In mathematics, there was Newton; in psychology, there was Freud; and in American ballet, George Balanchine was a founding genius. He was a Georgian choreographer born in Russia who rose to prominence with the Ballets Russes in Paris and moved from Europe to the United States in 1933. There, Balanchine helped found the highly influential School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, and he used these institutions to revolutionize the style of dance that was performed in the United States.
Every day, Balanchine taught a class for his New York City Ballet company, and it was there that he demonstrated his vision for what dance should be like. The documentary “In Balanchine’s Classroom” combines archival footage from Balanchine’s studio with current interviews with the dancers present. They describe the experience as being a student of Einstein.
There is a beautiful act of translation that this documentary observes, as Balanchine’s alumni – now shriveled teachers themselves – attempt to translate his movements into speech. Their failure to find perfect equivalents between these two languages indicates the fate of the choreographer: “Do it this way” is an empty directive if the mysterious “it” cannot already be done.
In a fun sequence, director Connie Hochman shows the master at work. When describing the dance, Balanchine growls and grabs, and his bewildered apostles must transform his verbal and physical contortions into perfect plies and pirouettes. Decades later, his students sigh, hum and gesture like their instructor did. The archival images of Balanchine’s company at its peak become the visual relief of their verbal frustration, the magnificent proof that it is possible to master an indescribable method.
In Balanchine’s class
Unclassified. Duration: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.