Ballet icon Patricia McBride comes full pirouette as mentor to young dancers

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: A renowned ballerina raising the bar for young dancers will soon be honored by the Kennedy Center for her lifelong devotion to her work on stage and off.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: "The Four Temperaments," a dance choreographed by George Balanchine in 1946. At the Charlotte Ballet recently, Patricia McBride taught it to her dancers.

For 28 years, McBride herself performed the work of Balanchine as a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. Often, the master choreographer created dances specifically for her.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE, 2014 Kennedy Center Honoree: We would jump off a bridge. If he said to jump off that bridge, we'd all jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: Because we had so much trust in him.

JEFFREY BROWN: In December, McBride, now age 72, will follow in the footsteps of her mentor as a Kennedy Center honoree for her life as a dancer and co-director of a vibrant ballet company.

Patricia McBride's story began as a young girl in Teaneck, New Jersey, when her mother, raising two children on her own, put her in a dance class.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: I think my mom and my grandma just thought it would be nice for little girls to do. It seemed like all little girls at that time, ballet was one of the things that they would do. And they bought me a pair of ballet slippers, and there I went.

JEFFREY BROWN: You went along.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: And my mom just drove me every week, first once a week, then twice, then three times, and then every day. And it started getting more serious as the years went on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it became a life.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: And it became a wonderful life, a wonderful life.

JEFFREY BROWN: She joined Balanchine's School of American Ballet at 14, and at 18 became his company's youngest ever principal dancer. Over the years, she debuted many roles and partnered with leading male dancers of the era, including Edward Villella, here in "Tarantella."

The New York City Ballet is also where she met her husband, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, a Frenchmen who had danced at the Paris Opera before coming to New York to work with Balanchine.

JEAN-PIERRE BONNEFOUX, Artistic Director, Charlotte Ballet: I just love that gesture.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were already a couple, but had never danced together, when one night his partner fell ill and McBride had to step in.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: We were in love, and we were together, but I had never done a pirouette with him.

(LAUGHTER)

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: He had never laid his hands on me, and we had five minutes for intermission. And there we were dancing, and it was wonderful, you know? But then later on, we started, and we had some ballets together. And it wasn't working too well, because we'd have a little — you know how it is. But we found…

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You know how it is between a couple…

(CROSSTALK)

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: Husband and wife, a couple, you know, it's — and, usually, ballerinas like to tell their partners, oh, just lift — push me a little more this way or get me on my leg.

JEFFREY BROWN: They worked it out and married in grand fashion in Paris. McBride retired from the New York City Ballet in 1989 at age 46…

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: … in a farewell performance that ended in ovations and flowers.

The couple then turned to teaching, first at Indiana University and then, since 1996, running the Charlotte Ballet.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: That's beautiful. That looked so good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Becoming mentors to a new generation of dancers.

ANNA GERBERICH, Charlotte Ballet: She's kind of like my ballet mom, in a way. She's really raised me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-five-year old Anna Gerberich means it. She began working with McBride at age 15.

ANNA GERBERICH: Patty is an amazing woman. And we would always watch her videos, so it was something — she was this goddess on this TV screen to me. She's the most humble, down-to-earth person. And I have to say, she's always right when she coaches you. And it's just incredible to learn under her.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-three-year-old Pete Leo Walker, who told us he was first into hip-hop break dancing in his native Brooklyn, before taking up ballet, says that McBride and Bonnefoux are models in another way as well for him and Anna, who are partners both on stage and, yes, off as well.

PETE LEO WALKER, Charlotte Ballet: They're very caring for one another. You know, Jean-Pierre will still put an umbrella over her head if it's raining outside. It is very beneficial for us to kind of see their maturity in their relationship. I think they have an incredible chemistry.

JEFFREY BROWN: For her part, McBride, a mother of two, now a grandmother of three, says she's enjoyed the transition from dancer to teacher, though in some ways finds it even more nerve-racking than being on the world's grand stages as a dancer.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: Everybody has to be different. I don't want you to do it like me. I want you to be yourself.

I'm more nervous when I do a performance for my students or for the company members. When I stage something, I get more nervous for them because I want them to feel really good about themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to performances, the company has an academy that offers classes for adults and children, including a so-called Reach program that provides scholarships to lower-income youth.

It also hosts Charlotte Ballet 2, featuring younger dancers who perform in local schools. We went along to a morning performance for elementary school children in Kannapolis, North Carolina. And when volunteers were needed to come on stage to dance, this wasn't a shy bunch.

Three years ago, the company moved into a new building named for its two leaders. And this year, it changed its named from North Carolina Dance Theatre to Charlotte Ballet, reflecting both its focus and, more importantly, its attachment to this rapidly growing city.

Both ticket sales and donor gifts are up dramatically in recent years, as artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux says there are plenty of challenges, but also plenty of pleasures.

JEAN-PIERRE BONNEFOUX: There's really exceptional choreographers and there's exceptional dancers. So it's a good time in America to see dance. It's like anything. Dance can also be very boring. And — but when it's good and when people are committed to that, it can be sensational.

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, banners reflect the pride in the upcoming honor for McBride, a celebration of her life's work.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: I was astonished, and moved. It's such a wonderful thing. It's been a dream, you know? I don't know how to describe it. It's just so amazing. I never in a million years would have thought that this was going to happen to me.

Thank you, girls. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: McBride says she remain eager to keep passing on her passion for many years to come.

PATRICIA MCBRIDE: Thank you. Good job.

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