George Balanchine is known as the father of ballet in the United States. He founded the American School of Ballet and the preeminent New York City Ballet. If you’ve seen a ballet in any of the 50 states, it’s a good chance you watched Balanchine’s choreography.
Jennifer Lauren remembers her first time dancing Balanchine. It was the choreographer’s Tarantella, a two person ballet that Balanchine described as “a dazzling display piece, full of speed and high spirits.” Lauren’s memory reflects those sentiments.
“I realized that with the Balanchine technique it’s not so much what you’re doing with your body but how you’re dancing to the music with your body,” Lauren says. “I realized not everything has to be perfect. It’s not about perfection. It’s about how you perform it. It’s about becoming one with the music and that’s what people say [Balanchine] created for American dancers.”
Lauren is a principal ballerina with the Miami City Ballet, performing at Spoleto this May.
Before she took the stage in Miami, Lauren first danced the 20th century master’s work with the Alabama Ballet in Birmingham. She came up in Tuscaloosa and joined the professional company at the age of 16. She stayed in the Yellowhammer State for nine years honing the steps of Balanchine. In 2007 she was given an opportunity to join the Miami City Ballet where much of their performances are works designed by the founder of the American school of ballet.
Through a decade of dance, Lauren has inherited the gifts that Balanchine gave to ballet. Lauren dances America’s classic ballet as well as the more modern work of Justin Peck, the current resident choreographer with the New York City Ballet who’s considered to be the creator of premier contemporary ballet.
“The first time I saw anything of Justin’s was with him here in the studio choreographing on us, which for any dancer is just incredible,” Lauren says. “With Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins [a contemporary of Balanchine] all of that happened way before I was born. So we have répétiteurs that coach us and try to pass on, but with Justin we’re actually creating.”
So while Balanchine’s work was handed down to Lauren, Peck’s work she helped galvanize. In these two diverging paths of learning dance, she sees the evolution of ballet; she’s aware of technical differences as well as how that variety creates varying perceptions of the dances.
“Fast footwork is a key point to Balanchine choreography,” Lauren says. “And Justin’s choreography has fast footwork but it also has off balance work. It’s off balance and stylized. Imagine if you had to dance in a square and imagine if you had to dance in a whole room. That’s what it feels like with Justin’s choreography.”
Lauren feels the connections between Balanchine and Peck.
“Balanchine took the classical ballet technique and he took it off-balance,” Lauren says. “I think that Justin is taking another step off-balance. We’re getting further away from the placement of the steps that you learn when you’re 12 years old in ballet class. They’re both very similar because they’re both very musical. He’s taking what he learned from the Balanchine technique and putting his own twist on it.”
Despite being an experienced dancer, Lauren still finds moments when the work of Balanchine and of Peck can light up her soul. As she says of Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht Ballet, “It’s a ballet that shows off how beautiful female dancers are and ballerinas. Balanchine used to always say, ‘ballet is woman,'” she says. “To give a ballet dancer a chance to take their hair down and just be beautiful [as he does is Walpurgisnacht], that’s what we live for.”
In Peck’s work, Lauren sees the choreographer’s ability to take in his surroundings and incoporate them into his work. With his piece, Heatscape, created for the Miami City Ballet, Lauren can feel the sun and life of their city in the dance.
“It’s still based on the technique of ballet,” Lauren says. “It’s with this new movement quality that we’ve never imagined before and because he’s young we can see him do it right there in front of you and we can recreate what he’s asking for.”
Given a choice between a future of dancing exclusively Peck or only Balanchine, that’d be an impossible choice for Lauren to remain a ballerina.
“I would give my right arm to dance both of them,” she says. “They’re both a gift to us, to dance.”
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