In the winter of 2020, just before the pandemic put an end to that season’s live performances, a work that had been absent from the NYCB stage for almost a quarter of a century made its return. Created in 1947 on Ballet Society, a precursor to the current Company, George Balanchine’s Haieff Divertimento was performed for just five years before leaving the active repertory. Then, in 1981, originating dancers Todd Bolender and Francisco Moncion decided to reconstruct the work; after four years of preparation and with rights owner and former Principal Dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq’s blessing, the ballet was performed again by State Ballet of Missouri. New York City Ballet revived the work in turn, dancing Haieff in 1993-4, after which point it was again allowed to be, essentially, “lost.”
Set to Alexei Haieff’s 1944 Divertimento for Small Orchestra, a five-movement tribute to the composer’s friends, the ballet is “a little jewel. It’s fun, lovely, light and joyous, and makes no pretense of being elaborate. It’s just wonderful dance,” says Bolender. According to Repertory Director Christine Redpath, who reconstructed the ballet along with former NYCB Dancer and Repertory Director Richard Tanner, “You can see the precursors to The Four Temperaments” in “some signature quotes that he took from Haieff.” The work’s buoyant, invigorating 14 minutes are filled with a taste of the choreographer’s developing approach to neoclassicism, though its charms are sufficient to stand on their own.
We spoke about this singular ballet with Principal Dancer Harrison Ball, who took part in bringing Haieff Divertimento to today’s audiences.
When performed in 2020, it had been 26 years since Haieff Divertimento was performed by NYCB. Were you familiar with the work before you began rehearsing?
I had never heard of Haieff Divertimento until I saw my name on the rehearsal sheet. And from there, the only insight I had into the ballet in regards to what it looked like was from a quick Google search of photographs.
What was the process of bringing this ballet back into the active repertory? Were rehearsals particularly challenging or memorable?
Christine Redpath staged this particular ballet during one of my most challenging seasons. Usually, every ballet that I dance tends to lean toward the more rigorous side of movement. I often end up with an injury and chronic fatigue from these ballets. To say they demand everything almost feels like an understatement.
Haieff was not that. For the first time in my professional life I was given an opportunity to be a partner and a strong male presence onstage by just being there. It was a rehearsal [process] that I greatly anticipated because of the simplistic nature of the work. The challenges presented in Balanchine’s choreography in this specific ballet arise from nuance – not bravado paired with nuance. It is pure and simple. My main objective throughout the ballet is to be alive, present, and available for my partner.
The process of bringing this ballet back into the repertory was a delight both due to its nature of lightness and darkness, mystery and surprise, and most importantly – the music that names the ballet.
Can you tell us a bit about the role—your sense of its character, anything you particularly enjoy about it?
When I first performed Haieff, I did not have the tools or the performative wisdom to understand it. Perhaps I still don’t, but today I feel a greater awareness that the steps can speak loudly when I don’t search for meaning in them. I usually approached steps from my point of view instead of letting the choreography itself do the work on me.
It’s a simple task with an enormous amount of difficulty because one has to eliminate ego. This is a very enriching way to move and I look forward to not forcing myself into the ballet.
Haieff’s Divertimento for Small Orchestra premiered in the concert hall the year before the ballet debuted on Ballet Society, one of NYCB’s precursors. One can see why Balanchine was drawn to it, both because it has a certain Stravinsky-esque jazziness, but also because the choreographer was always interested in working with new music. What do you think about how a ballet like this fits into the repertory? Or, could you speculate as to why it might have fallen out of active performance?
To me, Haieff Divertimento feels like an experiment made by Balanchine. He tucked away simple seeds within Haieff that eventually grew into larger themes in other ballets. I cannot speak as to why it may have fallen out of the repertory, but I can only imagine it did so because Balanchine had bigger ballets to present to audiences. Haieff perhaps acted as fuel for some of his masterpieces that followed.
As a dancer and for my work in performance, I now find it pointless and destructive to speculate as to why or how he did things. “To do” is the purpose. Balanchine created steps to do so that we can be the vessels to present his interpretation of music.
With that said, Haieff Divertimento is like an oyster appetizer served as part of a larger dining experience. When one observes this ballet, they shouldn’t search for its meaning and try to interpret a narrative. I don’t feel one dancing it. I just listen, and do.
Just sit back, enjoy the music and Balanchine’s choreographic genius.