PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION is a program of three PNB premieres: George Balanchine’s La Source, Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Read on for PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal’s notes on the program, including his role as a stager for two of the pieces.
What is a stager? This question is probably asked more frequently than any other during our post-performance question-and-answer sessions. Stagers, also called repetiteurs, essentially represent the choreographer, teaching every step and every count to every dancer. Stagers will coach the ballet and put it on stage, placing the dancers on specific marks, choosing which wing they enter from, and making sure lighting, costumes, and music are as originally intended.
We’ve been privileged to have some of the finest stagers work with us at PNB. Some come to us with decades of experience and others are staging for the first time. My role is often to select stagers, but for this program I serve as the stager for two ballets. La Source, a 1968 creation by George Balanchine, is a work I first staged for our School Performance in 2009. Though I danced La Source for many years with New York City Ballet and watched several casts in performance and on video, I also learned a great deal from a coaching session filmed by the George Balanchine Foundation with Violette Verdy and Helgi Tomasson.
The second ballet I staged is Opus 19/The Dreamer, a 1979 creation by Jerome Robbins for Patricia McBride and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I worked directly with Jerome Robbins on this ballet for many years and drew from those experiences to bring the work to PNB today.
Our stager for Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is Wendy Whelan. Wendy is one of the most intriguing ballerinas of our generation. Despite her unmatched wealth of experience as a dancer, this is her first staging. She had valuable help from both Adrian Danchig-Waring and the choreographer himself. Alexei was able to join us for two transformative rehearsal days.
If the name Wendy Whelan doesn’t sound familiar, you need to get out more. Wendy was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for most of her 30-year career there. She also performed as a guest artist with companies like the Royal Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet. Wendy caught the eye of many choreographers, including William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, and Ulysses Dove. A startling talent from the beginning of her career, Wendy truly came into her own as an artist when Christopher Wheeldon created Polyphonia. Chris went on to choreograph numerous signature roles for Wendy while exploring her partnership with Jock Soto. After the Rain pas de deux was created for them. Alexei Ratmansky also regarded Wendy as a muse, choreographing numerous ballets for her over a nine-year period, the last of which was Pictures at an Exhibition.
Her work outside of NYCB is no less impressive. Her Restless Creature project included collaborations with choreographers Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Bryan Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo. Each performed a duet with Wendy. The project received tremendous critical and audience acclaim in cities across the country.
Restless Creature is an apt name for Wendy Whelan. She might have rested on her laurels long ago, but as she grappled with how and when to end of her career with NYCB, she chose to record the process in a documentary film. The film is called Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, and it’s powerful. It’s coming to theaters nationwide next month and I strongly suggest you see it. Bring a tissue. It’s raw, honest, inspiring, and insightful. It takes a hard look at ballet and what goes on behind the curtain as careers draw to a close because of a ticking clock and a failing body—just when artistry reaches an apex. Wendy was and is one of the most inspirational and down-to-earth people in our business, and her quiet example of generosity and strength continue to affect countless dancers. What a gift to have her in our studios for her very first staging.
We have some other singular role models in our studios these days, and we’ve been focused on two in particular. I’m talking about Carrie Imler and Batkhurel Bold. We are watching these two with moist eyes as they prepare to give their final performances. You won’t want to miss their Encore performance on June 11, when we pay tribute to Carrie and Bold. Expect plenty of dancing, countless ovations, and a few thousand rose petals. Join us for the celebration and thank you for being with us for this performance and for another memorable season.
Featured photo: PNB School students (including former PNB Company dancer Chelsea Adomaitis) performing La Source at the 2009 School Performance.