A Physical and Spiritual Awakening (but No Steady Paycheck)

There were moments of total exhaustion. A young dancer, having performed a difficult matinee and faced with an evening show, slipped into her dressing room. She placed something soft on the ground to cushion her body from the cement floor. She lay down. She listened.

As the afternoon light faded, streetlights switched on. She could hear buses, cars, footsteps, horns — images and sounds that haven’t faded from the memory of Barbara Walczak, one of three living dancers who performed at New York City Ballet’s opening night at City Center for Music and Drama in 1948.

Sitting at a table in her winding, treasure-filled Manhattan apartment, she took a breath. “And then my mind would return,” she said, “and I would look ahead to the evening performance with such gratitude to be doing what I loved.”

Walczak, 92, always wanted to dance. Transplanted into the ballet universe of the Russian choreographer George Balanchine, this young American from Astoria, Queens, found her joy, her bliss, her reason for living. Balanchine was reimagining ballet as an American art form, and she was a part of it.

Barbara Walczak, 92, in her apartment on the Upper West Side. Walczak danced in City Ballet’s first season. “He broke us,” she said, describing how Balanchine remade his dancers from scratch.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Balanchine is now part of popular culture. But it’s revealing that the dancers of that time, as unformed as they were, realized that his vision was worth fighting for; perhaps, they could see his future as well as their own. To dance was one thing, but as Walczak knew, to dance the ballets of Balanchine was something more — a way, she said, “to feel the freedom of the music propelling through my body.” It was a physical and spiritual awakening.

On Oct. 11, 1948, City Ballet made its debut as a company with three Balanchine ballets: “Concerto Barocco,” “Orpheus” and “Symphony in C.” Now, 75 years later, as part of its anniversary celebration, the company will recreate that program, again on Oct. 11. Before that, though, there will be another memorable night: The fall season’s opener, on Sept. 19 — a performance of Balanchine’s “Jewels” (1967) — will include a tribute to its dancers, 75 years’ worth.

Wendy Whelan, the company’s associate artistic director, has been in touch with many of them, in particular with the three who were there at the beginning: Walczak, Ruth Lawrence Doering, known then as Ruth Gilbert (she declined to give her age), and Myrna Galle, 93. “I just felt like that umbilical cord was reinvigorated,” Whelan said, of finding former dancers on LinkedIn and on Facebook, or digging into Instagram to find names and connections.

When she talked to dancers on the phone, she could feel her face heat up. “I’m beaming with a smile, I’m like bubbling inside,” she said. “And I’m very much invigorated by their energy and by their stories and their excitement.”

Balanchine with Tanaquil Le Clercq and Francisco Moncion, rehearsing “Symphony in C” around 1948, the year the company had its first performance.Credit…George Platt Lynes

A CHOREOGRAPHER IS NOTHING without dancers. When Balanchine arrived in New York in 1933, America had much to admire. Modern dance, notably companies led by women — the great Martha Graham among them. Jazz. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. What it didn’t have: a strong tradition of ballet and, with that, an arsenal of trained dancers. Balanchine had to make them, and make them to his requirements — with clean technique, devoid of mannerism and artifice.

He wanted dancers who could move big and take up space; who could tilt and bend and fall off center, thrillingly, all the while paying attention to the in-between moments of notes and steps. It would not be just about the music, which meant everything to Balanchine, but showing bodies moving through it. Agility, musicality, timing — dancers who aren’t playing characters but showing their individual essence, their perfume, through classical dance. This is what Balanchine training creates, and what sets City Ballet apart from other companies to this day.

There were many bumps along the way, but the creation of such dancers and such an enterprise began in 1934, when the School of American Ballet, formed by Balanchine and the arts patron and writer Lincoln Kirstein, opened its doors.

Before Balanchine arrived in New York, so much had already happened to shape his life and view of ballet. He was just 9 when he was dropped off at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg — virtually abandoned by his mother and feeling rightfully miserable until he found himself onstage as a cupid in “The Sleeping Beauty.” Suddenly, ballet was more than ballet, it was a home — the theater. Unfortunately, the Russian Revolution was right around the corner. When it came, his life was turned upside down. He was cold, he was hungry; he was in survival mode.

He started making dances as a teenager, and by 1924, his experiments in choreography were being noticed, and he made his way to Western Europe with a small touring group. He never returned to live in what was then the Soviet Union; instead, he joined Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where he found his choreographic voice.

But Diaghilev died in 1929, and Balanchine became so ill with tuberculosis that he ended up in a sanitarium. In 1931, he was asked to serve as the ballet master of the new Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, but he soon left and formed his own company, Les Ballets 1933.

While short-lived — a blink of four weeks! — Les Ballets was critical. Kirstein attended a performance in London, and Kirstein had a dream: to create an American ballet. He envisioned a company of dancers that instilled ballet with a modern American spirit. He needed an artistic leader, a choreographer not covered in cobwebs and old-fashioned story ballets — a ballet master capable of creating sleek, classical American dancers. He needed Balanchine.

Credit…Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Plenty still had to happen before City Ballet was formed. There were precursors, groups led by Balanchine and Kirstein from 1934 to 1947; and Balanchine spent time in Hollywood and on Broadway, where he was able to work with Black dancers who would greatly influence his choreographic approach to classical ballet.

The 1940s were a true beginning for ballet in America, but it was just that — a beginning. And while there were tours by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and by great dancers and technicians like Alicia Markova and Alicia Alonso, there wasn’t a singular point of view. That would come from Balanchine. But the Balanchine dancer — which was imperative to his vision — was still being formed. He didn’t want dancers who posed; he wanted dancers who moved.

BALANCHINE HAD WORK TO DO. “He broke us,” Walczak said, describing how Balanchine remade his dancers from scratch, starting with the tendu, in which the leg extends to the front, side or back. “He took us with our imperfect bodies,” she said. “We would be standing with our back to the barre in fifth position,” she added, brushing their feet in each direction, sometimes facing the barre with their arms crossed. They moved slowly, painstakingly so.

”His whole class was like that,” she said. “There wasn’t a single dance step in the entire class. We never went across the floor!”

Walczak remembers when they were dancing his “Symphony in C” for the first time. Balanchine was watching from the front with the stage manager who said, “‘You know, maybe we should bring the lights up a little bit,’” Walczak said. “He said, ‘No, no, no! Their feet aren’t ready yet. They’re not good enough.’”

Balanchine dancers have speed, sharpness, musicality and, to Walczak, a new use of the word “and” that gives movement a certain power, an electricity. That and changed the look of ballet. That and ever-flowing motion.

“Like musicians, we moved before the music,” she said. “He placed us on the balls of our feet. As the conductor lifted the baton, we moved before any sound was heard. We did not move on the count of one, but on the count of and.”

Myrna Galle, 93, who danced in the company’s first season, at home in California. She said of taking classes with Balanchine: “It was always, ‘Move fast! Move fast!’”Credit…Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times

Along with Walczak,Doering and Galle trained at the School of American Ballet. Their teachers included Balanchine when he was in town. “As I advanced more,” Galle said, “I did the more advanced classes with him. It was always, ‘Move fast! Move fast!’”

She recalled Balanchine as “a man who was always thinking — as he walked down the studio during a barre or something, you knew that there was music playing in his head and he’s thinking of what’s coming next.”

Galle said her mother had heard about the School of American Ballet, though Galle has no idea how. Galle commuted from Brooklyn after school to take at least two classes a day; when she was 16, she graduated from high school and joined Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo the next month. Balanchine was involved with the company at the time, she said; a number of his dancers were members, too, including Marie-Jeanne, an important Balanchine dancer in the early days, who moved, Walczak said, “like a black panther. No matter how fast it was, she was like a cat.”

Archival photos of the young Myrna Galle. She left after one season with City Ballet. “Miss Independent had to get off and get some money,” she said.Credit…Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times

Galle joined City Ballet, but left after that first season. “Miss Independent had to get off and get some money,” she said.

All three dancers agree that City Ballet wasn’t much of a company in 1948; there were no steady seasons — and no steady income. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the company began performing with regularity. “The Nutcracker,” now an annual staple, wasn’t choreographed until 1954.

“Our big problem was here we had been having performances and had contracts and had salaries for so many years,” Galle said, but with City Ballet, “it just wasn’t enough. There was a lot of rehearsal, but no pay, no salary. And I wanted stage work. I wanted to be onstage performing.”

Galle, who lives in California and still teaches ballet, went on to perform in “The Show of Shows,” with the ballet ensemble at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway in “Once Upon a Mattress.” In its first national tour, Buster Keaton was the King; she and Keaton spent hours playing bridge.

DOERING HAD FOUR BROTHERS who didn’t want a sister. They called her Jimmy. “And so I was a little baseball player and my best friend, Judy, went to a ballet class,” she said. “And when I went to the ballet class with her and I saw those beautiful pink tutus and toe shoes, I was hooked. I didn’t have to be on the baseball team anymore.”

A virtuosic dancer who was fearless about turning but, by her own account, poorly trained with weak turnout, Doering said that during her audition for the school the dancers Nicholas Magallanes and Herbert Bliss were standing in the doorway watching her whip through fouetté turns. She was 9.

Ruth Lawrence Doering at home in Scottsdale, Ariz. She danced in “Concerto Barocco” on the company’s first program. Later, she joined American Ballet Theater.Credit…Cassidy Araiza for The New York Times

Balanchine, she said, paid attention to her as a student. “When I went away for the summer and I gained weight,” she said, adding that too much bread was the culprit, “he said to me, ‘Ruth, if you lose weight, I’m going to give you something special to do.’ And I think that ended up being the second lead girl in ‘Concerto Barocco.’”

She danced it on the company’s opening night in 1948 — but it wasn’t easy. “Barocco,” at that time, involved elaborate costumes, not the streamlined dress and tights of today. And she had to learn it quickly. “I used to sit in the dressing room and go over the steps in my mind,” she said. “It was very specific. It was not do it this way or do it that way.”

Doering, who is a cousin of Galle’s — they haven’t seen each other in years — also moved on from the company to television and Broadway, but City Ballet was her true love. “What I remember the most is that I loved dancing in ‘Symphony in C’ more than I did any other ballet,” she said. “And I remember the thunderous applause when the curtain came down. ‘Symphony in C’ made you dance up a storm.”

After that first season, Doering auditioned for Ballet Theater; around 300 people showed up, and they took 10, including her. “So I thought, Well, I better go in,” she said. She worked with Jerome Robbins on “Interplay,” with Agnes de Mille on “Fall River Legend” and with Frederick Ashton on “Les Patineurs.” She went on to dance on the television programs “Your Hit Parade” and “The Garry Moore Show.”

Doering, who lives in Arizona and teaches a class mixing ballet, tap and Pilates, said, “If I’d made a decision over, I would have gone back to New York City Ballet,” she said. “I definitely would have. There was nobody greater than George Balanchine.”

Dancing his ballets, Doering said, feels like you are doing exactly what the music tells you to do. That you couldn’t possibly do anything else. ”I guess he liked us because we were strong — and willing. Willing.”

When she was 12, Barbara Walczak was told by a star of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo that she would never dance, that she had no talent. Here she is as a member of City Ballet, around 1959, costumed for Balanchine’s “Bourrée Fantasque.”Credit…William McCracken

BUT WHY DANCE? And why ballet — which, when these three were young dancers at the School of American Ballet, had only a toehold in America? For Walczak — who stayed at City Ballet for 12 years, becoming a soloist — her primal urge to dance makes her think reincarnation could be real. Her parents took her to see an outdoor performance one summer. “There were dancers dressed as fireflies or something, and I was about 4 or 5 years old.” she said. “That did it.”

She was a sickly child. At 9, she contracted scarlet fever. “After that, the doctor said, ‘You know what?’” she recalled. “‘We’ve tried everything. Let her dance.’”

She was short, her turnout was nonexistent and her feet needed a lot of work. She is firm about one thing: If her young self were to audition for the School of American Ballet today, she wouldn’t get in — much less into the company. It was never easy for her, but dancing meant too much to quit, even when her teacher took her, at 12, to see Mia Slavenska, a star of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, perform at Radio City Music Hall. Afterward, they met Slavenska backstage.

She asked for some pliés. “I did two pliés, and she said, ‘Forget it,’” Walczak said. “‘She will never dance. She has no talent.’ And I was destroyed. For two days, I cried. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. And then I said, No. I’m going to dance.”

At around 14, she auditioned for the School of American Ballet and got in, later performing with Ballet Society, a subscription-based company formed in 1946, in Balanchine’s “The Spellbound Child.” She was insistent on another point, too: “I just really was not his cup of tea.”

She referred to herself as “one of the numbers.” She never auditioned. “He knew that I was a very fast learner,” she said. “He knew he could always count on me. That no matter what happened, I would learn it. I’d get through it. And I think that was the main thing he respected about me. And I think he saw that I loved to dance.”

Walczak was also a sharp observer. (With the dancer Una Kai, she wrote “Balanchine the Teacher,” a jewel of a book examining the fundamentals that shaped the company’s first generation.) “What made him zero in on a dancer was not only the physical, the technical, the height, the look, whatever — and Suzanne Farrell’s the perfect example of it,” she said, referring to Balanchine’s muse of the 1960s and ’70s. “It’s the intangible, uncontrollable timing of her body.”

Walczak, who works with dancers and also designs veils and headpieces for brides, left the company in 1960, realizing that she wasn’t going to go any further. Coming offstage in “Scotch Symphony,” she met Balanchine in the wings. “He said, ‘You know, dear, you are very good dancer, but the ones that are coming are going to be better,’” Walczak said. “So he told me, you know, Hey, this is it. Time to go.” She knew he was right, but it was hard. “My doctor said I had what is called a walking nervous breakdown,” she said. “I cried all the time for a long time.”

She didn’t want to teach. She didn’t want to have anything to do with ballet. But then she changed her mind. With ballet and with Balanchine, she gained more than she lost. “I guess because I was always in love with dance,” she said, “after I got over the hurt, the fact that I experienced in my body — that movement, that timing. That’s a treasure.”

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