In mathematics, there was Newton; in psychology, there was Freud; and in American ballet, George Balanchine was a foundational genius. He was a Georgian choreographer born in Russia who found prominence with the Ballets Russes in Paris, and moved from Europe to the United States in 1933. There, Balanchine helped to found the highly influential School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet, and he used those institutions to revolutionize the style of dance that was performed in the United States.
Every day, Balanchine taught a class for his New York City Ballet company, and it was there that he demonstrated his vision of what dance should be. The documentary “In Balanchine’s Classroom” pairs archival footage from Balanchine’s studio with present-day interviews with the dancers who attended. They describe the experience as akin to being a pupil of Einstein.
There is a beautiful act of translation that this documentary observes, as Balanchine’s former students — now wizened teachers themselves — attempt to render his movements into speech. Their failures to find perfect equivalents between these two languages indicate the choreographer’s plight: “Do it this way” is a meaningless directive if the mysterious “it” cannot already be done.
In one amusing sequence, the director Connie Hochman shows the master at work. When describing dance, Balanchine grunts and seizes, and his bewildered apostles must turn his verbal and physical contortions into perfect pliés and pirouettes. Decades later, his students sigh, hum and gesticulate much like their instructor did. The archival footage of Balanchine’s company in its prime becomes the visual relief to their verbal frustration, the magnificent evidence that it is possible to master an indescribable method.
In Balanchine’s Classroom
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.