Meet "the Balanchine Plant"

November 16, 2014

Few art forms are as obsessed with lineage as ballet. Want to learn the classic Russian repertoire? Train with one of the last generation’s greatest Russian dancers—because she was in turn coached by the previous generation’s star, who was trained by a ballerina of a yet earlier generation, in a chain going all the way back to Petipa. Being able to trace your connection to the legends of the past is a way of establishing your credibility. And I love that! It’s kind of wonderful that the transmission of ballet technique and style is such an intimate, person-to-person thing.

So I was totally charmed by a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about “the Balanchine plant.” Apparently, the great choreographer George Balanchine owned a rubber plant, and in the late ’70s, he gave one of his dancers, Karin von Aroldingen, a cutting from the plant as a gift.

Von Aroldingen was a gorgeous dancer, btw. Here she is as the Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son.

After Balanchine died in 1983, that plant was especially precious to von Aroldingen. She began passing cuttings from it along to other important Balanchine dancers. Owning one of them gave you a special kind of connection to Mr. B—you were nurturing his legacy, as symbolized by this living thing.

Lovely, right? It’s the whole ballet teaching philosophy, embodied in a plant.

Von Aroldingen amid her collection of “Balanchine plant” descendants today (photo by Gaia Squarci for the WSJ)

Why are we talking about this now? Well, apparently the latest dancer to receive a cutting is Wendy Whelan—von Aroldingen gave it to her after her final performance with New York City Ballet last month. Whelan was honored, but also a little anxious about plant care. Because, eek, what does it mean if you let your Balanchine plant die? Do you earn the eternal wrath of the ballet gods? (Fear not, Wendy: According to the story, former NYCB principal Kay Mazzo couldn’t keep her cutting alive, and she’s now co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet, so…)

The WSJ also put together a video about “the Balanchine plant” to accompany the story—starring von Aroldingen, who is delightful. Take a look!