George Balanchine Répétiteur Joysanne Sidimus Retires with Symphony in C
by Caroline Dickie
March 2, 2023
Joysanne Sidimus. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
For Joysanne Sidimus, George Balanchine’s Symphony in C is simply “Bizet,” a familiar name reflecting a life spent studying and staging the great choreographer’s work. The ballet will be the final Joysanne will stage as a preeminent Balanchine répétiteur, a career that has taken her around the world, including stagings at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, Stuttgart Ballet, Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, Teatro alla Scala, Beijing Dance Academy and destinations throughout North America.
Born in New York City, Joysanne trained under Balanchine at the School of American Ballet and, after ten years as a student, she was invited to join New York City Ballet. Balanchine gave her permission to stage one of his works while she was still dancing – Serenade for Pennsylvania Ballet, which she both danced and staged. In addition to New York City Ballet, Joysanne performed with London Festival Ballet and as Principal Dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada before turning her full attention to staging. Today, she is internationally respected for her understanding of Balanchine’s style, musicality and body of work. I chatted with Joysanne about her life in dance as she prepares Symphony in C for the National Ballet’s winter season.
You have such a deep knowledge of George Balanchine and his work. After devoting so many years to his ballets, how would you characterize the “Balanchine style”?
Books have been written on this subject but it’s safe to say that he revolutionized ballet technique for the 20th century. He took everything he had learned through his Russian training and extended it – made it faster and more musical. Music was not an accompaniment for Balanchine. He wanted you to be the music. Often he would say, “don’t listen to the music, count,” so that you would hear the music as he did. The movement he demanded was always extreme. “What are you saving it for?” he used to say. Dancers love performing Balanchine because you really get to move.
Arthur Mitchell and Joysanne Sidimus at the Stratford Festival in Electre. Photo courtesy of The Stratford Festival.
You also had a fabulous performing career. Do you have any favourite roles or ballets?
I was trained in the Balanchine style and his ballets are close to my heart. In the four companies I performed with, some of my favourite Balanchine roles to dance were in Serenade (I danced everything from the Corps de Ballet to the principal roles), Arabian and Dewdrop in The Nutcracker, Tsarevna in Firebird, the first and second lead in Concerto Barocco and the third movement ballerina in Bourrée Fantasque. I also loved to dance Caroline and The Woman In His Past in Lilac Garden by Antony Tudor, The Betrayed Girl in Ninette de Valois’ The Rake’s Progress, Electra in Grant Strate’s House of Atreus and, in a different version of the same ballet, Electre at Stratford Festival. Dramatic roles have always interested me and actually that was one of the reasons I joined The National Ballet of Canada, to have access to a larger repertoire of dramatic ballets.
You have long been an ally and advocate for dancers. You founded the Dancer Transition Resource Centre in 1985 and oversaw the creation of what is now The Al & Malka Green Artists’ Health Centre at Toronto Western Hospital. Could you tell us about these initiatives?
Many dancers, myself included, struggle at retirement. You find yourself asking, what am I if not a dancer? After I stopped dancing I started talking to people about their experiences and collected the interviews in my first book, Exchanges: Life After Dance. There was a clear and pressing need for confidential access to counselling, opportunities to retrain and access to financial support. That’s where the Dancer Transition Resource Centre has really made a difference. There was a time when dancers didn’t talk about retirement, the fear was so profound. But as more and more dancers share their post-performance successes, that fear has dissipated. I’m so inspired by their stories.
The Artists’ Health Centre was a grassroots project designed to serve artists and art students in all disciplines, many of whom cannot afford to direct a sizeable portion of their income to alternative treatments, whether that’s for a physical injury, performance-related stress or exposure to toxic fumes. For those who cannot afford those treatments, The Joysanne Sidimus Fund subsidizes a portion of their visits to the centre, so that’s something I’m really proud of.
Jeremy Blanton with Joysanne Sidimus. Photo by Amleto Lorenzini.
You will close your 38-year career with the National Ballet by staging Symphony in C. How would you describe this ballet?
Symphony in C is a quintessential Balanchine classical ballet which really showcases the depth of talent in the company. Nobody is standing around. Everyone is dancing. Bizet composed the symphony when he was just a teenager and it’s extremely danceable. For the dancers, this ballet is sheer joy – you can see it radiating in their faces. There’s space, speed, beautiful music, everything. It’s a challenge to put it together with 52 dancers but such a pleasure as well. It’s Balanchine’s gift to the dancers and our audiences.
Looking back on your career, are there moments that really stand out for you?
The day I got the invitation to join New York City Ballet is high on the list. I had been at the School of American Ballet since I was eight years old so it really felt like a dream come true. I cherish every moment I spent with Mr. B. Coming to The National Ballet of Canada was wonderful, too. Erik Bruhn was with us for such a short time as Artistic Director but he had so much to give and was an incredibly perceptive artist. I also had many rewarding experiences with Celia Franca and working with Suzanne Farrell – it’s a long list! When I look back I’m just overwhelmed at how fortunate I have been to do so much with people who inspire me. I’m honoured and grateful for it all.
Joysanne Sidimus as Tsarevna in Firebird. Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet.