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Intersections: Allegra Kent, Balanchine's Ballerina

One of the most important choreographers of the 20th century, George Balanchine, would have been 100 years old this week. Born in Russia, he made his career in the United States, where he died in 1983. He left behind the New York City Ballet, the company he founded, along with hundreds of original ballets inspired by the unique abilities of his dancers.

In a report for Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their sources of inspiration, Kim Kokich talks with New York City Ballet star Allegra Kent — one of Balanchine's greatest ballerinas — about her relationship with "Mr. B."

Kent was 10 when she first told her mother she wanted to be a ballerina. Soon after, she was taken to the ballet for the first time to see a performance of Night Shadow, a tale of a sleepwalking wife, choreographed by Balanchine. Kent — now in her 60s — remembers the event as a life-defining experience: "After that evening, I did believe that ballet was really what I wanted to pursue, and that ballet was the most exalted form of dance... I still feel that way."

Kent joined the New York City Ballet company in 1952, at age 15. Within a few years, Balanchine began creating ballets inspired by her complexities as a dancer: her otherworldly stage presence, her innocent sensuality, her hyperactivity, her tendency to go outside technique to move in beautiful and strange ways. (In 1958, he even revived Night Shadow, renamed La Sonnambula, for Kent.)

Kent's relationship with Balanchine exemplified his technique: Balanchine saw ways to uncover the gifts of his ballerinas that, in turn, revealed his own talents. They inspired him to challenge ballet's conventions, while he pushed them to work harder than they ever had. Balanchine acknowledged this symbiosis in a 1970s' interview with the BBC.

"I try to push people to a certain level that I like. I have to satisfy myself," Balanchine said. "...I look all the time, and I borrow from them. I mean, I use their bodies. I use what they are."

For Kent, the relationship also proved rewarding. She enjoyed a successful 30-year career with the New York City Ballet, and now helps coach a new generation of dancers for The George Balanchine Trust.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.