City Ballet of San Diego takes on the Balanchine challenge

Like an actor who plays Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or a soprano who sings the part of Carmen, a ballet dancer chosen to perform a George Balanchine solo faces both a challenge and, potentially, the role of a lifetime.

Not just anyone can do it, and not just any ballet company can present it.

City Ballet of San Diego, staging “Balanchine Masterpieces 2019” this weekend, is one of the largest presenters of Balanchine works in Southern California — 19 ballets are part of its repertoire — and the only company authorized by the George Balanchine Trust to present the choreographer’s work in San Diego.

It pays a licensing fee to the New York-based George Balanchine Trust as well as a separate fee for a Trust-approved Balanchine répétiteur (coaches that know every step from memory) to assist in staging a production.

Revered in the international dance world, Balanchine was known to be a demanding perfectionist and a creative genius. He was a Russian immigrant who became an American citizen, co-founded the New York City Ballet and created a signature movement language that referenced his extensive range of experience, drawing from Broadway musicals, modern dance and classic ballet.

Balanchine married four times, all ballerinas. In fact, he’s quoted as saying “Ballet is woman.”

But this City Ballet event includes some of the most important male roles in dance, parts that dancers consider to be career highlights.

“Balanchine Masterpieces 2019” includes live music by the City Ballet Orchestra and three of the choreographer’s most significant ballets: “Apollo,” the energetic “Rubies” from “Jewels” and “The Four Temperaments.”

Répétiteur Eve Lawson flew from France to coach principal dancer Brian Heil, who solos in “The Four Temperaments,” a neoclassical ballet with four movements that evoke four states of mind, melancholic (sad), choleric (irritable), sanguinic (passionate) and phlegmatic (calm and unemotional).

Heil is a tall, athletic dancer who, in past productions, is often seen partnering because he is able to lift ballerinas easily.

“I was very excited when I found out I was doing ‘phlegmatic,’” says Heil, who joined City Ballet in 2015. “It’s a very different role for me. Eve worked with me on getting the shapes just exactly correct. It’s so specific with Balanchine — the arms, the hands, the way you are shaping your foot on the floor has to be in a specific way.”

For each of the four movements, it’s essential to communicate with the face as well as the body, and when Heil approached the rehearsal stage, the music was stopped for additional instruction.

“I was using too much of my face,” Heil confesses. “I have to enter the stage and imagine I am out in space with nothing else around me … moving through an empty void. It’s strange to relax not only your body muscles, but your face muscles. I’m so used to lifting my eyebrows to perform for the audience. It’s been challenging, but I really enjoyed it.”

Heil also performs with the male City Ballet principals in the jazzy, uptempo “Rubies” with choreography that is “fun, fast and specific, with quick, sharp movement.”

Iago Breschi, a principal dancer from Brazil, worked with répétiteur Nilas Martins, son of Peter Martins, the former artistic director of the New York City Ballet.

Breschi, an elegant dancer who is known for executing 32 consecutive entrechats (vertical jumps with legs scissoring back and forth) in last year’s “Giselle,” was chosen for the role of Apollo.

Created in 1928 to music by Balanchine collaborator Igor Stravinsky, “Apollo” depicts a young god who is guided into adulthood by the muses of poetry, mime and dance.

It’s considered to be one of Balanchine’s greatest artistic achievements, with daring and eccentric movement that continues to mesmerize audiences.

“Nilas is a great coach,” Breschi enthuses. “I was nervous, but he helped me a lot. He said to me, ‘It’s a process.’

“I am excited and waited for this moment a long time. It’s important for me, a big chance in my life.”

City Ballet of San Diego presents “Balanchine Masterpieces 2019”

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown

Tickets: $25-$89 (Saturday’s champagne reception, additional $20)

Phone: (858) 272-8663

Online: cityballet.org

Manna is a freelance writer.

Copyright © 2019, © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.
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