Belle of the Ballet
Purchase professor Bettijane Sills recalls her life as a ballerina dancing for George Balanchine.
George Balanchine’s choreography redefined ballet in America. Bettijane Sills, now a professor of dance at Purchase College and the artistic director for the Purchase production of Nutcracker, witnessed Balanchine’s genius first-hand as a soloist for the New York City Ballet. Today, in addition to teaching, she acts as a répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust, staging Balanchine’s ballets around the world. “I think it’s very important to preserve the legacy,” she says.
Sills began performing at a very young age. “My mother put me on the stage when I was a child, and I performed on Broadway and for television,” she says. She first learned about the New York City Ballet Company when her mother brought her to the City Center for performances. She also had friends who attended the School of American Ballet, the Company’s affiliated school. She joined it at age eight. When she could, she’d sneak into the theater with her friends. “Once I was caught,” she says, “and had to leave.”
By the time she was in high school, Sills was enrolled in both the School of Performing Arts, a private school in Manhattan, and the School of American Ballet. “I would have my dance class and academic classes, and then I would take the subway up to Eighty-second Street, where the School of American Ballet was at the time,” she says. “I would have my class there, go home, and do four hours of homework, and get up and do the same thing the next day.”
Sills in a performance at the Waldorf-Astoria in the 1960s.
Although the New York City Ballet was a contemporary ballet company, the school’s training was traditional and solid in classical technique. “It’s fine to have a contemporary ballet class, but that’s not how we were trained,” she says. “We were able to go in incredible different directions because we had that foundation.”
At the School of American Ballet, Sills eventually reached the highest level, known as the “special class,” a creation of Balanchine’s. Not everyone made it to the special class. Those who did were groomed to be a part of the Company.
The special class was taught by Madame Dubrovska, the kind of woman ballet legends are made of. The essence of a prima ballerina, Dubrovska was the original Siren in Prodigal Son when Balanchine was choreographing for Diaghilev in Monte Carlo. She would teach ballet class in silk dresses specially made for her. “She would hold her skirt,” Sills recalls, “and her legs and feet were so gorgeous you just wanted to look like that.”
Eventually, Sills was invited to join City Ballet as a full-time Company member. Balanchine himself taught a class every day. “Your jaw would just hang open when you watched him,” she says.
Sills remained in the Company for 11 years before retiring. “I was very happy dancing the repertoire,” she says. “I didn’t think there was anything that could replace it.” But in fact, something did: family. Sills always wanted to have children, something Balanchine did not encourage. When she married and began her own family, the master’s attention shifted to younger dancers. “Balanchine,” she says, “was obsessed with youth.”
Meryl Cates is a freelance writer who specializes in dance.