Despite the foot of snow accumulating outside its doors, the David H. Koch Theater was nearly full on Feb. 10 with New York City Ballet supporters gathered for its annual luncheon. This year’s event celebrated the career of one of the company’s most celebrated ballerinas – and the last to be selected by its founder, the legendary George Balanchine.
In many ways Darci has led a fairytale life. Growing up with four brothers instilled an athleticism and competitiveness, but had her searching for a feminine outlet. Ballet satisfied that urge and became a relief from her brothers, a place where she could express herself and feel in control. At the age of 14 Darci was awarded a scholarship to attend The School of American Ballet, the official school to the New York City Ballet. She quickly excelled, and in a year she had joined the company’s Corps de Ballet. She caught the attention of Balanchine, or Mr. B as the dancers called him, and two years later she became the company’s youngest principal dancer. At the tender age of 17.
Critics wrote of her “quicksilver brilliance,” “awesome artistic promise” and impressively fast ascension into the spotlight. “Seldom has the City Ballet cast a newcomer in such a succession of major roles,” wrote Jennifer Dunning in The New York Times in 1980. The larger-than-life Balanchine played an important role in Darci’s life, shaping the young ballerina – “He would say, don’t act, don’t pretend to be in love with your partner, just dance,” she recalled – even pairing her with her future husband, Peter Martins, who today is the company’s ballet master in chief.
Darci will retire at the end of this season, continuing to teach at SAB, where she has been cultivating dancers and sharing Balanchine’s teachings for 15 years already. Darci’s sunny demeanor has no doubt been a bright spot for many a ballet student. During the luncheon program, dancer Kaitlyn Gilliland thanked Darci, her mentor, for the “Beauty, grace and kindness that has made her one of the most important people in my life.”
Interspersed with performances from Darci and other dancers, City Ballet board member Bob Craft then sat down with Darci, to discuss her three-decade career. The following are excerpts from that interview.
Bob Craft: Let’s start from the beginning, you came from California and you were 14. How did you adjust to being repotted here in New York City?
Darci Kistler: I think that I should have been born here. I love New York. The first summer I came was 1976 and they had the blackout and I remember people were vandalizing stores and I just thought, ‘Wow, this place is so free, so wild one minute, and the next minute it’s so glorious and sophisticated.’ And I just loved that difference.
Is it true that the first time that George Balanchine and Rudolf Nureyev and Peter Martins noticed you is when during rehearsal you loudly fell on your backside?
Absolutely. I’ll never forget I was an understudy for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Balanchine was choreographing it on Patti McBride and I was marking. But of course I can’t mark, I’ve never been a good marker, it’s full-out or nothing. And wham, I went down in a little corner and the whole room stopped and I turned bright red. And Mr. B looked back at me and he said, ‘You know dear, falling is good. It’s okay to fall.’ He knew I was embarrassed.
Why don’t you explain what marking is?
Marking is what [founding choreographer] Jerry Robbins always wanted me to do in his ballets. Less is more. And Balanchine was the opposite. It was never enough. It was never big enough. It was never grand enough. It was never fast enough. He didn’t ever want you to mark so it was fun having the two different personalities.
The School of the American Ballet’s graduation performance was heavily anticipated in 1980 when was going to be Swan Lake with Darci as the lead. She was only 15 but her reputation was already known enough that tickets were very hard to get. Reviewers who normally got two tickets only got one and the place was sold out essentially. And it was an extraordinary performance. She joined City Ballet that same year. Why did you join City Ballet rather than another company?
I walked in the doors at the School of the American Ballet and fell in love. My mom always read Vogue and in it there was an article on George Balanchine and it was talking about perfume, how he would buy perfume for all his ballerinas. And I just thought, how romantic, what a really amazing man, I want to know him. … I loved New York City Ballet, it was my personal taste. I loved the music, the variety and the work ethic.
Our sponsor Valentino recently displayed Darci’s toe shoes on plots of grass at their store but Darci never let grass grow under her feet. When she got to the ballet she became a soloist the next year, 1981. She became a principal in 1982 at the age of 17. And perhaps more significantly, Darci was the last principal dancer selected by Balanchine, who died April of 1983. Did your incredibly fast rise create any difficulties for you?
No, I just really never cared about anything, I just loved to work. I never thought of being his last ballerina, being a principal, being a soloist. When I joined City Ballet it was like the way I went into SAB; the back of the last line, the last girl, just work and enjoy it. You have one life. That really has been who I have been my whole life. So I never thought about it.
When I look back on it, the one thing it made a little bit difficult was my personal life because there were no girls my age. And when I was a principal dancer everybody was 10 or 12 years older than me. … I think one thing that Mr. B and Peter Martins and Stanley Williams and Lincoln Kirstein they always told me was you have to be yourself. And every day you work at the barre, you’re not just doing exercises, you’re making yourself a better human being. You’re figuring out who you are, you’re growing. The worst thing for me would be to have been in this incredible company for 30 years and not to have grown at all and not to have been able to make a future for myself.
So what ballets did you start off dancing here with the company, besides Swan Lake?
I remember going to Washington, D.C. and I had Brahms Second Movement, Valse Fantaisie, Afternoon of a Faun and Swan Lake, Firebird, Brahms third movement – it was heaven. And I was literally thrown out there. Mr. B always had a saying, ‘sink or swim.’ I always giggle now because the casting has to be up I think two or three weeks ahead of time. Well, casting used to go up on maybe Friday for Tuesday and the rest of the week wasn’t even done. That’s how your life was; you really basically couldn’t go to college because your life was on such hold.
Well Darci’s performances were distinctive, but I was taken by what fellow dancer Robbie La Fossa said. He said you use rehearsal not to replicate what your predecessors had done but to figure out for yourself how to perform a role. Does that sound right to you?
I love Robbie. Robbie came over from ABT. Robbie would try and make me like Gelsey [Kirkland] and I would say, no Robbie, in this company Mr. Balanchine said to be yourself. To try and be like someone else was death. And if you think about it, it really is, because you never can be.
Well what we had here was a teenage phenom whose performances proved she was a true principal dancer. Dance critic Robert Greskovic said ‘the magic and mystery of star-bright performing were hers full force from her first appearance.’ Everybody thought that Darci was the best thing to come along in a long time. Your career blossomed with a lot of great performances. Were there roles that you felt cut out for, or roles that you had to adapt to?
I always felt in service. It was for me to make do and give my best whatever ballet it was. Do I have certain favorites? Oh, I’ll never forget the vision scene, being on stage in Sleeping Beauty. That music, that set, the lighting, everything. Theme and Variations, I loved dancing Theme because it was so classical … Second movement of Symphony in C, being onstage with the entire New York City ballet in the finale, it just doesn’t get better than that.
You danced with other companies, how do they differ from New York City Ballet?
They don’t rehearse as much. And I don’t think they perform as much. And they always have a hierarchy. I personally can say in this company that everyone is a ballerina or a great dancer.
How have your experiences differed from what the younger dancers are experiencing?
Well I think you have the difference of the leadership. Our life was completely on hold for George Balanchine. It was a little more like a dictator and I don’t think you can get away with that in this day and age, 30 years later. I think that the dancers are much more taken care of. Their needs are much more considered. We didn’t have a physical therapist. Getting a massage was a bad thing in my day.
What I’ve learned is to adjust, not to say what was or what is or what could be, but to be in the moment. And I think this is one of the greatest moments of New York City Ballet. … I see these dancers – and this is three decades – and I think wow, this is remarkable.
And how have you balanced motherhood with your dancing career?
You just do what you need to do. Every day when I see Cia, there’s nothing better in my day. But I have been so busy, extremely busy. And that’s why I think I sat down with Peter [Martins] and said, I don’t want to be half this and half that, a quarter that. That’s when I decided it was time for me to give more time to Cia and to the school, and also my marriage.
What was a typical daily schedule like?
I’ll tell you what my day was like yesterday. I taught school 10:30 to 12. We live outside of the city so I leave the house probably around 9, 9:30. Then I sewed shoes, made some phone calls. Took class 12:30 to 1:30. Rehearsed 1:30 to 3:30. Ran over to New York City Ballet to see the chiropractor. Ran back and taught class 4 to 7:30.
You’ve dealt with teaching and auditions for quite some time. Have you been able to pass on to your students what Mr. B, Peter and others have taught you?
I sure hope so. I always had really mean teachers. And that was one thing I always told myself, you don’t have to be mean to teach. One thing that I really love is to get to know the children and watch them grow. It’s such a remarkably beautiful life. I love watching them fall in love with it and become real dancers. It just doesn’t get any better.
Darci’s last performance will be Sunday, June 27 at 3 p.m. at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. The program includes Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (excerpt), Danses Concertantes and Swan Lake (final act).