Poets of Gesture

An Introduction to the 19-20 Season

By Amanda Wicks

George Balanchine equated the stage and the page by drawing parallels between dancers and their poetic counterparts. Working with former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Edward Villella to learn the role of Apollo, that comparison became especially clear. Villella recounts in his memoir Prodigal Son that although he had learned the steps and the counts, Balanchine insisted the role wasn’t right. “No, that’s not Apollo,” he said. When Villella asked why, Balanchine responded that something was missing, reminding him, “Dancers are poets of gesture.”

For Balanchine, gesture took on greater importance because he favored choreographing plotless ballets, stripping away the art form’s frills to focus instead on the artistry in its underlying athleticism. From his monochrome Black & White ballets, to his leotard ballets, there are numerous examples of the ways in which he wanted to go beyond tradition and reach for something more.

But that ambition required a sense of poetry that exceeded mere metaphor. “There are so many words in a writer’s vocabulary and many combinations are possible,” Balanchine said. “You weigh words and use one or another, depending on what you are trying to express. And that is the way it is with movement, too: You try to weigh things, to see the importance of this gesture and that one—placed and measured in time, of course.”

Viewing choreography and writing in tandem helped Balanchine give shape and substance to a more ephemeral creative medium than most. “A writer chooses a word. I choose a gesture,” he said, and that particular choice carried an immense responsibility. If, as he famously said, “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet,” the audience needs to grasp meaning from the forms they see onstage. Balanchine saw ballet’s intrinsic poetic quality, arising as it did first through choreography and later when dancers infused a ballet with something more, something mystical.

With his evocative line “They are poets of gesture” in mind this season, we’re excited to explore the ways in which the stage and the page unite. Beyond commissioning new ballets from an array of choreographers, such as Lauren Lovette, Edwaard Liang, Alexei Ratmansky, Justin Peck, Jamar Roberts, and Pam Tanowitz, we’ve invited ten poets to contribute original pieces based on many of the ballets included in this season’s programming. Additionally, we’ll be publishing a series of essays that explore the poetry behind several ballets — poetry that takes the shape of the ambitious production of Union Jack, the original NYCB staging of Summerspace, the interplay between choreographers, and much more.

We hope you enjoy this journey over the course of our 19-20 Season as our dancers fulfill their role as poets, and our poets give wing to dance. Learn more about what's on stage this season at nyccballet.com/1920.