Contemplating the New York City Ballet’s upcoming four-week festival dedicated to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, principal dancer Sterling Hyltin admits that her favorite ballet by the composer is Serenade, pointing to George Balanchine’s innovative choreography in combination with the majestic music. “When the curtain goes up, you see all the girls on stage, and they are bathed in a blue light with their arms raised,” says Hyltin. “It gives me chills whether I am standing backstage about to dance or if I am in the audience. It is the most breathtaking moment.”

In 1981 Balanchine organized a Tchaikovsky Festival, and the current 2013 series is the first time since then that the City Ballet has celebrated the composer. Tchaikovsky brought out the “romantic and classical side of Balanchine,” says Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins. “Aside from [Clément Philibert Léo] Delibes, Tchaikovsky was the first important symphonic composer to show an interest in writing ballet music with his three major ballet scores—Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. This is music that Balanchine greatly admired.”

According to the City Ballet’s interim music director, Andrews Sill, Tchaikovsky’s “ability to communicate great depth and range of emotions while keeping a strict formal logic to his music,” is what sets him apart from other romantic composers.

True, Tchaikovsky’s ballets are some of the most iconic. Yet Balanchine’s choreography is so central that when his version of The Nutcracker is performed, it is titled George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and is trademarked. The current City Ballet festival will include 12 ballets, 10 choreographed by Balanchine and two by Martins.

Martins began his association with the City Ballet in 1967, coming from the Royal Danish Ballet. He was one of Balanchine’s favorite dancers and has been at the helm since Balanchine’s death in 1983. Acutely aware of his role in maintaining the choreographer’s legacy, Martins often attends rehearsals, where he engages in assessments and the direction of dancers. “It’s not from the horse’s mouth, but it’s the next best thing,” observes Hyltin. “He takes great pride in carrying on this company and all that it stands for.”

Balanchine’s extensive music background sets him apart from other choreographers. He was the son of a composer, started playing piano at 5, and upon graduating from the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, enrolled at the nation’s Conservatory of Music. This lifelong passion gave him the ability to seamlessly translate music into dance.

Hyltin’s favorite, Serenade, was the first ballet choreographed in the United States by the now-legendary Balanchine. He was recruited from the company he had formed in Paris by Lincoln Kirstein—a dance connoisseur with dreams of establishing American ballet to rival that of Europe—and together they founded the School of American Ballet in 1934. (Serenade was created as part of a workshop for students.) Balanchine went on to create the City Ballet in 1948, and the school soon developed into one of the most innovative and respected ballet companies in the world. Now based out of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, the company has more than 80 dancers, a 62-piece orchestra, three full-time conductors, and an unrivaled repertory of works. “Music is the platform from which everything happens at New York City Ballet,” notes Martin.

Although he died 30 years ago, Balanchine’s name remains synonymous with the City Ballet. Revolutionizing the discipline in the US, he also became the foremost contemporary choreographer of his time. He required that dancers “move faster, jump higher,” in Hyltin’s words, “and generally do ballet moves that were not ballet at the time—he made them ballet.” She points to a certain jazziness in the movements, and credits him with establishing the neoclassical ideal in ballet. During his life, Balanchine said he strove to “let dance be the star of the show,” and his compositions often downplay the narrative, emphasizing music and movement.

Says Sill, “As a composer of ballets, Tchaikovsky was able to channel this ability into music that not only advanced the story and gave a quality to the movement of the dancers, but also illuminated the psychology of its characters—what they were thinking and feeling.” New York City Ballet’s Tchaikovsky Celebration runs January 15–27 and February 12 –24 at the David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Ctr., 212-496- 0600

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