A little more than 30 years ago, George Balanchine shared a secret with Peter Martins, then a principal with New York City Ballet, as the two rode an elevator at Lincoln Center. “I have a new one!” Balanchine said to Martins, gleefully. “Her name is Darci, and I’m going to promote her immediately.”
Mr. B was true to his word. In 1982, he made Darci Kistler a principal with NYCB. The coltish teenager—she was, at that point, only 17—seemed born to dance his ballets. Already the young ballerina had the fearlessness of attack and the “quicksilver brilliance,” according to one critic, that would propel her to international fame. Though Balanchine died in 1983, shortly after Kistler’s ascendance at NYCB, many pinned their hopes on the rising star as the one who would keep the great choreographer’s legacy alive. And when Kistler joined the permanent faculty of Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in 1994, she demonstrated a personal interest in the survival of his style, as he taught it to her.
Over the course of the three decades she spent with NYCB, Kistler refined her technique and matured into an artist of depth, wit and generosity. She also married Martins—a match Balanchine foresaw—in 1991, and their daughter, Talicia, was born in 1996. Cheered by thousands of adoring fans, Kistler gave her final performance with NYCB this June. It marked the end of an era. She was the last ballerina in the company hired by Mr. B. Kistler now plans to devote more time to teaching at SAB.
Dance Teacher: What from your experience as a dancer have you incorporated into your teaching?
Darci Kistler: Well, I know the fundamental things students will have to be able to do to dance professionally. But I’ve found that teaching really has nothing to do with you, the teacher. Some people have suggested that dancers who have certain strengths should teach those things. But that’s anti-Balanchinean. He never wanted dancers to think like or be like someone else. When I’m teaching, it’s about what my students need.
DT: Do you think the Balanchine style, as you learned it, is healthy today? How do you plan to carry on his legacy?
DK: People have funny ideas about Balanchine style. I’ve heard teachers say that floppy wrists are “Balanchine,” but they’re not. He even told me, “Your arms should never be flopping!” What he wanted was very simple: good épaulement, an emphasis on the crossing of the legs in croisé and effacé, good speed. That’s what I teach; I think these ideas need to be passed on. But “Balanchine technique” is really in Mr. B’s ballets. If they’re danced at the tempo they should be, you’ll find that you have to exaggerate all the crossing, because it helps you move quicker. Mr. B used to say that once you eat great food, you won’t be able to tolerate anything else: Your body craves the good stuff. That’s the way dancers come to feel about the Balanchine style.
DT: Any advice for dance teachers? Is there something you’ve noticed that students at SAB’s summer course, for example, lack in terms of training?
DK: I think the most frustrating thing I’ve noticed is that most students haven’t mastered the six basic ballet positions. I see dancers who have taken ballet for 10 years and can do five pirouettes, but can’t do fifth position. Sometimes they barely even know what it is. Make sure students perfect those simple positions first, because they’re the foundation for everything else.
DT: Would you ever consider opening your own studio?
DK: I love where I am. I love the aesthetic, and I’m happy to work for Peter [Martins] and know that we’re on the same page. I also get excited about the fact that the students at SAB will have a chance to join NYCB. SAB was where I began, and in a way I’ve never really left it. I’m coming full circle. DT
Margaret Fuhrer is an assistant editor at Dance Spirit and Pointe, and a contributing editor for Dance Teacher.
Photo: Darci Kistler teaching a children’s division ballet class at SAB (by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of NYCB)