As a ballerina selected by George Balanchine, Darci Kistler is among the chosen few. But she holds a distinction that no other Balanchine ballerina can claim — she is his last protégée. So at her retirement next year, an era that saw the fruition of some of the world’s greatest ballets will come to a definitive end.
With New York City Ballet for her entire 30-year career, she has held sway in the hearts, eyes and imaginations of many ballet fans — including those at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. In recognition of her accomplishments, SPAC will pay homage to Kistler on Saturday at its Gala. That program, with Kistler dancing Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” will mark the ballerina’s last appearance on the Saratoga stage.
“I’ll miss it,” said Kistler of dancing. “I took class today and it is so wonderful to be at the barre, listening to the music. I’ve never gotten tired of that. Being a dancer, you are self-involved. You have a lot of quiet time, putting on your makeup, preparing your shoes, class, rehearsal. I will miss that.”
But as she steps off the stage next spring, she will not stray far. She will continue to serve the art as a teacher at the School of American Ballet, the company’s official training grounds. She has taught there for several years already and says it is getting too difficult to teach two or three classes a day and then dance at night. Besides, she adds, “it’s time.”
Darci Kistler salute at The Gala
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Ballet gala only tickets run from $110 to $50 in the amphitheater and $50 on the lawn
MORE INFO: 587-3330 or www.spac.org
“You just know,” said the 45-year-old who spoke by phone from SAB. “I realized a few years ago that I don’t want to do Bizet [“Symphony in C”] and fall out of the turns in the finale. I remember thinking very early on that I didn’t want to hang on in the shadows. My rep got smaller and smaller and I was teaching more and more.”
Kistler broke the news to her husband and the company’s Ballet Master-in-Chief, Peter Martins, over a lunch last January.
“He was stunned,” said Kistler. “He didn’t know I was thinking about it.”
In a way, it takes a burden off of Martins, she said. He won’t have to ask her to step down.
Kistler’s Saratoga Farewell
For a review of her final perfomance at SPAC, click here .
It has been a magical career marked by a meteoric rise — admission to the company at 15, soloist at 16 and principal at 17. Her repertory was vast — performing central roles in everything from Balanchine’s “Agon” and “Vienna Waltzes;” Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” and “In the Night” and Martins’ ballet such as “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Adams Violin Concerto.”
Though Kistler was a natural dancer, she started out as an athlete. Born in what she calls an all-American family, Kistler was the youngest of five children. As the only girl, she competed with her brothers in sports such as skiing, swimming, football, and dirt biking. But she laments, “They were better than me. I couldn’t keep up.” So she started ballet class because it was something “I could call my own.”
She was 12, old by some standards, when she stepped into the studio with Irina Kosmovska in Los Angeles. But she excelled.
“I never thought it came easy. I really worked hard,” said Kistler. So hard and diligently that her first summer dancing, she attended a summer session at the SAB. Just two years later, she received a full scholarship to SAB.
“You don’t choose ballet. Ballet chooses you,” she said.
As her interest in ballet blossomed, she and her mother started to attend dance concerts at the Shrine Auditorium and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. She saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev; Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov and New York City Ballet in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” “I loved it,” she recalled.
Her love deepened in New York City. Her first summer there, she watched in awe the filming of “The Turning Point.” She also became attached to Stanley Williams, the revered SAB teacher, who was like a father to her. And she felt enraptured by the music, both in the studio and on the stage.
Eye of the master
And then she caught the insightful eye of Balanchine.
“We were rehearsing ‘Bourgeois Gentilhomme.’ I was 14, in the school. I was an understudy. Everybody was in the room, Patty McBride, Nureyev, Peter [Martins], Suzanne [Farrell], Jean Pierre Bonnefous, everybody. I was in the corner practicing as hard as I could. And then I fell. It was the loudest fall ever. I was so embarrassed. You know how it is, when you turn red and feel like you are going to cry. And I remember his looking at me, saying, ‘Dear, are you OK?’ And when I said ‘yes,’ he said to me ‘Don’t worry. It’s good to fall. You are trying so hard.’ ”
She was soon asked to join the corps de ballet. Her first ballet, as a member of the company, was “Symphony in C.”
“I remember standing still and how hard that was,” said Kistler, who started to hum. “When I heard the music, I just wanted to move.”
On her 16th birthday, in the Green Room at the New York State Theater, Martins broke the news to her that she had made soloist.
“That was a great moment in my life.”
Of course, the following year, she was promoted to principal. In a New York Times article, Martins recalled how excited Balanchine was about Kistler.
“I bumped into him in the elevator, and he looked at me with glee and said, ‘I have a new one,’ ” Martins told reporter Daniel Wakin. “‘Her name is Darci, and I’m going to promote her immediately.’ The elevator door opened and he disappeared. I’d never seen him so happy.”
Kistler is not certain why Balanchine favored her. But she suspects that he liked her work ethic.
“I know for a fact that Mr. B. personally liked me,” she said. “I never stopped working. I got a strong work ethic from my family. And I think he knew how much I loved it. He knew who wanted to be a ballerina for the title or who wanted it because they were competitive. He just knew. He would say that he could walk into company class and know where everybody was the night before. He was a great teacher.”
He was so discerning that he paired Kistler with Martins. One day backstage, he put Martins’ hand in hers and told them that he has made many matches, onstage and off. And that they were a match in marriage. At that point, Kistler hardly knew Martins.
“It was scary,” said Kistler. “I hadn’t even danced with Peter then. But I had some problems with other partners and he wanted to put us together. I didn’t take it seriously, but Peter took it to heart.”
The two married in 1991. They have a 13-year-old daughter, Talicia, whom Kistler says has beautiful feet, but is not interested in ballet. She aspires to become an opera singer.
“We’ll see,” said Kistler. “I told her that’s harder than ballet.”
At home, in long talks with her husband or in the theater, Kistler never tires of Balanchine ballets. At the same time, she feels much of what Balanchine was going for centered on youth and energy. And that older dancers, like herself, should bow out gracefully, entrusting the ballets to the next generation.
“I was never angry or missing the ballets that I can’t dance any more. I have been so blessed that it is easy to pass them on graciously. That is who I am.”
Not all smooth
It hasn’t all been easy. She has suffered injuries to her ankle and had back surgery nine years ago. She and her husband also experienced some disturbing incidents in Saratoga — including the bitter battle for the company’s survival at SPAC. She also has tolerated endless criticism of her husband from inside and outside the company.
“Peter has had to go on,” said Kistler. “He seriously loves Balanchine and Jerry and their ballets. But he can never fill the void. But who else could have done it?”
While a champion for her husband, Kistler will always be viewed as a Balanchine ballerina. So it is fitting that she will dance a Balanchine ballet at her SPAC farewell. She will dance the role of the stripper — complete with fishnet stockings and heels — in the ballet from the Richard Rodgers musical “On Your Toes.”
“I love that role because it’s a role within a role,” said Kistler. “Philip Neal will be there for me. It will be bittersweet.”
Then again, she said, few dancers have had her luck.
“Oh goodness, my career has been such a privilege and joy. It has been so full. I loved everything. I’ve been blessed, truly blessed.”