The dazzling Mr B

As Scottish Ballet take on the works of Balanchine, Lyndsey Winship meets the teacher keeping alive the legacy of the great choreographer
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The Independent Culture

The founder of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet (NYCB), Balanchine was trained in St Petersburg. He first travelled West in the 1920s with Diaghilev's legendary Ballets Russes, for whom he became chief choreographer at just 21. But it was during his half-century at the NYCB that he took ballet to new heights.

Always strongly indebted to his Russian classical roots, Balanchine's work nonetheless screamed America. He took his Imperial Ballet inheritance and added wit, daring, glamour and athleticism. He made everything bigger, faster, stronger, brasher, reflecting the skyscrapers and the syncopated sounds of jazz.

Mr B, as he was known, favoured on-stage democracy over the old star system. He shed the cloak of fables and fairy tales to reveal pure dance as an art in itself - abstract movement married to music. Even his dancers looked different: taller, leaner, less sylph more supermodel. They soared higher, their arms were sleeker, their jumps quicker.

Balanchine's dynamic company were the envy of the world, not least because of their prolific choreographer. He created 425 works (including dances for musicals and films), usually choreographing two or three at a time. They spanned early modernist works such as Apollo (one of many collaborations with Stravinsky), the bravura neoclassicism of Bizet's Symphony in C, and the razzle dazzle of Who Cares?, danced to Gershwin show tunes.

About 250 companies worldwide have taken on Balanchine's works. One of the latest to embrace him is the Scottish Ballet. The company has an all-Balanchine programme at the Edinburgh Festival this year, including the UK premiere of the 1959 piece Episodes, set to Webern's complete orchestral works. Having Balanchine in the repertoire is a bit of a rite of passage for the Scottish Ballet, which has been on the up since ex-Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Ashley Page took over as artistic director in 2002, bringing in young dancers and exciting modern works.

Page thinks dancing Balanchine is essential for a company that wants to be respected internationally, in part because any company that wishes to perform his works must be approved by the Balanchine Trust, part of the industry keeping Balanchine's flame alive after his death in 1983. When companies wish to mount a production they send a repetiteur to teach the work. Their most tireless ambassador is Patricia Neary, who was invited to work with Scottish Ballet.

At 62, Neary is still the firecracker she was when she performed with NYCB in the 1960s. She has been teaching Balanchine since 1968 and has so far staged works in 35 countries. Balanchine clearly knew what he was doing when he passed his mantle to her. "He said I would be a great teacher," Neary says. "I kept telling him, 'No, I'm going to be a great dancer!' But never mind," she laughs. "It's wonderful that he pushed me in that direction."

Neary couldn't be more different in personality to her mentor. Balanchine was a quiet, shy man; Neary is chatty and outgoing. "I can't hear the music," Balanchine would say to her. "Why are you making so much noise?"

Neary commands respect, and perhaps a little fear, among the dancers she teaches. Despite her age and an artificial hip, Neary still takes eight-hour rehearsals in her pointe shoes, and dances class with the company every morning. She demonstrates everything, working flat out, as if she were performing it herself.

She can stage a Balanchine work in five days, maybe four, if the company are on form. But if they're not, she won't shy from telling them so. "I have been known to walk out of the studio and sit outside until they go over it," she says. "I'm not as patient as I used to be." Total commitment is just part of the game. Balanchine himself would spend 12 hours at the theatre, teaching, rehearsing, designing lights and costumes and playing piano for dancers. He expected the same passion from everyone he worked with.

But it's one thing to dedicate your life to your own creativity, and another to spend it realising, teaching and disseminating someone else's legacy, as Neary has. For her, spreading Balanchine's word is less a career, more a mission. "I feel like that's the reason I'm on earth," she says. "That's the only reason I'm here. To preserve his work and do his work. I was meant to serve him."

Neary is pedantic about preserving Balanchine's exact intentions. Some repetiteurs might allow their dancers room for manoeuvre, altering steps or angles slightly depending on the dancer, but that's not Neary's style. "No, no, no. I don't give any leeway in that," she says. "You're preserving what the master wants. The details and the musicality and the placement on stage; there are so many things that matter that when you see them wrongly staged they don't relay the right things." Learning from videos isn't good enough, because they are often inaccurate.

Neary doesn't expect to hang up her pointe shoes till she's 70, and will no doubt carry on teaching, yet there will come a time when none of NYCB's original dancers are around to impart the words of "the master".

"Eventually there'll be nobody left that even knew Mr Balanchine," Neary says. "And that is a shame because he lives through his works. I make him alive in the studio. I talk about him all the time like he's present. And I make sure that the dancers understand that the corrections I give would be things that he would be saying to them."

So we shouldn't worry. If Neary has anything to do with it, it doesn't look like anyone is going to forget Mr B in a hurry.

'Scottish Ballet Dances Balanchine', Edinburgh Playhouse, 26 to 28 August (0131-473 2000). Scottish Ballet on tour: Her Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, 8 to 10 September; Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, 14 to 17 September

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