It was the first ballet that made sense to her. There was mystery, passion, pain. The music, by Vittorio Rieti, after themes from Bellini operas, swept her into another world.
“I was 11,” said Allegra Kent. “My heart was broken.”
Kent, the former New York City Ballet principal, was just a child when she attended a performance by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Los Angeles. The final work on the program was “Night Shadow,” George Balanchine’s 1946 ballet, later called “La Sonnambula.”
Kent had no idea who Balanchine was. But just four years later, she would join New York City Ballet, the company he had formed with Lincoln Kirstein. And not long after that, in 1960, Balanchine revived the ballet, casting Kent as its mysterious Sleepwalker.
This season, as part of the company’s 75th anniversary, Kent, 86, was brought in as a guest coach for “La Sonnambula,” which returns Wednesday for four performances, and for “The Unanswered Question,” the gripping second movement of “Ivesiana.”
Kent wasn’t with the company from its 1948 start, but she was still a part of its early days and one of Balanchine’s most important muses.
She joined City Ballet at 15, just a year after she arrived in New York from California to study at the company-affiliated School of American Ballet. Balanchine gave her a scholarship, and soon after, she began attending performances.
“The first ballet I saw on the first program was ‘Serenade,’” she said, referring to the Balanchine masterpiece in an interview at her Manhattan apartment. “I can’t remember the other ballets because it was like, ‘Serenade’ — the whole world is open.”
Eventually “La Sonnambula,” with its magic and tragedy, came her way. In this haunting ballet, the Poet hero romances a woman, the Coquette, before discovering a Sleepwalker at a masked ball. Holding a candle, the Sleepwalker skims across the stage in close-knit bourrée steps on pointe wearing a flowing dress. Its diaphanous sleeves, like wings, catch the air as they stream behind her.
The Coquette’s jealousy leads the Baron, the host of the ball, to stab the Poet; the Sleepwalker, devastated, carries him away. With the right dancers, the ballet is gut-wrenching, but it takes imagination born from almost psychic sensations. The heroine may be walking in her sleep, but “she’s not expressionless,” Kent said. “You can’t come in like a zombie.”
In the pas de deux, the Sleepwalker glides past the Poet, who ducks underneath her candle; he waves his hand in front of her face to see if she is awake; he falls to the floor in her path, but she steps over his outstretched body, unruffled, and continues on her way. There should be daring, too: On tour in Moscow, Balanchine demonstrated one of the Sleepwalker’s crossings on a stage that Kent said was like a football field.
“He took the candle and ran on the diagonal,” she said. “In those days, they had footlights. He stepped over the footlight and stopped. I thought, Oh, my God, he’s going to die” — plunging off the stage. “But he didn’t die. He stepped back and gave the candle to me.”
He was showing her, in essence, how the Sleepwalker possesses a layer of extrasensory perception; that what can’t be seen can be felt, and that even in a sudden stop — as he did himself on that stage — there should be no physical reverberation.
“Balanchine loved danger,” Kent said. “In the step in ‘The Unanswered Question’ when she slowly goes back” — the ballerina, again in white and held aloft, falls into the arms of four men obscured by darkness — “the audience is terrified for a moment. So this is the genius of Balanchine. Ah! She’s going to run off the stage! She’s going to fall over backward! Is anyone going to catch her?”
The original Sleepwalker — and the one Kent first saw all those many years ago — was the great ballerina Alexandra Danilova. Kent herself was briefly coached by Danilova not in the studio, but in a chance meeting, waiting for the 104 bus on Broadway. “She stood up and started demonstrating at the bus stop,” Kent said. “Gosh, what a moment.”
Rehearsing at City Ballet’s studios with Unity Phelan and Taylor Stanley, who will perform the Sleepwalker and the Poet in one cast, Kent was intensely ethereal, acutely focused, with fingers full of life. She said, “You’re getting messages from the air, the atmosphere.”
Kent turned to the mirror to study their reflection as if it were a painting. With her elbows raised, her fingertips curving toward her chest, she worked on details — as many as she could. She was trying, it seemed, to penetrate below the surface of the skin, to draw raw emotion into the movement. Details are important to Kent, as they were to Balanchine. He would come backstage and say, “‘Oh, your crown is half an inch too far back,’” she said. “‘Bring it forward.’ I mean, it’s not even the hair, it’s just the crown. Details.”
Kent stood in front of Phelan, who held the candle with a curved arm as the other extended to the side. Kent rested her elegant fingers on Phelan’s shoulders — just a whisper of pressure — and stared at their reflection in the mirror. “Don’t look up,” she said, releasing her hands.
“You are sleepwalking, but you’re aware,” Kent said. “You’re in another realm but there’s something going on within you. A great tragedy that is not explained.”
Phelan, who danced the Sleepwalker in a previous season, is approaching the role differently now. Her Sleepwalker moved too forward from the chest, but with Kent’s help, she is working on relaxing, softening. “You can still be active, but if it gets all tense then it looks like you’re putting on a show instead of it coming from a genuine place,” Phelan said later. “If I’m just being myself and actively doing something, I’m not sensing everything in my body. So that’s what I’m trying to bring it back to.”
When she first danced the Sleepwalker, Phelan wanted to prove that she could be ghostly, waiflike, light. “What I’ve discovered from Allegra is that I may have been going too far with that,” she said. “You let yourself be involved emotionally. I think I was trying to stay so disassociated.”
When the Sleepwalker comes onstage, she’s not just taking brisk walks on pointe. She’s searching. “We don’t know what it is — if it’s a child, if it’s a love,” Kent said. “But it’s a huge thing missing. It’s a huge urgency. But beyond that, there’s so much mystery. There is a huge lack in her life.”
Stanley, rehearsing the moment when the Poet waves his hand in front of the Sleepwalker’s face to see if she is awake, was too dynamic. Kent stepped in to demonstrate. “Just the tiny back and forth over my eyes,” Phelan said, “with her hand being that close to my face, I saw all the energy. She wasn’t shaking. Nothing was happening. But everything was alive in her hand. I was like, that’s what she means.”
There’s nothing casual about “La Sonnambula,” which Kent says is like no other Balanchine ballet. “I used to do this night after night in my living room just to get that despair and the subtleties,” Kent said. “That search. This is a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in the Balanchine style. The kiss does not wake her up.”
Kent, with her cheerful wit, summed up her own “Sonnambula” experience: “This is what I’d say: Thank you, Balanchine,” she said. “Thank you, Madame Danilova. And I thank the M.T.A., the metropolitan transit authority. The generosity of her and the generosity of the bus being late.”