No one is really sure what George Balanchine meant when he echoed King Louis XV's famous quote, "Apres moi, le deluge." The choreographer of the world's most precise and eloquent ballets was notoriously - even gleefully - obtuse when it came to talking about his art.
The naysayers who feared a decline for the New York City Ballet under Balanchine's successor, Peter Martins, saw it as an apocalyptic prediction. Even the most optimistic saw it as a simple statement of fact. After Balanchine's death in 1983, how could ballet ever be the same?
But the "deluge" turned out to be a revitalizing flood. Eighteen years after the 20th century's greatest choreographer died, the company he founded still thrives. And perhaps more important, the ballets he created endure as a rich fount, feeding the repertories of companies around the world.
It is this legacy that Stephanie and Charles Reinhart seek to honor beginning tomorrow when the Kennedy Center offers its Balanchine Celebration. The two-week festival will showcase six companies performing a program of Balanchine ballets that run the stylistic gamut from the dramatic biblical parable "Prodigal Son" to the austere abstraction of "Agon."
The Reinharts, co-artistic directors for dance at the Kennedy Center, conceived the Balanchine Celebration as part of the center's millennium dance program, which also pays tribute to Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins.
"But with Balanchine, we knew we had to have a special party," says Charles Reinhart. "No other choreographer has had the influence and impact on 20th-century dance that he has had. And what better way to celebrate than to have different companies come together to honor that genius? The Balanchine repertory is a living museum, and this is a chance to walk through many different galleries and see how different artists see these works."
Indeed, the festival's participants are a diverse group, some longtime Balanchine acolytes, some more recent Balanchine initiates: the San Francisco Ballet, the Miami City Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and members of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Although the New York City Ballet remains the prime repository of the Balanchine repertoire, it has fallen to smaller, more mobile companies outside New York to broaden his legacy by touring. And the diaspora of former Balanchine dancers has created a well of artistic directors and coaches spreading the stylistic gospel around the world.
This fall, in fact, you can see the American Ballet Theatre dancing "Prodigal Son" in Hong Kong, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet hoofing it in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" in New York City. You can catch "Serenade" in Salt Lake City, "La Valse" in Seattle, or a "Theme and Variations" in Boston.
For the festival, audiences will see some of the best touring ballet companies in the world and get a neat survey course of the Balanchine canon.
But what may prove most intriguing is comparing how different Balanchine dancers, now directing companies, have imprinted the master's style on their own progeny.
Edward Villella, who was one of the New York City Ballet's greatest danseurs and now directs the Miami City Ballet, calls his Balanchine stewardship "a great responsibility."
The company, which has toured its extensive Balanchine repertory for most of its 15 years, is critically acclaimed for its understanding of Balanchine's neo-classic style.
The 46-dancer Miami troupe will perform "Agon," "The Four Temperaments," "Stars and Stripes" and "Rubies" from "Jewels." The company will present the full-length "Jewels" when it returns to the Kennedy Center for a week's residency next May.
"I've spent my entire professional life with the Balanchine repertory, and it's the single greatest example of art in dance history," Villella says. "Right from the start, it was my intent to build a company that could dance the ballets as he intended."
Helgi Tomasson, who has led the San Francisco Ballet since 1985 and spent 15 years with the New York City Ballet, takes a different tack. He has steered a broader course for San Francisco, the country's oldest professional ballet company, with Balanchine ballets forming only one branch of a varied repertory.
"Without the master himself being in the studio, it can never be exactly as he might have wanted," Tomasson says. "The further we get from his death, the more the dances will change. We have a very good understanding of what he wanted. And then all you can really say is, well, 'That's how I see it.'"
San Francisco will bring in its full contingent of 48 dancers for "Symphony in C," "Bugaku," "Prodigal Son" and "Symphony in Three Movements."
Rounding out the two weeks will be the Pennsylvania Ballet performing "Serenade" and "Western Symphony"; the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago performing "Square Dance" and "Tarantella"; the Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancing "Divertimento No. 15"; and members of the Bolshoi Ballet performing "Mozartiana."
The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago is one of dance's most dramatic phoenix stories. Founded in New York by Robert Joffrey in 1956, it was a popular touring troupe with a wide repertory. But five years ago, bankruptcy forced it out of the city and to Chicago, where it has reorganized and found a presence it never enjoyed in Manhattan. Now with a stable budget and a new building in the works, the company is spearheading a theater district revival in Chicago's Loop. The company's recent performances of Balanchine's "Square Dance" were hailed by the New York Times as "stunning new perfection in classical style."
An even more legendary phoenix will also display a Balanchinian side - the venerable Bolshoi Ballet. Dancers from the vast Moscow machine will perform "Mozartiana," one of the last works Balanchine created before his death. The 225-year-old Bolshoi has been treading water in the backwash of the Soviet implosion, and has been reduced to begging for handouts through UNESCO to restore its theater. But its U.S. tour this spring and summer drew large audiences and positive reviews.
"Mozartiana" was staged for the Bolshoi by Suzanne Farrell, generally acknowledged as the ballerina whose talent exerted the greatest influence on Balanchine. Farrell's own chamber troupe will perform Balanchine's dazzling ode to ballerina virtuosity, "Divertimento No. 5." Farrell has been active worldwide as a teacher and coach since her retirement from New York City Ballet in 1987.
Selecting the companies and the ballets they would perform was not an easy chore, Reinhart acknowledges.
"We asked ourselves, who does what best?" Reinhart says. "But we also asked ourselves what 'best' really meant. It can mean what an artistic director's idea of what a ballet should look like; it can also mean whether he or she has the dancers to really do it well.
"I don't think we exactly planned it this way, but the program has turned out to be a cross-section of Balanchine ballets that goes a long way toward explaining who he was," Reinhart says. "All the touchstone styles are represented, all the bases covered. Even if a person has never seen a Balanchine work before, he or she could leave this with a pretty good idea of what it means when people call him the greatest choreographer who ever lived."
Montee was dance critic of the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel for 18 years. She now writes mysteries.
The dances in the two-week festival provide a mini-history of Balanchine ballets:
Sept. 12-14 at 8 p.m.
Members of the Bolshoi Ballet: "Mozartiana" (1981): Set to Tchaikovsky's orchestrations of Mozart, this work is often seen as a dirge. Its ballerina (Farrell at the debut, who was never understudied) dances the "Preghiera" (prayer) solo in long black tutu, and its performance history is haunted with injuries and cancellations. Farrell has called it "a metaphor for all the beauty in Tchaikovsky's music and Balanchine's soul ... funereal but not morbid, with some of the most brilliant, exultant dancing Balanchine ever devised."
Miami City Ballet: "Rubies" from "Jewels" (1967): The jazzy centerpiece of the "Jewels" triptych and one of Helgi Tomasson's signature roles.
The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago: "Square Dance" (1957): An example, with "Western Symphony" and "Bugaku," of Balanchine's revisualization of other styles or cultures. Set to music by Corelli and Vivaldi, it suggests the patterns of American folk dancing but filtered through the classical prism.
Miami City Ballet: "Stars and Stripes" (1958): "A ballet in five campaigns" set to orchestrated Sousa that is a balletic parade complete with majorettes, flags and a fan-kicking finale.
Sept. 15 at 8 p.m.; Sept. 16 at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sept. 17 at 2 p.m.
Suzanne Farrell Ballet: "Divertimento No. 15" (1956): Created for a celebration honoring Mozart's birth and as a showcase for ballerinas Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams, Patricia Wilde, Melissa Hayden and Allegra Kent.
Miami City Ballet: "Agon" (1957): A suite of dances based on a 17th-century manual of French court dances with a Greek title meaning contest or agony. The work is neither French nor Greek but rather a very American ballet that with its naked strength, mechanical precision, dense formations and rhythmic complexity continually surprises. The tense mood works as a metaphor for its Cold War-era conception.
The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago: "Tarantella" (1964): A pas de deux to music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk that was an audience-pleasing pyrotechnic vehicle for Patricia McBride and Edward Villella.
Miami City Ballet: "The Four Temperaments" (1946): First performed by New York City Ballet precursor Ballet Society. Set to Paul Hindemith's score, its variations suggest the ancient idea that humans are composed of four humors: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric.
Sept. 19 at 8 p.m.; Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.; Sept. 21 at 2 p.m.
Pennsylvania Ballet: "Serenade" (1934): Plotless but emotionally evocative, "Serenade" was the first ballet Balanchine created after his arrival in United States, first danced by students of the School of American Ballet.
San Francisco Ballet: "Bugaku" (1963): A highly stylized Japanese wedding ceremony that melds Eastern movement with Western sensibility. The highlight of the dance is the nuptial pas de deux, the most erotic dance Balanchine ever created.
San Francisco Ballet: "Symphony in C" (1947): A dazzling display of classicism that is technically demanding from principals down to corps.
Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.; Sept. 23 at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sept. 24 at 2 p.m.
San Francisco Ballet: "Symphony in Three Movements" (1972): Created for a New York City Ballet Stravinksy Festival. With its complex, propulsive score, 1960s-era verve and contemplative pas de deux interlude, it is an update of the grand plotless ensemble ballets Balanchine engineered in the 1930s.
San Francisco Ballet: "Prodigal Son" (1929): Created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris, it's one of the few surviving narrative Balanchine works.
Pennsylvania Ballet: "Western Symphony" (1956): Balanchine's ode to his beloved American West. On the surface it's all folksy flavor and high-kicking fun, but at its heart is pure neo-classicism.
Tickets are $26-$73 per performance; 10 percent savings with purchase of all four performances. Call 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.