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How One Kansas City Ballet Dancer — Among Many — Learns Balanchine's Choreography

Elizabeth Stehling
Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet dancers (from left) Sarah Joan Smith, Elysa Hotchkiss and Kelsey Hellebuyck rehearse George Balanchine's 'Diamonds.'

When the Kansas City Ballet performs George Balanchine's “Diamonds” for its 60th Anniversary Dance Festival next weekend, Elysa Hotchkiss will be in one of 17 couples on stage.  

"You feel a lot of breath and a lot of movement, and see the stage moving as a whole in this ballet because there’s so many of us on stage moving as one," she recently said of Balanchine's choreography.

The composer, meanwhile, was Tchaikovsky, who authored three of the most famous ballets of all time: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” His “Diamonds,” however, was originally written as a symphony rather than a dance.

KEELAN: Does it feel any different dancing to this music of his that was designed to be something else? Or are you essentially creating the same movements?

HOTCHKISS: I don’t think it feels much different. Tchaikovsky music as a whole is just so moving and so amazing to dance to, it kind of makes you do the movement, and the movement kind of creates the music — they really feed off of each other. There’s still that movement quality and energy (as in) any of those other ballets.

KEELAN: And Balanchine designed a ballet around the concept of diamonds. What is the style of Balanchine's choreography, for someone who doesn’t know the technical terms: They go to see a ballet of his and they watch the dancers onstage – what types of movements are they likely to see?

HOTCHKISS: Balanchine has a whole array of movements. So you’ll see some very classical normal ballet steps that you may be used to seeing if you go to the ballet, but then there’s some more edgy steps, a little sharper lines sometimes, but then you have the softer lines. You get a little bit of everything – he kind of brought ballet into a new realm of sorts: You can live beyond the position in your movement.

KEELAN: What’s the first way you become acquainted with the music for a ballet?

Credit Elizabeth Stehling / Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet
Judith Fugate, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who now works with the Balanchine Trust, rehearses with Kansas City Ballet dancers.

HOTCHKISS: I’ve heard this music before. I’ve actually gotten to see this ballet before – it was one of the professional performances I saw before joining a professional company, so my first time listening to it was actually in the audience, which was amazing. A lot of us, we’ve seen a lot of these ballets before or, in this instance, some of us will look it up and try to listen to the music beforehand, or we just hear it when we’re learning it.

Judith Fugate is setting the ballet on us. She is from the Balanchine trust, so she sets many of his ballets. She danced with the New York City Ballet for a very long time as a principal dancer there, so she’s done this ballet many times and knows all the musicality and everyone’s parts. So she help set everything to the music for us.

KEELAN: So this is someone who worked with Balanchine?


KEELAN: And he’s a legendary figure. Is his choreography written down? Is there a way to notate choreography?

HOTCHKISS: I think some (stagers such as Fugate) have a bunch of notes, and some of them know the stuff off the tops of their head. I don’t know if there’s a specific one copy. I think each person who sets it might have their own copy of notes on how they like to set things.

KEELAN: But you don’t have a big cardboard box in your closet full of written-out choreography?

HOTCHKISS: Oh no (laughs). She kind of just teaches us and we learn it right from her. Sometimes if you have a hard time learning the choreography you might go write it in a notebook so you can go over it. But she is very thorough and very kind, and set this ballet very well on all of us, so it was an easy time picking it up from her.

KEELAN: And when dancers are learning their choreography, are there dancers with some musical training who think of the more technical aspects of it, like: “Oh, the music just went into A major – that means I need to do this,” versus other dancers who just count it out, more by rote. Or does everybody do essentially the same thing?

HOTCHKISS: I feel like some of us here are very different. There may be people who have the more musical inclination or talents or have been trained so they can hear a little bit more of that. Some of us just feel the music, we feel it very musically: The music will change and we know how to change our movement. It’s not that we know it’s A minor or anything like that — it’s just that the movement of the music kind of pushes us to move differently. And some of us do like to count it. So it’s kind of a different experience. You just have to make sure you’re with everyone.

George Balanchine's "Diamonds," April 6-8 as part of the Kansas City Ballet's 60th Anniversary Dance Festival, which continues April 13-15 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.

Michael Keelan is the host of Kansas Public Radio's Classical Music in the Morning.

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