Piecing Together a Ballet

When planning programming for a new season, a ballet company’s artistic director considers many options from the company repertory, but setting ballets created in the 19th and even 20th century can offer unique challenges.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Serenade // © Erik Tomasson

When planning programming for a new season, a ballet company’s artistic director considers many options from the company repertory. For many American companies, programming usually includes newer, more contemporary works mixed with older “classic” ballets. Ballets created in the 19th and even 20th century can offer unique challenges: who remembers the steps? How was the role originally interpreted? What if the original sets and costumes no longer exist?

Master choreographers George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Twyla Tharp have established trusts that oversee and steward their body of work. The people who are responsible for setting these historical works on behalf of the trusts are called répétiteurs or stagers. They are usually former dancers who worked with the choreographer and they travel from company to company, ensuring that the integrity of the choreographer’s works is maintained. Elyse Borne is one of these skilled repetiteurs from The Balanchine Trust and has staged approximately 30 Balanchine works throughout her career. Recently, in San Francisco, she set Balanchine’s Serenade on SF Ballet School students for the annual Student Showcase in late May and June.

“I like to teach the steps, musicality, and style right from the start,” says Borne. “I find that even if it's more time consuming, it's better than trying to change or break bad habits later. You do have to get the material out there first, but I try to impart as much knowledge and detail as I can while teaching the steps.” That said, the sequence in which a ballet is taught is up to the répétiteur and depends on the choreography and complexity of music. In the case of some ballets that are based on literary works, répétiteurs may also give dancers reading assignments or point them to additional resources, in order to help them better understand the narrative or characters they are portraying.

In addition to répétiteurs, ballet masters are present throughout the rehearsal process to make sure small details don’t get lost after the initial rehearsals. They take precise notes about formations, timing, choreography, intention, and whatever else they feel is important. Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation are two standardized methods for recording movement on paper; Labanotation was derived from a notation system developed by Rudolf Laban in 1928, and Benesh Movement Notation was developed in the 1940s by Joan and Rudolf Benesh and is used by London’s Royal Academy of Dance. Ballet masters can use either method or create their own shorthand for notating dance.

With today’s technology, companies are able to maintain extensive video archives of repertory ballets, even works that have not been performed in years. At SF Ballet, archival stations are set up in the production office so dancers can review choreography. Some dancers watch footage before rehearsals begin so they have a general understanding of the choreography and the ballet’s structure and, later during the season, they review these videos to check smaller details.

Whether it’s through a repetiteur, video, or notation, recording processes ensure that older ballets and new works are passed down in a way that is true to the choreographer’s intent. The creation of new works is a hallmark of SF Ballet, so it’s essential to have these artists and systems in place.


Principal Dancer Vanessa Zahorian explains how George Balanchine's works have made her the dancer she is today. 

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Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), one of the major forces in 20th-century performing arts, was often praised for seamlessly crossing over from the ballet world into theater, movies, and television—and back to ballet.

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