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In the Master's Footsteps

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The dance students glide - and sometimes stumble noisily - across the gray wood floor. Their hair is pinned back in tight little buns, their toes are crammed into pointe shoes. The choreography has brought them center stage, staggered in four lines, with two girls lying on the floor in the middle.

Judith Fugate stops the rehearsal. Something is wrong.

It is day six, hour four of rehearsals for George Balanchine's ballet Serenade. The dancers - students at the Baltimore School for the Arts - are exhausted. But their attention does not waver. All eyes are on Fugate, a longtime Balanchine ballerina who is passing on her bred-in-the-bone knowledge of Serenade to this new generation of dancers.

"Let me look at my notes," she says. She puts on her reading glasses and consults a worn piece of loose-leaf notebook paper. She walks over to a lead dancer, lying on the floor. "I think I want you on your elbow rather than your hand," she says. Yes. Much better.

Fugate's notes are always out but she doesn't look at them often, even for so fine a detail as elbow or hand. Instead, she relies on her memory. She learned the dance from Balanchine himself, or Mr. B, as she and the ballet world call the master choreographer. After performing Serenade hundreds of times during her 23-year career with the New York City Ballet, she knows it cold.

"It is like a gunshot to me when I see something wrong," she said. "It stands out. There are a lot of very visually memorable moments in Serenade. They are indelibly marked in my brain."

The George Balanchine Trust - which licenses all performances of the great choreographer's ballets - depends on that indelible memory. Fugate is a repetiteur, which means the Trust dispatches her around the world to stage Balanchine's ballets. For the past two weeks, she has taught Serenade to the afternoon dance students at the School for the Arts, preparing them for performances that begin tomorrow.

The Trust carefully selects who can perform Balanchine's work. Dance companies or schools apply for a license, which is granted only to those deemed skilled enough to dance the fast-paced and technically challenging ballets. And the contracts stipulate that all the works must be set by a ballet master or mistress selected by the Trust.

Born and raised in Russia, Balanchine came to the United States in 1933 and fell in love with his adopted country. Here he choreographed classical ballets, but also more plebian pieces for Broadway, Hollywood, and even a group of circus elephants. He created a uniquely American style of ballet: athletic, fast, informal. Ultimately, he founded what is now one of the top ballet companies in the world - the New York City Ballet. This year would have been his 100th birthday, which has spurred a renewed interest in his work.

But his centennial is not why the School for the Arts decided to put on Serenade. The school's dance director, Norma Pera, happened to hear the student orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C and thought, "Let's do Serenade," the Balanchine ballet set to that music. After some lobbying, the school received its license last year, no small feat.

"We don't actually license to high schools," said Barbara Horgan, the general director of the Trust. "We do to universities and schools that have people who are capable of performing it." The Trust made an exception for the Baltimore School for the Arts after receiving glowing reports of the students' skills.

The arts school, founded in 1980, is a part of the Baltimore City public school system. Its 318 students gain entry by competitive auditions within their performing disciplines. Last year, more than 1,100 students applied for 100 spaces.

The school has danced parts of Balanchine pieces before - concert versions of Who Cares? and Raymonda Variations, several movements in Stars and Stripes - but this is its first full-length ballet by the choreographer. And, in Serenade, the corps de ballet - the non-lead chorus of dancers - is the focus of the action rather than any individual dancer. So a deep bench is needed to perform it well.

"It is hard to find 17 girls, all at once, who are strong enough to do this dance," Pera said. "This year we have that."

When they secured the rights, they also got Fugate. At 47, she is as sprightly as a twentysomething. She's tiny and graceful - a compact body with sinewy limbs and a small head - the model Balanchine ballerina. Wearing light ballet slippers with the soles stained black from countless hours of practicing, she trots around the studio and puts each dancer in the correct position. She knows exactly where each should stand, where she should look, which foot she should start on and whether she should lead with her elbow or her wrist.

"Shoulders up like the prow of a ship," she instructs at one point.

Fugate started dancing for Balanchine - as Clara in his Nutcracker - when she was 8. Now, as she stages his ballets, she hears his voice in her head. When a dancer fell, Mr. B would always say, "If you fall down when you dance, then you are doing it right," she recalls. This is part of why she does this work: to keep Balanchine alive for her.

The practices were tough. Students worked from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day except Sunday. At the end of one rehearsal, one dancer, Jen Schultze, 18, collapsed on the floor. She dragged herself up and immediately unlaced her pointe shoes. "This is a lot harder than other stuff that we do," she said.

The opportunity to learn a Balanchine ballet from someone like Fugate was irresistible.

"I have been in love with Serenade since I was 9 years old," said Jennifer Keys, 18, of Pikesville, who will dance in the corps. "I've been thinking about it for so long."

She feels the long rehearsals: "You go home and soak your feet and get as much sleep as you can and then you do it again. ... It is the process that makes ballet so special."

Serenade is by far the most requested Balanchine ballet, according to the Trust. So far this year the Trust has issued 25 licenses for the ballet; in the 60 years since it was choreographed, it has been performed by more than 270 companies.

Serenade was the first dance Balanchine choreographed in the United States. It reflects the circumstances he found himself in when it was created in 1934: There are 17 dancers in the corps because 17 girls showed up the day he was inspired to produce it. A girl fell during one rehearsal and another arrived late - both were incorporated into the ballet.

Ballets are difficult to capture. Once the choreographer is dead - Balanchine died in 1983 - it is hard to say exactly how pieces should look.

"The truth is, they change every time someone does it," said Fugate.

She does not rely on videotapes of performances to learn the steps, and discourages dancers from using them. Dancers have good or bad nights during different productions. A mistake caught on camera could be misconstrued as part of the choreography. So, it is her job, not the video's, to teach the dance.

A few days later at a dress rehearsal the students have come a long way. Parts of the choreography are performed in unison. Nobody is running into each other. Nobody falls. But, still, the dance isn't as clean as it should be. The dancers aren't staying in lines. The timing is sometimes off.

But Serenade wasn't created on professional dancers. It was created on students. So, despite some mistakes, Fugate thinks this performance would please Balanchine.

Some of these students - a small minority in Fugate's estimation - will go on to become professional ballerinas. Others will not.

But for the moment, Fugate wants to get every ounce of life and joy out of these young dancers, because joie de vivre is what Balanchine expected.

She can hear him yelling, in his nasal tone, "Dears, what are you saving for? You can't live forever."

Performance

What: Baltimore School for the Arts Spring Dance Concert

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Schaefer Ballroom, Baltimore School for the Arts, 712 Cathedral St.

Cost: Adults $6, students/seniors $4@SUBHEDCall: 410-396-1185 or visit www.bsfa.org

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