Remembering Mr. B

On the centennial of his birth- and in the midst of a month-long birthday celebration by the New York City Ballet at SPAC- Saratoga residents remember renowned choreographer George Balanchine, an "extraordinary ordinary man."



Remembering Mr. B

 

As the New York City Ballet celebrates the centennial of the birth of founder
 George Balanchine, residents of Saratoga remember the famed choreographer

 

By Joanne Furio

 

To the world, he was the genius choreographer who used the vocabulary of classical ballet to create a more modern, abstract form of dance unencumbered by the past. As the artistic director of the New York City Ballet from its inception in 1948 until his death in 1983, George Balanchine choreographed the majority of the company’s productions, turning the fledgling company into a world-renowned institution.

 

In Saratoga, at one time more interested in horses than the beauty of a pas de cheval, Balanchine was something more. Offstage and out of the spotlight, he was an extraordinary ordinary man — one with an innate elegance, yet surprisingly domestic. Although he had an imperial air that caused even those who knew him well to refer to him as “Mr. Balanchine,” or the more informal “Mr. B.” (never George), Balanchine also shopped at Price Chopper, cooked much of the food at his informal Saratoga soirées, and had a special love of ironing. Although he could have asked for do­mestic help, he never did.

 

For Saratogians, Balanchine was very much a pied piper of dance. Whether parading through the streets of Saratoga or onstage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the summer home of the New York City Ballet since 1966, Balanchine exposed area residents to the ballet by familiarizing them with his dancers and by getting the community involved. Some native Saratogians who appeared in his many productions of The Nutcracker consider the experience one of the high­­- lights of their lives. Apparently, Balanchine had an effect on others in Saratoga who worked with him, knew him well, or met him only fleetingly.

 

Michael Steele

 

A member of the NYCB corps de ballet from 1962 to 1973, Steele went on to found The Ballet School (now The Ballet Regent School) in Saratoga, where he has been teaching since 1979.

 

“I remember the day Mr. Balanchine walked into the studio and said, ‘You know we’re going to have a new summer home and it will be in Saratoga Springs,’ ” Steele recalls. “None of us had heard of the place.”

 

At that time, the company spent two months of the summer touring. “He sounded sly. He always would say things that would make you think and not give you a direct answer. So we all looked around and thought, ‘Oh God, we’re going to be stuck somewhere for four weeks out in the boonies.’ But we came here and absolutely adored it. It was just so wonderful to suddenly be out among trees, and grass and flowers and rolling hills. He loved it up here, too.”

 

In the beginning, Steele says the dancers felt there were more people on stage than there were in the audience, but “we just loved it.” And he remembers that because some of the dancers complained of the cool summer nights, Balanchine bought the ballerinas blankets with horses’ names on them.

 

As for Balanchine’s own attire: “Mr. B. liked to wear western shirts with string ties. Always for performance he wore a jacket. It was amusing to watch him demonstrate steps because he usually wore thick ripple-soled shoes.”

 

Garrett Smith

 

Now the director of the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame in Saratoga, Smith knew Balanchine through his work as a dance critic for such publications as the Schenectady Gazette, Saratogian, and the Record in Troy, as well as a native Saratogian.

“When Balanchine first came to town, he had to market the ballet,” recalls Smith. “At that time, we were probably all about Seabiscuit and not about the ballet. How are you going to sell the ballet to a city that didn’t even have a dance school?”

 

Smith explains that Balanchine sold the ballet by exposing the city to his dancers. They’d present trophies at the races, they attended parties, they dined with him at the Adelphi Hotel or the Ashgrove Inn. It was a move that paid off. “You got to know who the dancers were as people,” Smith says. “They weren’t just figures on a stage; they were human beings. And that also made you aware of the rigors of the profession and how difficult it is.”

 

     Balanchine’s use of local children in his ballets also created a bond. “Obviously, if you’re going to use a local child, you get local parents,” Smith says. Coppelia, a Balanchine ballet that had its premiere at SPAC in 1974, included a number of Saratoga children, as did The Nutcracker.

 

     One year, during a Flag Day parade, there was a float in honor of Balanchine, but according to Smith, “That’s not the first time his dancers were in a parade.... There were all of those kinds of touchstones with the community that I think made people more connected to the ballet — and to him.

 

“Mr. Balanchine opened the community’s eyes to dance — all dance, not just ballet. Saratoga is now a mini-dance capital,” Smith says. “That’s all because of the idea of dance Mr. Balanchine brought to us.”

 

Smith met Balanchine only once, at a party that he hosted in Saratoga. It wasn’t long before the choreographer sat down at the piano. “He was a very fine musician, and the dancers were sort of improvising behind him for fun,” Smith recalls. “I wouldn’t call him exactly a party boy. He was just an ordinary kind of person, who didn’t call attention to himself. My impression of him was of a very polite person who was having a good time.”

 

Peter Martins

 

In 1968, Martins made his first guest appearance on the SPAC stage, dancing the Cavalier to Suzanne Farrell’s Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s The Nutcracker before joining the company as a principal dancer two years later. Balanchine chose Martins to replace him as ballet master in 1981. (He became sole director of the company in 1990.)

Martins recalls a dramatic moment that took place offstage one Saratoga afternoon in the mid-’70s. Balanchine was lunching with Martins at Sperry’s and announced that he wanted Martins to take over the company. “He said to me out of the blue, ‘You see, dear, you’ll have to run this place.’ I thought he meant SPAC,” Martins explains. “He said, ‘The New York City Ballet. One day you’ll have to run the company, and so we have to begin to teach you.’ He didn’t ask me, he told. He took me by surprise.”

 

Katherine Leach

 

From 1967 until 1982, Balanchine rented the guest house at River Run Farm, a 200-acre property owned by Katherine and Richard Leach. Richard, who died in 1987, was instrumental in bringing NYCB to Saratoga and also served as the executive director of SPAC from its founding until 1973.

 

“From the moment Balanchine arrived at River Run Farm on a Friday evening, the atmosphere became charged,” Katherine Leach remembers. Cats and dogs crowded around him, including Moka, a mutt Balanchine brought to the farm as a puppy after the dog was thrown out of a car. “She just adored him and he adored her,” Leach says. “He always shopped for bones for them and that was the first thing he would unpack after getting out of the car,” Leach says. “The animals sort of took up residence with him and came back dejected to us after he left.”

 

River Run Farm also happened to be a convenient training ground for ballerinas performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream — Balanchine showed the dancers how the donkeys reacted when their heads were stroked a certain way.

 

Leach was surprised to discover that the great choreographer was “totally domestic.... He loved ironing shirts and taking the Japanese beetles off the rose bushes,” she recalls, “Another year he decided to wash other people’s cars. He did all the housework.”

 

Balanchine was especially fond of cooking. Leach has a number of Balanchine recipes, including his famous bitotchki, small meatballs made with mushrooms and sour cream. Balanchine also loved “heaps of caviar,” says Leach, matjes herring, and borscht. “He always had these marvelous things that he had been brewing for days.”

 

Balanchine often had dinner parties at his guesthouse; the larger ones would be at the Leach’s. “I always made the dessert — crème brûlée, which was his favorite.”

When Balanchine wasn’t entertaining, recalls Leach, he would relax outdoors in a Japanese silk kimono, reading the newspapers contentedly as tractors whirred by. “He would talk and invite you to have wonderful café au lait and croissants from Mrs. London’s,” a bakery and café in downtown Saratoga. “He was totally involved with the place and the life around him. That’s the way he was everywhere. It was quite extraordinary how he reacted to his immediate surroundings.”

 

Although the NYCB paid rent to the Leaches for the guesthouse, Leach says, “I just wanted to pay it myself, because it was such a privilege to have him. Needless to say, life’s never been the same on River Run Farm.”

 

Shaun O’Brien

 

O’Brien worked with Balanchine on Broadway before becoming a member of the NYCB, which he joined in 1949 and where he remained for 42 years. O’Brien was a soloist from 1950 to 1952. Most Saratogians who performed in The Nutcracker know O’Brien — he performed this Christmastime classic from 1954 to 1990, starting out in the role of a father and ending up as Herr Drosselmeier.

 

O’Brien and his partner, Cris Alexander, frequently ran into Balanchine while shopping for groceries at the Price Chopper. “He wouldn’t even say hello. His eyes would go right to the shopping cart to see what you’d bought. Then he would say something like ‘Oh, I see you like beets. I could show you how to use beets in this dish I prepare.’ ”

 

On one such excursion, Balanchine asked how the renovation of the couple’s 1871 Victorian house was coming along. They invited Balanchine to stop by to see it, and he did. After a tour, Balanchine declared the home a “Tchaikovsky house,” an elegant place the composer would have loved, and advised the owners to have the great composer represented in the house. O’Brien complied. There’s a poster of Tchaikovsky upstairs, along with lots of books on the composer. “I just thought that it was a pretty nice thing for him to say,” O’Brien says. “He was always interested in people’s private lives, and loved to come and witness how others lived.”

 

When Balanchine wasn’t throwing parties or attending them, he “really preferred the Ashgrove Inn to any place in Sa­ratoga,” O’Brien remembers. In addition to dining, Balanchine and some of his dancers would drink (though not heavily, O’Brien insists), and sometimes a dancer would get up on the bar and dance. “Balanchine would clap and we would all have a good time.”

 

There was one German waitress in particular, Charlotte Knecht, who was a favorite. “She just adored Mr. Balanchine,” O’Brien recalls. “When he came in, she only waited on Mr. Balanchine. She would boss the boss around.”

 

Occasionally, Balanchine would stop and chat with O’Brien in the theater. Once, the dancer said to him, “You must be so happy with how everything’s coming together,” meaning NYCB, Lincoln Center, and SPAC. Balanchine answered, “Yes, but I could be happy doing anything.” “But you were born to dance,” O’Brien replied. And Balanchine responded, “Yes, but I could be very happy as a carpenter.”

 

Andrew J. Desidoro

 

Desidoro was the owner of the Ashgrove Inn, a favorite Balanchine haunt, from 1954 to 1979.

 

“Balanchine was a very fine gentleman,” says Desidoro. “He would come in after the performance and have lamb chops. That was a favorite meal. Some of the performers would come along with him, or he would sit by himself, but he wasn’t aloof at all.”

 

Herbert Chesbrough

 

    Chesbrough joined SPAC in 1970, initially working in the finance office and on rock concerts. Before becoming the executive director in 1978, he served as SPAC’s operations manager, which is when he met Balanchine.

 

   Chesbrough remembers Balanchine as a quiet man. “He arrived quietly. There was not a fanfare wherever he went, yet he was very much in charge. You wouldn’t notice him unless you knew who he was. He was interesting to watch. He was from another time, you know: he was out of the courts of Russia. Most people would see him as somewhat aloof. But when you watched him with those he was comfortable with, there was a real bond there.”

 

Lisa Mehigan

 

A ballet enthusiast and researcher, Mehigan is working on Saratoga Remembers Balanchine, a multimedia project documenting Balanchine’s years in Saratoga, which opens July 5 at the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame.

 

Mehigan was with her mother and her husband at the old Ashgrove Inn when they saw Balanchine and dancer Karin Von Aroldingen alone in the restaurant, celebrating her birthday. Although they were just a few feet away, Mehigan and her entourage decided to give the two their privacy.

 

“When they were finished, he came over, bowed graciously, and smiled,” Mehigan recalls. “It was as if he was saying, ‘Thank you for leaving us alone.’ ”

 

Sheila Parkert

 

Owner of the Adelphi Hotel since 1979, Parkert is also a “big ballet fan.”

 

“I go to the ballet every night of the Saratoga season. You could always see him there every night. He was very famous for standing just offstage in the wings. He did that at New York State Theater as well,” she says. By the time Parkert took ownership of the Adelphi, Balanchine was ill and went to the hotel’s bar-café only about half a dozen times, surrounded by a coterie. “He was always very elegant. He had an aura about him. He almost always wore a scarf and beautifully tailored blazers. I never saw him looking anything but very turned out. The French have a word for it: soigné. You can probably see that in pictures, even of him rehearsing backstage. He was very dapper.

“He was always very entertaining,” Parkert adds. “I was just so in awe of having him nearby.” Balanchine had a penchant for champagne — his favorite was Cristal — and a Danish liqueur. “He was famous for drinking a shot of cold vodka, too.” ■

 

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