Class act

School of American Ballet hits the big time in Scnes de Ballet

SCENIC VIEW Tisserand and Morgan rehearse.

SCENIC VIEW Tisserand and Morgan rehearse.

Christopher Wheeldon is now a choreographer with an international reputation, but in the late ’90s he was just getting started. Up until then, it was mainlyhis delightful, exuberant dancing as a soloist in New York City Ballet that garnered him attention. In 1999, however, Wheeldon put himself on the map as a choreographer with the masterful 18-minute Scnes de Ballet, set to Stravinsky and created for 62 students at the School of American Ballet. The set design alone was ingenious: Ian Falconer’s slightly skewed Russian ballet studio, intersected by a barre and an imaginary mirror.

“It’s a work that relies pretty much on the simplest ballet vocabulary,” Wheeldon explains. “But by the same token, it’s complex in its patterning. I tried to show the development of training without it becoming a purely academic classroom ballet.” And as the piece returns to NYCB’s repertory this week, Wheeldon has relished working with a new generation. “It’s been a pleasure to feel that excited energy in the room—a mixture of total fear and over-the-edge excitement,” he adds. “It’s a great way for them to get out on stage and behave like a small company.”

The ballet features a romantic pas de deux, originally performed by current NYCB corps members Faye Arthurs and Craig Hall. For this season’s production, the pas de deux will be split into two casts: Jrme Tisserand, 18, and Kathryn Morgan, 17, in one; Justin Peck, 18, and Tabitha Rinko-Gay, 16, in the other. “It’s one of the most demanding parts I’ve ever learned,” Peck said after a recent rehearsal. “I know it’s early in my career, but still—” he adds, laughing. “It’s very hard, not only physically and musically, but getting into character as well.”

The pas de deux, which hints at arm movements from Swan Lake and La Sylphide, and the grandeur of George Balanchine ballets such as Diamonds and Symphony in C, begins with an elegant lift, in which the ballerina beats her feet as her partner sweeps her across the stage in an arc. As they dance, a little girl, perhaps dreaming of the life that awaits her, appears on the opposite side of the barre. “This pas de deux is about love, so you really have to look like you’re in the clouds,” Morgan says. “You really have to put yourself in that place, as if the whole ballet is not only a love story, but about the little girl imagining herself later in life, falling in love and being a ballerina.”

The current couples are in awe of working with a choreographer of Wheeldon’s caliber—Peck calls the experience “surreal”—but for Arthurs and Hall, he represented something else. “We went to see NYCB every night, and we saw him in everything,” Arthurs recalls. “I had a huge crush on him. I had no idea that the ballet was going to be as big as it was. It was just something that this kid from the company was coming to rehearse late at night in whatever studio they would give him.”

Like the new group of dancers, Arthurs and Hall worked closely with ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky, a lively Russian whose eye for detail is mesmerizing. “I was ten times stronger that year because she was so demanding,” Arthurs recalls. “It was such a great experience. Basically, the entire school was in it, so we were scared and excited together.”

Following their first performance, Hall recalls, the dancers wouldn’t leave the stage. “The curtain came down, and we were hugging each other, even though it was time for the next ballet and the stagehands were trying to push us off,” he says. “We were trying to savor each moment. It’s funny to think about that now, because after the performances...”

“We clear out,” Arthurs says, nodding in agreement.

“Yeah—we don’t play around at trying to get that extra five minutes of bed,” Hall says, laughing. “You don’t really think about savoring the moment! I’m sure it will happen when the kids come here. They’ll just stand there. To be on that stage? You want to eat up every single moment.”

New York City Ballet presents Scnes de Ballet at the New York State Theater Friday 17, Saturday 18 and February 22 and 25.