avail themselves of the less busy instructors for additional privates, enjoy some home time and friend time, possibly start their monthly period, gain some weight and catch up on their favorite television shows and read some books, maybe even finish or get ahead in their high school work? A ninth grader should have some normal activities when the year has been spent dancing in at least two productions, classes everyday, privates and other dance-related classes, music, yoga, pilates, the physical therapist or whatever, and texting real people instead of being in a gang of girls going to the movies and the beach.
Also, does your child really benefit from these brief workshops where they are usually so crowded that even the teachers have trouble remembering anyone’s name but the very best? Are they really worth the effort and expense to find out at the end, if your child has been one of the lucky few to receive additional notice or an invite to stay on through the year? Would you allow your young daughter to stay? Can you afford it if she/he is asked? If not, can you or your child deal with the disappointment of being asked, but not being able to afford the tuition? Well, a couple of years ago, we were in just that position with the Joffrey and besides the fact that she was just not ready, we could not addord even the balance of tuition and room and board after the ample scholarship.
The next year they changed directors, she could not afford to go at all, but if she had gone, would she even have been asked? Such is life. But, I firmly believe that it was the best possible turnout for her as the instruction she has received here in the interim has been of very high caliber, in most cases nearly the best. She has been working on turnout, her stretching, epaulment, character, variations, dancing and is in the Nutcracker. Even though there are certainly issues at her studio, they are typical ones, like the allocation of parts to students who pay for each one they dance, or preference is given to children who have attended there for many years, or the costumes for the Nutcracker are secretly changed so that certain children whose mothers work in the costume fitting area will have them for their children. But we can deal with these things because the instruction is amazing. If only all of those children and parents who display these tendencies availed themselves of what is truly important, and there really was a spirit of family and comaraderie it would be a perfect world. You can’t have everything.
There is also the fact that my daughter has her own issues to overcome and she is being made aware of what they are through a not so pleasant but necessary process which would not be available if she were in a A level school-she would just be sent home, probably with little explanation and a poor opinion of herself. In this environment, she is being given the option to change, to better herself, to get better and better. No, she is not without potential, she is not lazy, but she is afraid to split herself in half. She is also weary of the endless (seemingly) stretching that (seems to) result(s) in little improvement, which the minute she looks away. What she actually is is YOUNG, naive with a tendency to work very hard, but not always work smart.
What really can happen to a child when you prod them so much, and there is so much pressure to compete, but they have a choice, is that they often choose not to do something they basically love, because they begin to associate negative feelings with that activity rather than positive ones. Of course, as serious dance students, they waver between a normal social life and activities, even career choices, desires and may have a tendency to favor a fantasy life rather than a real life, but these are still normal swings and growth. What is tragic is if they begin to depend on dance as a life choice, while eschewing other possibilities, fearing that failure in dance will mean a life without any other choices. Parents have a great responsibility to these children to release them from liability if all does not go as planned and to teach them to love themselves not as dancers, but as talented people who have goals and see what not just their bodies, but they can do! One short goal at a time helps them to see they can accomplish anything they set their minds to, not just in the dance arena. Sometimes setbacks help us as parents to have that opportunity to teach our children (and ourselves) that you can make dinner out of almost anything in the cupboard if you only think creatively.
All parents of dancers struggle to juggle a heavy load, but think of what your children are accomplishing, even if they are not top of their class, fall somewhere in the middle, or even have trouble keeping up. All children have personal challenges, especially at this age. You may not see them in the studio but they are there. I remind my daughter of what she has accomplished since last year, not even a year, and she then sees her own improvement. Her long term goals have moved a step closer by her own logic, her own means, her hard work. It is not the dissemination of particular parts, but rather her own improvementrt she has to learn to appreciate and value, in short, herself. I can work to keep her focused on certain things, important things, and her teachers help. But it is up to her to do the work and to realize it is the ultimate reward. Nothing can touch, for some of us, the freedom and the beauty that comes in opening up and dancing, but to find that place where nothing else matters, is sometimes a challenge in this worried world.
I can decide to pay or not to pay, sometimes I cannot pay. Sometimes I cannot pay enough which means she really has to do what she can do within her means to improve herself. If she is told what to do, and she cannot find time to do it, then she is being inconsistent. Privates have little benefit at that point, for it is in the studio where she will find herself or not. And I have told her that consistency works wonders on the little goals-one step at a time. If she does not see immediate improvement, then she is not giving herself a chance to. That’s all. But such is the stress that accumulates when dancers try to do so much in so short a period of time. It’s funny, but you don’t look at them on stage and think they are a wheel on fire….They have to be reminded to slow down and to enjoy what they love or lose it. Performing becomes the heart and soul of their lives without their even knowing or expecting it, the parts the bonbons, the acceptances the reward, and the passion and reason for dancing, for working are sometimes lost forever, partlicularly at this age, where so much seems to be at stake. They cannot help thinking they are behind or not good enough if we let them fester. We are there to guide them, or steer them, into enjoyable learning experiences, and to remind them that nothing worthwhile is won without hard work, not just dance, but in any other aspect of their lives. Not all of that hard work pays off immediately, but it all pays off in the long run.
If they can take that committment into life with them, into their other activities or schoolwork, then it has not been a waste of time. Who knows what they can accomplish. We do not realize what we really buy with that tuition, those leotards or pointe shoes, but it does not have to be lost because one part is, one year, any year, all years. The summer camp might just be an extension of these lessons, proving to our children that what they bring home is just a slightly more enlightened version of what they brought with them in the first place, and that learning takes place all the time, not just the summertime. I do think think that they are worth applying for, auditions are important, and acceptances are, without a doubt, a confiormation of something, though we will probably never know what exactly. But, I also think that each school is looking for children who fit a very specific set of criteria oftentimes difficult to judge from one audition-whoever heard of all of the summer intensive students accepted, being asked to stay all year? If their judging skills were consummate then this would be the case, and using the same sort of logic, you can rest assured that if your child had been selected, and had the chance to prove him or herself-they probably would have been chosen to stay ;). Sometimes the thinking is better than the doing!