On a cold March morning in New York City, 1934, Mr. George Balanchine took inventory. Only seventeen dancers had shown up for rehearsal today at the School of American Ballet (SAB). They were quite unlike the Russian dancers with whom Balanchine learned to choreograph. Lincoln Kirstein, a co-founder of the school, wrote that these American women were “basketball champions and queens of the tennis court, whose proper domain was athletics.” Whereas the classical Russian ballerinas were slim and sylphlike, the Americans were lean but strong. What they lacked in airy, regal grace, they made up for in acrobatic strength. Neither their physique nor their heritage seemed to fit the polished, classical, Russian ballet style, but as of yet, America offered no alternative.
Balanchine had recently emigrated from Russia to the United States to form a school for with business partner Lincoln Kirstein. Though his choreography was renowned in Europe, most Americans had never even heard of ballet, let alone perform it. So the seventeen aspiring ballerinas who appeared today were inexperienced and untrained, but crucially, the Americans desired to dance. And the unrelentingly resourceful Balanchine was about to give them a dance of their own.
Balanchine began by arranging the women in a double-diamond shape, like the number eight with pointed edges, and personally escorted each woman to her place in his design. One of the dancers, Ruthanna Boris, described how revolutionary the double-diamond was: “It was unlike any group placement I had ever seen—the usual, a faceless set of straight lines dancing behind a soloist. Mr. George Balanchine was making lines where everyone could be seen!”
Also in the corps de ballet was college graduate Heidi Vosseler, who would eventually marry the noted tap dancer Paul Draper. Their shared gravestone reads: Paul, “A Dancer,” and Heidi, “A Beauty.” Vosseler would go on to lead a successful career, but today in the studio, she was exhausted and sweaty. Almost symbolically, the hairpins began to slip from her slick ballet bun.
Mr. Balanchine, though, was in fine form. A dancer himself, he communicated with motion, embodying the movements he envisioned for his dancers. Balanchine jumped, twirled, spun, and dove onto the floor, modeling each step and then blending them together. Ruthanna Boris described his choreography as feeling like improvisation, not the typical technical practice. “He often looked like a kaleidoscope—fluid, flexible, free,” she said. Balanchine danced with them, for them, through them.
His energy was as palpable as Vosseler’s was fading. Her metatarsals ached from absorbing the shock of her full body weight with every jeté. Balanchine balanced on one of his own metatarsals, making tiny jumps while inching backwards with the other leg outstretched. He demonstrated, she imitated. Balanchine darted between two dancers, his back arched, arms outstretched, legs in a snappy scissor kick. As he led, she followed, though exhausted, until at last they reach the end of the section, dancer and choreographer together. At Balanchine’s direction, the seventeen ballerinas fluttered offstage, arms open and heads tilted upwards, except for Vosseler, whose legs gave way. Her knees buckled and her hip angled awkwardly out, her body forming a line like the edge of a diamond. Her right arm extended and curved to catch her fall, and the pins at last came loose from her hair. Her body rocked like a crashing wave, her hair cascading around her shoulders like salty foam. Humiliated, Heidi Vosseler began to cry.
George Balanchine was no stranger to sorrow. The first shots of the Russian Revolution of 1905 were fired on his first birthday, January 22. At the age of nine, his parents had him audition for the Imperial School of Ballet and Theater in St. Petersburg, though he had never even seen a ballet. Balanchine was accepted, and his parents left him at the school. He found it very lonely. Nevertheless, Balanchine eventually found his niche in music, dance, and choreography, the creative realm where he found his first two wives. (Fascinatingly, Vosseler would understudy the second wife, Norwegian ballerina Vera Zorina, in 1940 in a Broadway musical choreographed by Balanchine himself). As the Russian political situation deteriorated, Balanchine fled his homeland in 1924, and a decade later, found himself choreographing on this dim stage in New York City. Heidi Vosseler sobbed in frustration on the floor, surrounded by the troupe of tired, sweaty, hopeful ballerinas. With her, with them, Balanchine empathized.
“Do not move!” he cried with his heavy Russian accent.
I imagine the paternal Balanchine falling on his knees beside her and tenderly touching her cheek. I envision his small, sly smile.
“We use this, too,” he might have said.
In a moment of brilliance, he immortalized her fall by incorporating it into a new ballet. Balanchine transformed her fallen figure into a symbol of longing and loss. Thousands of spectators since have witness Vosseler’s fall in Serenade, which became one of Balanchine’s most beloved ballets.