Ballet Idaho's Dancers Learn From A Balanchine Disciple

Nov 1, 2013

It's been 30 years since renowned choreographer George Balanchine died, but his ballets and vision are alive through companies like Ballet Idaho. 

Jillana performed with the New York City Ballet for 20 years.
Credit Courtesy of Jillana

For the second year, Ballet Idaho is working with one of Balanchine's dancers, Jillana. Ballet Idaho performs Balanchine's Serenade Friday and Saturday in Boise, nearly 80 years after ballet was first choreographed.

For 20 years, Jillana danced with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. At 13-years-old, she was in his original performance of Serenade.

Now, Jillana has her own dance school in California and she travels around the world teaching Balanchine’s style and technique.

With her white hair pulled back, she sits down after a recent rehearsal to talk about working with Ballet Idaho and her mentor George Balanchine.

“He was a genius as far as I’m concerned,” Jillana says as she slips off her ballet slippers and carefully wraps the pink ribbons around the shoes.

George Balanchine is known as the father of American ballet. He immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1933 and founded the School of American Ballet which trains dancers to this day. Eventually, he created the New York City Ballet and that’s where he and Jilliana met.

“I was one of the lucky ones. I got in when I was 12. I was at the right place at the right time and Mr. Balanchine asked me to join the company. And being 12-years-old at the time, what are you going to say, ‘no?’”

Six years after being with the New York City Ballet, Jillana became a principal dancer. Balanchine choreographed ballets just for her including; Liebeslieder Walzer, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Don Quixote.  “He was wonderful to work with,” Jillana recalls. “He knew exactly what he wanted.”

Jillana remembers Balanchine always played the piano despite having a finger chopped off during a lawn-mower accident. Then he’d demonstrate the steps for the dancers. “He choreographed so fast,” she says but the steps never changed once he had set the ballet.

Ballet Idaho performs Friday and Saturday in Boise.
Credit Ballet Idaho

Peter Anastos, Ballet Idaho’s artistic director, says it’s been an honor for the company to work with Jillana. “When she speaks people really listen.”

Jillana believes Balanchine wanted her to go on and help dancers like those at Ballet Idaho.

Over the years, choreographers have taken Balanchine's work and given it their own style, which troubles Jillana. When Jillana teaches, she tries to stay as true to the master’s technique as she can. So Friday, when the curtain lifts on 17 women in their light-blue tutus, arms raised toward the sun, the audience will see Serenade as the legendary Balanchine intended it.

“He would invite me to attend these seminars that he gave for teachers in the summer time and even though I was dancing in the company, he invited me to come in and listen,” Jillana says. “I think in the back of his mind he knew that one day I was going to be teaching his teachings.”

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio