The Female Balanchine Body

By Rachel Straus

Last week at The Juilliard School, my dance history students and I were looking at the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue number by Balanchine from the 1939 film “On Your Toes.” Our subject for the day was Balanchine in Hollywood. After watching the back-bending, jazz-inflected, bravura performance of Vera Zorina in “Slaughter,” I asked the students a question: Does a particular image come to mind when you think of a female Balanchine dancer? Surely, I thought Zorina fits the bill: she had legs for days, a short torso, and was slim as a cigarette. To my question, the students answered with similar descriptions about the Balanchine female body. Yet one female student raised her hand and protested:

“What about Sara Mearns? And Ashley Bouder, and Teresa Reichlen?” said Amelia Sturt-Dilley. “They have very different body types, and they are stars!”

Indeed, Amelia was right. Today’s New York City Ballet’s principal dancers don’t come in one shape and size (they rarely did). This fact was driven home during the New York City Ballet triple-bill performance at the former New York State Theater on January 19. Sara Mearns, Ashley Bouder, and Teresa Reichlen graced the stage in an all-Balanchine evening, which is part of the company’s ambitious “Tchaikovsky Celebration.”

Mearns and Bouder performed in Balanchine’s “Serenade” (1935). Bouder’s ability to dance a hair’s breath ahead of the beat, with dynamo power, couldn’t be achieved without her muscular, compact physique. This ballerina picks the notes with her pointes. Her dare devil personality comes to the fore in her petite allegro. If Bouder weren’t a ballerina, she might have made a great racecar driver. Her hairpin turns look effortless.

Mearns, in contrast, is a lyrical dancer. In the second movement of “Serenade,” she slowly lowered her out-stretched hand to her forehead. The gesture resembled an anointment: The ritual transformation of a woman into a dancing muse. When Mearns flourished her arms in a circle, as she came out of a turn, audience members in my vicinity sighed with delight. Mearns’ arm appeared to push the string section to a higher octave with her raised arms. Music made visible, yes. That’s Mearns. She also dances with her whole body. It is a body that is as voluptuous as her dancing. Mearns has breasts and thighs. Isadora Duncan would have trumpeted her physique. Legions of New York City Ballet regulars regularly do so, thus establishing a new paradigm for the female ballet dancing body.

As for Teresa Reichlen, her performance in “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” (1941), was equally inspiring. Reichlen’s height enhances her ability to embody the ballerina assoluta, a role that pays homage to the late 19th century Russian Imperial ballet dancers. Reichlen commanded attention through her virtuoso phrase work and calm demeanor. Her long torso gives her dancing a hyper-attenuated quality. Yet the speed of her footwork puts her in a unique category. Like a great jazz dancer, she can cut sharp and wax lyrical. When she ran from one upper corner of the stage to another, her diagonal crossings suggested a narrative. It looked as she was searching for the entry point into Tchaikovsky’s next movement, whose concerto is renowned for its emotional-shifting grandeur.

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This three-part bill, which includes “Mozartiana,” will be performed again on February 26 at 2 p.m.

The New York City Ballet Tchaikovsky Celebration runs from January 15-27 and from February 13-24

For more information:

www.nycballet.com

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