Easy does it: Bringing old-school wisdom to City Ballet

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Easy does it: Bringing old-school wisdom to City Ballet
Kyra Nichols, right, coaches Isabella LaFreniere, left, and Mira Nadon in Jerome Robbins’s “Rondo,” in New York, Jan. 12, 2023. Nichols, a former principal, returns to the New York City Ballet for the first time since her 2007 retirement to coach ballets by Balanchine and Robbins. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Indiana Woodward knew her time with Kyra Nichols was dwindling: It was the last hour they would spend together before Nichols, an esteemed former New York City Ballet principal, had to head back to her day job as a professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

For City Ballet’s winter season, Nichols had returned — for the first time since her 2007 retirement — to coach dancers in George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations” and “Walpurgisnacht,” as well as Jerome Robbins’ “Rondo,” an understated, little-seen ballet created for Nichols and Stephanie Saland in 1980.

A rehearsal for that ballet was about to begin, and Woodward and Nichols were talking — with repertory director Christine Redpath — about energy: how to save it, how to store it, how to look better by doing less.

Woodward, with imploring eyes, turned to Nichols with a request: “Whenever you think of it, just send us a message” — she made a calming motion by patting down the air with her hands — “saying, ‘Take it easy.’”

Easy, of course, isn’t always so easy. But the idea behind it is important: How can a dancer replace force with something more free? How can she explore the possibilities of effortless dancing, the kind that Nichols was known for? She knew how to be natural. Throughout her 33-year career with City Ballet, Nichols made it seem as if steps were flowing — sometimes gently, sometimes with a wild, gushing power — through her limbs, her torso, her elegant upper body, as epitomized in the dynamic épaulement of her shoulders and head.

Nichols’ dancing was expansive and free, yet in the service of the choreography — or, really, the musicality within the choreography. It’s not so different from the way she demonstrates movement in the studio: She moves.

The invitation to coach was a happy surprise. “I thought, the time will come if they want me to come,” she said. “I didn’t push it. Hopefully, I’ll come back. It’s been a really great experience.” It started when Redpath began putting together “Rondo” and asked Nichols for help.

Enlisting former company members from the Balanchine era to coach dancers from the current generation is something that City Ballet, under its artistic director, Jonathan Stafford, and associate artistic director, Wendy Whelan, has continued to implement. Mikhail Baryshnikov, Edward Villella, Patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell have all come back to coach; this season, Adam Luders returned along with Nichols.

Beginning Tuesday, “Rondo” will take the stage again, featuring the pairing of Mira Nadon and Isabella LaFreniere — and, later, Woodward and Olivia MacKinnon. (LaFreniere and MacKinnon perform Nichols’ role.) “He would have Stephanie do something that was simple,” Nichols said of Robbins. “And then he had me do a version that was just a little bit harder.”

“Rondo” didn’t last beyond 1980 at City Ballet. Yet the pas de deux, set to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor for solo piano, has a gleaming simplicity and an unsentimental feeling of sisterhood. At the time of its premiere, Robbins wrote to Leonard Bernstein, inviting him to see the ballet: “I like it,” Robbins said, “although like the music, it is a fairly quiet work.”

Quiet or not, Nichols feels that “anything of Jerry’s should just always be kept — and Balanchine,” she said. “Even if it wasn’t a big success, it still has so much in it. It’s important to the dancers, this new generation.”

Robbins began creating “Rondo” with little fanfare, beginning, as he often did, by playing around in the studio. “He got us in there and was just toying with different ideas and then, all of a sudden,” Nichols said, “they wanted it on opening night that season.”

Robbins labored over his ballets. When he learned that “Rondo” would be performed so soon, he secured the only stage rehearsal possible: one hour on the day before the premiere while the stagehands were on their dinner break.

“They were loading in,” Nichols said. “There was no floor laid. The wings were up, and they were putting all the lights in. So when they went to dinner, we ran ‘Rondo.’ We didn’t wear pointe shoes, but he could see, visually, what we were dancing.”

In the ballet, the two women echo each other closely, performing in sync or in canon as one trails behind the other in light runs and jumps, tightly knitted chaîné turns — in which alternating feet spin across the floor like a chain — and tiny steps that send them floating across the stage. They partner each other, too: “Rondo” is a crystalline display of two women dancing together, working together, as Nichols put it, to make it work.

“It was more your body doing it, especially with Jerry,” she said. “Look at the other girl but don’t make love to her.”

In a rehearsal with Nadon and LaFreniere, Nichols urged the dancers not only to be easy but also to be natural — a hallmark of Robbins’ choreography. “You have a beautiful pointed toe,” she said. “Just step on it.”

“Rondo” looks serene, but is it? “This is a beast; this is so hard; how did she make this look so easy?” LaFreniere said, referring to Nichols, in a video interview with Nadon. “One of the first things she said when she came into the studio was like, ‘Just less, everything less.’ After one of our run-throughs of ‘Rondo,’ I was super, super sweaty. And she looked at us and she said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have to learn how to breathe.’”

Nadon added: “I think as dancers, our tendency is to want to work really hard because we want to push our physicality. And sometimes the hardest thing is to do a little less and to be a little calmer and to let the movement speak for itself.”

That’s part of what Nichols grasped while working with Robbins: not being balletic about movement quality. Walking, standing — everyday movements performed by dancers without affectation to create something new, a kind of pedestrian classicism. “I didn’t have it right off the bat either,” Nichols said. “How many times did I walk across the stage looking at the lights in ‘Dances at a Gathering’ and him going, ‘No, let’s do it again.’ Not walking on the music, being casual, not pointing the toe — it’s so different than taking ballet class.”

Nichols says she loves coaching, loves to share what she learned; during her time at City Ballet, she was especially flattered to be asked to teach a variations class at the company-affiliated School of American Ballet. She focused on “Spring” in Robbins’ “The Four Seasons.” She taught it the way Robbins originally choreographed it — with turns to the left and right. Now, turns are generally performed to the right; most dancers are right turners. For Nichols, that distorts the structure of the variation, how its choreography fills the stage.

She recalled the first time she was in the studio with Robbins; up to that point, in “Goldberg Variations” and “Fanfare,” two of his ballets, she found herself positioned in the back row. She assumed she wasn’t going to become a Robbins dancer, and, as she told herself, that was OK: She was working with Balanchine. But then, to her surprise, she was called to a rehearsal with Robbins.

“He was still dancing around a lot at that point,” she said. “I got there, and he started moving. He moved to the left. He did hops on my weak foot.”

She was honored to be in the room. She wanted to please him, so she followed along. “And what was I supposed to say? ‘Um, Mr. Robbins, that’s my weak side. I can’t turn to that side.’ I was 19 at that point. I was like, I’m in the room with Jerry Robbins. I just did it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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