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The incredible lightness of Kyra Nichols.

"That exactness of execution--the kind that [Suzanne] Farrell and Kyra Nichols have--is God given," Russian-born ballet master George Balanchine told Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov for the 1985 book Balanchine's Tchaikovsky.

By 1981, when Balanchine was singling out Nichols to appear beside the renowned ballerina Farrell, the younger, California-born ballerina had been in his company some seven years. She had been asked to join the troupe's corps de ballet at sixteen, directly out of the company's affiliate School of American Ballet in 1974. She was made soloist in 1978, and principal in 1979. Today she is a happily married mother of two growing boys with a home in New Jersey, and is on the brink of the thirtieth anniversary of her golden career with NYCB. She remains arguably the last great exponent of Balanchine's tenure at New York City Ballet.

TO HEAR THE soft-spoken and calm ballerina tell it, she was not one of Balanchine's favorites. She expresses this view with some frequency when discussing her way of working, which is to say the way she's always preferred to prepare for performances, doing "a lot of rehearsing by myself." She states that "Balanchine taught me to go into a studio and work by myself; and that's what I like to do." These "request rehearsals" are something of a tradition at NYCB. Looking back at her formative years in the company, she recalls how it worked: the rehearsing dancer would want to show Balanchine what was being accomplished, "or, he'd pop in, especially if you were one of his favorites," but, she stresses, "I was not one of his favorites."

I wonder if the devoted-to-Balanchine ballerina has too narrow a sense of favorite. Or if the rarely demonstrative ballet master just kept a favored status for Nichols to himself. Besides recalling for myself the sublime images that Nichols's performing has left with me time and time again, I can point to a number of instances in which Balanchine might have been favoring Nichols. The quote by Volkov above, in which Balanchine talks of his ballerinas's dancing "cleanly," is one. Another comes from the year of Nichols's promotion to principal dancer. Balanchine spoke during that year to W. McNeil Lowry about individuals whom ballet masters like himself "already know that this someday will be an important dancer" (The New Yorker, September 12, 1983). Referring to Nichols by name in his discussion of important dancers, Balanchine says that "suddenly she became absolutely without any doubt. ..." His statement trails off, or gets cut off by Lowry, but the point is unmistakable. Nichols at the time was one of four dancers promoted to principal, but she was the only one Balanchine singled out "absolutely."

IN 1980, speaking to an interviewer in Paris, where NYCB was appearing and where Nichols made her sudden debut in the famously challenging "Theme and Variations" section of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, Balanchine might well have been thinking of, and favoring, Nichols when he stated: "The most important thing in ballet is perfect, classical technique." To elaborate, and to counter potential suggestions that technical efficiency alone cannot make for memorable performing, Balanchine admitted that even the most impeccable technician could fail to reach the public because "the dancer has some limitation." The very next year a shining image of a towering Nichols graced NYCB's program cover, resplendent in the shimmering golds that defined the lacy wings and the almost-liquid train of the costume Karinska refashioned for Balanchine's Firebird. She has sober memories of not working well with the elaborate costume at the first one-on-one rehearsal she had with Balanchine when he specifically cast her as his magical bird of light and brightness. Nichols recalls how he "loved that costume," and how when "anybody who came to the ballet that he knew, he had them come back[stage] and look at it, on me."

Nichols's performances have shown that she has none of the limitations that Balanchine acknowledged as holding back some proficient technicians from becoming "important, dancers." Even after the hiatuses from performing to have her two children. Joseph in 1996 and Cameron in 2001, the ballerina has selectively returned to her repertoire with awe-respiring results. To be sure, her repertoire is now limited, and, as she herself plainly puts it looking ahead to plans to celebrate the centennial of Balanchine's birth, "I'm not a spring chicken anymore."

BALANCHINE ROLES I suppose I'll never again see fulfilled by Nichols's incomparable finesse include the leads of La Source, Raymonda Variations, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, and Cortege Hongrois, as well as the roles of Dewdrop and Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. When I ask after possible reappearances for her in the ballerina role of "Diamonds" from Jewels, Nichols says probably not, and adds matter-of-factly, "I don't know if I'd enjoy it." She realistically emphasizes that "for me to last a while longer is not to take on too much; to push myself. I need to take care of my body, and if I plan on doing something hard, I have to be sure I have time to rehearse it and not [especially] when I perform [other repertoire]."

NICHOLS SEES THE process of picking and choosing her Balanchine centennial repertoire as having a discussion with ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy and making a wish list of possible performances. It is based upon the season's schedule, looking for a workable spread of time for performing roles she knows she'll enjoy, and allowing sufficient time to rehearse those she might like to add again to her repertoire. Besides saying she's to work with Susan Stroman on the new full-evening ballet planned for the upcoming winter season--she's liked what she's seen Stroman do on Broadway--Nichols is thinking of reassuming the dazzling leading role of Allegro Brillante, and maybe even that of the luminous Sleepwalker in La Sonnambula.

I suppose Nichols's adoring fans could discuss at length the aspects of dancing that so distinguish her performances. Certain things remain constant and consistent whether she is swooning with perfect aplomb in the Verdy role of Liebeslieder Walzer, or floating enraptured to the strains of Richard Strauss in the Rosenkavalier segment of Vienna Waltzes, or entrancing all who behold her as the eternal feminine of Walpurgisnacht Ballet, or watching and waiting with burning, liquid eyes as the devoted and idolized woman in Robert Schumann's "Davidsbundlertanze." Kyra Nichols remains a creature of ineffable lightness. The effect of her dancing is as mesmerizing as it is delicate. Whether she's balancing or turning on pointe, or extending a leg in the air, or taking her partner's band, it's with an absolute clarity and yet an utter lack of force or strain. All this finesse is even evident in something as offhand as a curtsy. Watch her bow her head amid thunderous applause; it's a study in amazing contrasts. Happy, spontaneous, excited acclaim rushes toward Nichols with something like hurricane force; she responds with a dreamy yet direct lowering of her head that softly hides her face. To me, Nichols's reverence exudes a selflessness, graciousness, and art that amount to a kind of evanescence. When done dancing, she seems almost shy. With her otherworldly work done, she reverts to her private worldly realm. Noblesse oblige demands that she acknowledge her audience's presence; innate artistry reveals her graceful bow to be a light filled gesture of parting.

Noted ballet authority, and New York City Ballet watcher Robert Greskovic writes about dance for The Wall Street Journal.
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Title Annotation:Balanchine Lives; Biography
Author:Greskovic, Robert
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1241
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