Reflections on a Career: Retirement at the Top : After 30 years with NYCB, Patricia McBride remembers Balanchine, Baryshnikov and others
Patricia McBride is exhausted. The night before, she had given her official farewell performance with New York City Ballet, culminating 28 years as a principal dancer. Then she stayed up late to celebrate and got up early to send her two children off to school. But the ballerina, even on an hour’s sleep, is ecstatic.
To thunderous applause, the 46-year-old dancer had blinked back “tears of joy” as she took one curtain call after another and bouquet upon bouquet showered the stage during a final standing ovation. New York Mayor Edward I. Koch had presented her with a silver apple from the city and several of her choreographers and partners, Edward Villella and Mikhail Baryshnikov among them, lined up to offer a kiss and one pink rose.
“I’m elated. I feel so happy that I could have a wonderful evening like last night and feel that I was still enjoying dancing and feeling good about it,” said McBride in an interview in her spacious apartment overlooking Central Park. Flowers from the previous evening filled nearly every room, each made redolent with their scent.
“My career went beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve loved every minute of it. I did everything I wanted to do. I just feel very lucky, very blessed. I can look back and have no regrets.”
McBride danced her formal adieu during a standing-room-only “Tribute” at Lincoln Center June 4. In a program of works identified with her career, she performed five excerpts from roles choreographed for her at NYCB. In all, these roles number about 40, around half created by the late George Balanchine, the company’s co-founder and one of the world’s greatest choreographers.
McBride said she will dance with NYCB once this July in Saratoga, N.Y., during the troupe’s summer season. But her full-time “retirement” plan is to teach dance as a tenured professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, joining her husband Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, a former NYCB principal dancer, who chairs the university’s dance department.
“I’ll be 47 and I just feel that the time is right” to retire, said the New Jersey native, whose straight dark hair streaked with gray frames an angular, open face. Though petit, ethereal and on this occasion rhapsodic in mood, she possesses an unshakeable self-assurance.
“I could go on several more years if I wanted to. But I felt that I wasn’t dancing that much now, and it was selfish to dance two times a week and keep our family apart. It was very hard on the marriage. I was also doing the same ballets basically. I was not having any new challenges . . . . Even old dancers need new ballets.”
Joining NYCB at 16, McBride was made principal dancer two years later--the start of the longest career in that position with the great troupe. The roles crafted for her demonstrate an expressive versatility. There was the dark mystery of “La Valse” by Balanchine, the spirited glee of “Coppelia,” staged by Balanchine with Alexandra Danilova, and the intimate lyricism of “Dances at a Gathering,” by Jerome Robbins, who now heads NYCB with Peter Martins.
She emerged as a star in a supposedly starless company and despite rumors that Balanchine discouraged such things, projected a personality of her own. She was often described as exuding sweetness, warmth and radiance as well as dancing with quicksilver agility and exuberance, a match for Villella, with whom she formed a long and well-known partnership.
McBride also performed such classics as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Giselle” in guest appearances with smaller, much less-renowned troupes. At 20, she danced Balanchine’s version of “Swan Lake” which confines itself to Act II. Though such works are often considered the test of a true ballerina and the attainment of the highest ambition, McBride said has no regrets about a career that didn’t emphasize them.
“The (NYCB) repertory was so rich and so vast. And I’ve had ballets choreographed on me by Balanchine, what could be greater?. . . It’s hard to explain what it’s like to work with a genius, but, with Jerry Robbins too, the choreography is just great and you know it is great and you know it is right.”
Indeed, McBride had an entirely different experience with Balanchine than Gelsey Kirkland did. The former NYCB ballerina’s controversial autobiography portrayed him as an tyrannical despot who told his dancers to starve themselves thin, encouraged them “not to think,” and gave her amphetamines for energy. The “totally ridiculous” book, McBride said, painted a wholly erroneous picture of life at New York City Ballet.
“Mr. Balanchine was a great gentleman and he loved his dancers. He was devoted to his company. He came to the ballet every night and his presence was felt. It was like the whole company was dancing for him. And if he liked you, he trusted you to be yourself. He didn’t try to change you and make you into something you were not. And he knew you so well, he knew you better than you knew yourself. He brought special things out of you.”
Balanchine would frequently create a solo in 45 minutes, she mused. “It was so natural for him to choreograph, you had to be ready to absorb all that he had to teach you in a really short amount of time. He was so easy to work with.”
Not so easy to work with was Baryshnikov, who received a lot of negative press during his short stint with NYCB in the late ‘70s. Some of this reaction involved the partnership with McBride, with whom he was often paired by Balanchine and Robbins.
“I don’t think Misha (Baryshnikov) enjoyed dancing with me very much. He wasn’t kind and warm and charming like all my other partners were. But it was a great experience and I think it was the pressure he was under. The critics always compared him to Edward Villella.
“When you’re a star, critics can’t make or break you,” she continued, reflecting on how the bad notices didn’t affect her. “I felt confident because Mr. Balanchine told me I looked good with him and what I wanted most was to please Mr. B. and Jerry Robbins.”
(A spokeswoman for Baryshnikov said he was not available to comment on the issue because he is busy acting in the Broadway play “Metamorphosis.”)
After dancing for about 20 years “seven times a week and rehearsing everyday, four to five hours a day,” McBride took a year off in 1983 to have her son (she also has an adopted daughter). After giving birth, she danced less often and was thus able to combine motherhood and a career.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
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