"
l think I was in the right place at the right time."

 

An Interview with Jillana,
Retired Principal Dancer, New York City Ballet
June 3, 2002

By Basheva

 

 

When she was six years old Jillana could do thirty-two fouettés on pointe. “Yes,” she assured me, “I was on pointe when I was six. I never had any problem with fouettés. My toe shoe ribbons were tied in front in big bows; I have pictures of that. It's a wonder my feet are still any good. I have been lucky.”

Jillana was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and started tap lessons when she was three and a half years old. “My mother always wanted to dance so badly but her parents wouldn't allow her to. They didn't think a career on stage was a good idea. When she had me, my mother put me in dance class. Then after about a year of tap a ballet teacher came in from New York and I had to try that, too. So I was about four and a half when I started ballet lessons. I loved it. I loved the little costumes and the recitals. My teacher was the wife of a teacher at the old School of American Ballet. And she suggested that my parents take me to New York when I was seven or eight.

“In New York I took lessons with Emily Hadley, who was the step-mother of New York City Ballet Principal Diana Adams and she suggested that I go to SAB, and I went and auditioned. I was about nine or ten years old. I was given a scholarship to the summer school and they asked me to come back in the fall. I was twelve years old when I entered NYCB. I think I was in the right place at the right time.”

I asked Jillana what age she was when she first actually performed with the Company. “I danced for the first time with the Company on my thirteenth birthday. It was Symphony in C. I was the first girl on. I got to stand there all by myself on the stage until the conductor motioned to me and then I got to bourrée and everyone else followed me on. I was so psyched up.”

At the time that Jillana joined NYCB it was still called Ballet Society. Some of the other members of the Company were: Maria Tallchief, André Eglevsky, Tanaquil Leclerq, Janet Reed, Nicholas Magallanes, and Todd Bolender. Jillana was in the original cast for Liebeslieder Waltzer, Symphony Concertante, Orpheus, Nutcracker, Western Symphony, and Stars and Stripes.

When I asked Jillana what was her favorite ballet to dance, without hesitation she said, “Serenade. I have done every single role in that ballet. Every principal role, every corps part. That's why I have no trouble setting it.” Jillana is recognized by the Balanchine Trust to set several ballets which include Serenade, Western Symphony, Stars and Stripes, variations from Nutcracker which includes the role of Sugar Plum, as well as Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. “I am also an authorized teacher of the Balanchine Technique and style. It's a different technique, of how to get to places faster.”

Except for a brief time, Jillana spent twenty years with NYCB. “I took time off and did a Broadway show called Destry Rides Again with Andy Griffith. I also went to ABT for about a year. But Mr. Balanchine told me that whenever I wanted to come back I could. I found I got tired of the Broadway show; it was too monotonous and I went back to NYCB.”

I commented to her that she had retired rather early and she agreed. “I wanted to retire while I was still at the top, not on the way down. I didn't want people to remember me dancing except at my best. Also, I had children and I didn't want to bring them up in New York, so I moved to San Diego with my husband who at that time was the production manager for the opera, symphony and ballet.”


"It can't be the same without Mr. Balanchine.
He was a genius and no one will ever take his place."


However, even in retirement Jillana continued to perform locally with both the San Diego and California Ballet Companies. She danced Odette-Odile in the full-length Swan Lake, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Nutcracker and La Sylphide. Of her partnership with Thor Sutowski in those ballets she says, “He was the best partner I ever had.”

Next I asked Jillana who were the dancers that she admired the most she replied, “Two of them actually: Mary Ellen Moylan and Maria Tallchief. Maria Tallchief was my complete idol. She had those saber legs. And her body, I admired her body. Oh yes, a third, Svetlana Beriosova.” Jillana remembers being in many ballets with Maria Tallchief. “She would come around and look at all the dancers in the ballet. She would check all the costumes to make sure there were no threads hanging, or our hair – that there were no hairs sticking out. I was scared to death.” I asked Jillana if she has since told Tallchief this and she laughed and said, “Yes! She was actually so good to me. She helped me a lot. She coached me. I was very lucky.”

Jillana feels she was present at the height of Balanchine's choreographic creativity and when I asked her what it was like to be part of it she answered, “It was incredible. The way he worked, the way he knew what the dancers could and could not do. He choreographed for the dancers, whatever you looked good doing. What makes it look so different nowadays, is that people are doing parts that he might not have put in there for them. He never required of me to do someone else's part. I would get my own part. Like in Liebeslieder Waltzer, each one of those couples he definitely personalized. He was incredible to work with. He knew every note; he could play all of it on the piano. He would sit there and argue with Stravinsky as to what the tempo should be. I was just a kid and I would watch them argue in English and Russian. The arguments would go back and forth during rehearsal.”

Jillana continued, “I would go to parties at Mr. B's house and he and Stravinsky would be in the back room drinking vodka and chatting away in Russian. Mr. B. was a great cook. He would invite me and others – we were kind of the favored ones – over for Russian Easter.”

I inquired of Jillana what she thought made Balanchine unique and she said, “He did everything for the dancers. He didn't really care if he got good reviews or not. He never read the reviews. Never. He didn't read what the critics had to say about him, because he really didn't care. I have a wonderful little book of Balanchine quotes and it's all true. I remember the one about putting women up on a pedestal, because he said that's where they are supposed to be. He said men aren't that important, except as partners.” When I asked her if he thought that way in dance terms or in general terms in life, she answered, “I think that he meant life, too.”

Aside from speed, I wondered what she considered the hallmarks of Balanchine's technique and she said it was an economy of movement in order to achieve that speed. “His steps are also very intricate.“ I asked her if it was intricacy for its own sake or was it a logical intricacy. “I think it was logical on his part. He knew what we could do. If you could do it he would give it to you, if you couldn't he'd give you something else.

“I know when I did Swan Lake; he coached me for Swan Queen which was quite an honor because he didn't do that for everyone. I remember there was a series of turns I couldn't do. I could never turn.” Then she laughed, “Yes, at six years old I could do fouettés, but that's it. And so, I told Mr. B. I can't do this and he said, 'Well, let's work on it a little bit.' I would work on it and then I could do it. But when I came to another part I told him that I really, really can't do this turn. And he changed it for me. He managed to do this without making the dancer feel put down. No, no, no, he was always very nice to me. I had no problems at all.

“However,” she added, “I had seen him be rather nasty to some others. If he thought someone was getting too fat, rather than go up to them and talk about it, he would just delete them from the part. You knew something was wrong if you were taken out of something. He would always stand backstage and watch. Once in a while he told me he liked what I did. But most of the time if he didn't say anything, you knew you were in good shape. He mostly only told you when something was wrong.”

As for pressures within the Company she felt that “because of my personality I didn't feel any pressure. I really wanted to please Mr. B. and do what he wanted me to do and how he wanted me to do it. But I think others might have felt pressure.”

We discussed the Balanchine aesthetic, the physicality – the look of the dancer that he wanted. Jillana said, “I think it is true that he wanted thin dancers. Ballet is line, it's all line and you cannot see a person's line if there's too much flesh getting in the way of it. It doesn't mean bones sticking out, and I don't think he meant that either. He wanted the flesh to be evenly distributed over the bones.” I mentioned to her that this concept might have created a great deal of harm to which she replied, “Oh yes, I agree. But I think that people have just gone overboard on it. I think a lot of parents put pressure on kids. Everything has been exaggerated for turnout, all this height for the legs and multiple turns. You don't get dancers who are dancing from the inside.

“And about emotion,” she added, “Mr. Balanchine never ever said to me, don't smile or don't have any emotion. I think that's because he saw that I really felt it. He knew that it was inside of me, it was not something I was putting on. I was smiling not because someone told me to do it; I was smiling just because it was there. I didn't even think about it.”

With the perspective of time I wondered what she thought about her experience with NYCB. “I wouldn't give it up for anything. It was my way of life. I always wanted to dance. My parents were so supportive of me.” Jillana was in the Company with so many legendary names and she agrees, “I was in the Company during its golden years, definitely. I think it's a little tarnished now. It can't be the same without Mr. Balanchine. He was a genius and no one will ever take his place. Ever, ever, ever. Peter Martins is doing what needs to be done, but it is a different Company. People have to realize that it's a different Company now. And, they shouldn't try to compare it to the way it was. It will not ever be the same ever again. But I wonder why the people who are still around like me and Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent, who remember and who know how it should be danced; why aren't we being used to coach? Maybe Martins doesn't want it to be danced that way and that's ok, it's his Company.”

She continued with her thoughts about how the Company looks today, “They are technically incredible, but I don't think they really dance. They all look alike. When I was in the Company we were all different. Just think about the people who were there when I was there. None of us looked anything like the others. Now, they all look the same. Too bad. People used to come to see a specific cast do a specific ballet. They wanted to see Allegra Kent do Bugaku, for instance, but now I think people just come to see the program. I don't know, maybe I am wrong.”

She believes that if the Company used the right coaches they could continue to dance the Balanchine ballets the way that the choreographer wanted them done. She added, “And if the coaches were allowed to do it the way it should be done. Now the dancers are great technicians, maybe the coaches could get some emotion out of them.” As for the future Jillana doesn't feel that there is any choreography right now as good as what was produced and that “slowly people will lose the vision of how Balanchine's work should be danced. There's nothing better out there, maybe never will be.”

In addition to Balanchine, Jillana also loved dancing ballets by Jerome Robbins. She enjoyed working with him and said, “I never had any problems, though he could be tough with others. I thought that Robbins and Mr. B. made a good pair.” The Robbins ballets that she danced were Age of Anxiety, Pied Piper (original cast), Interplay, and Fanfare (original cast). She also danced Antony Tudor's Lilac Garden. “I loved Lilac Garden, it was so beautiful.”

We discussed the School of American Ballet and Jillana said that “it's not good.” She explained, “I don't think that the people who are teaching there remember what Mr. Balanchine taught. They think they do, but they are teaching now with such exaggerations. I know that he NEVER said don't put your heels down in demi-plié after a jump. NEVER. I went up to him myself and asked him 'what's this about not putting your heels down in plié?' And he told me we do put them down.” She then elaborated on her thoughts about what is being taught at SAB. “In addition, I don't ever remember not putting my heels down in grand plié in second position either. Now they are teaching not to put the heels down in second position grand plié.

“And,” she went on, “all this tendu stuff where they do a tendu into a demi-plié and then put their heels down. Never, never did we do that. We brought our heels down as soon as possible.” To be sure I understood her correctly I asked her again, “Now it is being taught to bring the foot into fifth position and then put the heel down?” She repeated, “Yes, that's what they are teaching now. Everything is very exaggerated. Almost like a caricature.”

When Jillana retired from NYCB, in addition to dancing with San Diego Ballet she was also very active in other areas of dance. She auditioned dancers for the Ford Foundation scholarships for ten years. She has taught the men's classes at SAB during the summer. “Mr. Balanchine especially wanted me to teach that class because he thought it was important for the men to see what feet looked like because so many of the men dancers didn't use their feet correctly. Robert Joffrey was one of the students in that class.” She has also taught master classes at many different places including summer classes at DanceAspin for twelve years and Joffrey Ballet. For thirteen years she taught at the University of California at Irvine. She has also taught Company class at Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet West, and while still in NYCB regularly taught Company class while on tour.

After teaching in so many places she began to feel that she wanted to teach the way that she felt was correct and so decided to open a school at Taos, New Mexico. “That way if there are any mistakes, they will be my own mistakes. I wanted to teach my own way. This will be my fifth summer with my school.” She has sessions for both pre-professional teenagers and has this year added a session for adults and teachers.

I asked her what her goal is and she replied, “It is to pass to others the knowledge that Mr. Balanchine gave to me and hope that some of these students retain it. There are still a few of us out there who can do that like Suzanne Farrell, Maria Tallchief, Allegra Kent and Merrill Ashley. I understand that when Merrill Ashley gives Company class at NYCB, none of the Company members will take her class because she gives corrections.”

Jillana is still actively involved and interested in every phase of dance, as well as writing her autobiography. She has two grown children, a son and daughter, and lives with her husband, Allen, in San Diego, California.

 

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Edited by Malcolm Tay


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