Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Evening with Anne Polajenko: "Great Ballerinas Do Not Make Themselves"


There is a saying that goes “ behind every great man is a great woman.” The exact reverse can be said about ballerinas: “behind every great ballerina is a great man.”
Sorry girls, but this is the simple truth. Ballet history is peppered with examples of  women made great by their teachers and choreographers. And, mostly these are men.

A great dancer does not make herself. She has a lot of help along the way, starting with an early teacher who saw a potential and culminating in a coach or choreographer who gave her the material to propel her to stardom.

Take the example of Maria Taglioni, Romantic ballerina “par excellence”. Not only was her father her teacher, he also developed the first pointe shoe exclusively for his daughter.
Carlotta Grisi (the first “Giselle”) owed her brilliant career to her romantic relationship with choreographer Jules Perrot.

Then, there was the army of Italian ballerinas at the end of the 19th century who owed their careers to their teacher, Enrico Chechetti, and the great choreographer Marius Petipa who provided them with extraordinary ballets in which they could show their equally extraordinary technique.

In more recent times, a number of ballerinas come to mind. In all cases, someone had to give them the chance. Someone had to believe in their particular talent enough to merit plucking them from the ranks and nurturing them forward. This, in itself, is quite a talent. Would we have had the brilliant Brazilian ballerina Marcia Haydee without John Cranko spotting her in the corps de ballet? Janie Parker (first American ballerina to win the Gold Medal at the 1982 International Ballet Competition) without her mentor, Ben Stevenson? And what of Maria Tallchief, Allegra Kent, Melissa Hayden, Patricia McBride and the more recent Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland? Unbelievably, all these extraordinary artists were “made” by a single person, George Balanchine.

Janie Parker’s evolution stands out for me because I happened to have been there when the fifteen – year - old first joined the company I was dancing with. It was obvious from the get-go this child was unusual. But, it would take a Ben Stevenson (Houston Ballet) to harness this talent and direct it to stardom. The journey was a marvel to witness. I sometimes wonder what turn Janie’s career might have taken had she never met Stevenson?

Has the male dominance of ballet receded with time? Hardly. Take a good look around you and name current women who have the wherewithal to “make” a ballerina. George Balanchine was fond of saying ballet was a woman’s world. He didn’t add that it is run by men.

     --- Anne Polajenko

      Love from your humble blogger,

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