Paul Boos auditioned for the New York City Ballet in the mid-1970s, when he was a young dancer. He said the tryouts were physically intense and demoralizing and made him feel "untalented." In 1975, NYCB Artistic Director and co-founder George Balanchine was the most recognized living ballet choreographer in the world, having revolutionized the artform through his creativity and musicality, and some of the most talented dancers in the world had also auditioned for his company. Boos almost despaired.
"I was going to walk right up to [Balanchine] and say, 'If I'm so terrible, there are 100 people here you can use," Boos said. "'So, please, use them if I'm so bad.'"
When Boos arrived at the studio to drop out of auditions, he saw a sign on the door: "Paul Boos report to company class." He joined NYCB in 1976.
Today, Boos works on behalf of the George Balanchine Trust, to "protect the integrity of the copyrights of George Balanchine's work in the present and for the future."
"My job is to ensure the integrity of [Balanchine's ballets], that everything is how it should be," Boos said. "That includes the dancing, costumes, the lighting, the music. It's overseeing the whole enchilada."
Boos is in Boise working with Ballet Idaho on its upcoming performances of Balanchine's "Rubies," which is part of Ballet Idaho's upcoming show, Mosaic/Rubies/Pirates, Feb. 13-14 at the Morrison Center. By the time the curtain opens, Boos will have spent four hours per day for a month working with BI dancers to make sure the performance passes muster.
"That's why the Balanchine Trust exists," said Peter Anastos, Ballet Idaho's artistic director.
"The trust sends a light plot, what they want for the scenery. They send pretty complete instructions [which] should be done as if the choreographer were here. Having Paul here to represent the Trust means we're going to have a first-class production."
Boise Weekly sat down with Boos and Anastos to talk about the Trust's role, Balanchine's views on women and why "Rubies" could change the way local audiences feel about ballet.
Boise Weekly: What is the difference between this and other Ballet Idaho productions?
Paul Boos: The wiggle room comes with the principal dancers ... People hear things differently. People see things differently. I tell them exactly what the counts are, the intentions. Occasionally [the dancers] will enhance it. You have scores of music written—Beethoven’s piano concertos. You hear and feel the soul of this person.
Peter Anastos: You can contrast that with what happens in the corps work. You can’t have eight complete individuals.
Paul Boos: There’s architecture to the dance. Everything has to be absolutely clear and precise; otherwise, the audience doesn’t understand it. It’s a visualization of the score.
What’s the level of specificity we’re talking about?
PB: This particular piece has a lot of syncopation. And that is something that you will look, and it’s done in a playful way. This is something that Balanchine picked up on: The Jazz age was something that inspired him and he incorporated it into classical dance. The music is mirrored in the body of the dancers.
What about the Jazz Age? Where does this fit between classical dance and modern or contemporary?
PB: Balanchine fits in all spectrums. But this particular piece fits in a very, how would you say...
PA: It’s contemporary. This choreography is 1967. But you look at this thing, and I defy anyone to not say it was created last week. It’s so contemporary, and he takes the traditional steps and breaks them all into shards, and the shards fit together in all these different ways. But it’s also a ballet. I think that Balanchine basically summed up the entire history of ballet in what he knew and pushed it way forward outside the bounds of where anybody had ever gone. The energy of it is phenomenal. We’re on a whole different planet here. To be given permission to perform this is an achievement.
How do you seek that permission?
PA: You ask them. You write them a letter. They ask for a video; they want to see your company. When we first applied, they turned me down. They said, “You’re not there yet. The girls’ feet are not good enough.” That’s an honest answer, so we kept working at it, sent them a video and said, “Do you think we could do “‘Rubies?’” And they said, “Yeah.”
How long does it take to prepare for a Balanchine dance?
PB: I’ve been given a great deal of freedom here and a lot of time to work with the dancers because this is something that’s new to them, but let’s say I work at the Bolshoi [Ballet in Moscow, Russia] and I’m given one hour a day. There’s not much I can do in an hour. In that case, I could be there for five to six weeks working on one ballet simply because they don’t have the time for me. Then I could go someplace and do it in two weeks. Here, because this is something very new to the dancers, I requested that I have some extra time so that I could really just shine it up and get it as sparkly as possible.
PA: The dancers need this time with him. They need this time to learn it, rehearse it but because “Rubies” is so complicated, he needed a lot more time. We set aside all the most important time for him to work with the dancers.
Beyond dance, what are some of the other things that you consider?
PB: I want to make sure the dancers understand the material. There’s a dynamic and joy to this dancing: you can’t just stick your leg out and put it back in. It’s about bringing the audience in. You have to make the audience want to get on stage and do this with you. And in order to get to that point, it almost has to be in your DNA. In the old days, it used to be that people would walk outside of the theater—these were people off the street—and they were doing steps from the ballet. It has to be infectious.
PA: Well that’s New York—like 4 million ballet fans. We’d like to achieve that in Boise someday. I think “Rubies” is going to make a lot more fans for ballet. People who see “Rubies are going to love ballet more than they did the day before.
PB: The only ballets people know of are the story ballets. That’s the challenge of every ballet company.
PA: What’s nice about Balanchine ballets is that they’re so good, the story’s unnecessary. You realize there’s a whole world out there beyond the story ballets. It’s not that they don’t have drama, there’s drama in the architecture. They don’t have to have character names or a crown.
PB: There’s this fear of “I don’t understand it so I’d rather not spend the money to see it.” When you see this, they’re not asking you to understand it. If you like it, great. If you didn’t, well, then we didn’t succeed. They’re not asking anything of the audience but to sit back and have a good time. It’s a very intense time that people will have.
What about the music? (Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano”)
PB: It’s in three movements. The second movement, it’s the pas de deux. It’s a very powerful, playful piece.
PA: It was written in the 1930s, but that doesn’t compute. It’s very powerful, strong, very jazzy. All those Euros fell in love with American Jazz. It’s flashy. It’s very flashy as a piece of music.
PB: The pianists have headaches because it’s very hard to play, and they’re quite intimidated by it but once they get it, they have so much fun with it. When I was working in Russia, I met someone who was in school with Balanchine and he said Balanchine was kicked out of school for playing jazz.
PA: It’s so jazzy and over the top. The piano playing is on the edge of bad taste. It gets right up to the edge of going a little too far crazy, but it’s really a masterpiece.
This dance was choreographed during a period of social change and turmoil. Is this a ballet for a post-Je Suis Charlie world?
PB: I wish I could agree with that—no. It’s so inviting. So inviting. It’s breathtaking. It transports you to this place of such happiness. No, there’s no—I’m sorry, I can’t see.
PA: In our time that we live in now, it’s expected that there’s a social component or social justice component to what people make in art. Art ought to exist on its own level and for its own sake.
PB: It has substance. It’s not Guernica… [Balanchine] did not believe in politics. However, he was able to make statements politically without it being political. For instance, during the Civil Rights Movement, he had the only black dancer in a ballet company and he put in 1957 onstage a black man and a white woman in leotards and tights... hands on each other, all over each other. It couldn’t be performed below the Mason-Dixon line. But he didn’t make it purposely with that in mind. He thought art was above all politics.
PA: If you have two people who are on different sides of an issue and they both sit there in front of the Mona Lisa, it has a calming effect. You’re both sitting there and that’s the power of the Mona Lisa. That’s the power of a good Balanchine ballet.
Is this non-politicalness of the dance related to the standards to which Balanchine dances are held?
PB: This group of us, this group of 30 or so people who do what I do, we have such passion and absolute devotion to this, and we try to pull out the best in every single person. This is our mission.
PA: Paul worked with Balanchine near the end of the life, and what’s really great for Ballet Idaho because there will be a time when there will be no people who worked with Balanchine. There’s nothing like it. It’s the top of the world.
Is there anything you’d like readers to know about Balanchine himself?
PB: He was like family. He was like a priest. He didn’t teach us simple lessons. Everything that he taught us was about living… We learned by his encouraging us to be much more than we ever knew we could be, and he could be quite brutal, too, because he had such high standards. All that I know about dance is really from him, but it’s not just dance. It’s understanding life. He once said dancers are the only people who can have their cake and eat it, too. I didn’t understand it then. I have my cake and I eat it, too, and how many people can say that? I’m just incredibly fortunate to do what I do, and he made that possible. He put women on a pedestal that was so poetic. He was not a man like you or me or anybody you know. He was like no one you know. Women to him were goddesses. How many men do you know who think women are truly goddesses? And he created work for them. It was extraordinary. There are a lot of quotes that he’s famous for saying, for example “Ballet is women” and “‘Apres moi le board.”