She stomped to accentuate rhythms. She sang out the notes. She counted, inserting the word “and” in all sorts of unfamiliar places to emphasize new accents. And though she is in need of a hip replacement, Patricia McBride moved like the wind.
“Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta,” she called out emphatically and repeatedly during a recent rehearsal for George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” with dancers from New York City Ballet. In 1967, when Balanchine choreographed this segment of “Jewels,” Ms. McBride was its female lead.
As she helped the dancers, it became instantly clear that the most paramount — and fragile — part of a Balanchine ballet is its musicality. Heading into City Ballet’s fall season, which continues through Oct. 14, Ms. McBride worked alongside Edward Villella, her long-ago “Rubies” partner, to put the choreography back on its beat.
“I just have to think of it differently, but I love it,” Sterling Hyltin, a principal dancer, said during a coaching session. She was struggling but avid: “I have to get all of this in my body. I need to practice it.”
New York City Ballet is undergoing big changes. Its long-term leader, Peter Martins, retired in January after accusations of physical and sexual abuse. (He denied the accusations.) More recently, the company was shaken by allegations of inappropriate behavior by male dancers, which resulted in three being forced out.
Amid this turmoil, the company faces an artistic challenge: The sudden dearth of experienced ballet masters who worked with Balanchine. Karin von Aroldingen died in January; others, including Sara Leland, Richard Tanner, Sean Lavery (who died in February) and, of course, Mr. Martins have retired.
At City Ballet, the ballet masters are responsible for getting a work from the studio to the stage. They also coach dancers in leading roles. The idea of having the original dancers pass on their roles to younger performers, Ms. McBride said, is a return to the company’s early days.
“When I was very young, I was taught by the ballerinas,” said Ms. McBride, who joined City Ballet when she was 16. “I learned ‘La Valse’ from Tanny. Mr. B brought me to his apartment, and she coached me.” (Tanny was Tanaquil Le Clercq, a leading ballerina and Balanchine’s last wife.) Ms. McBride learned “Liebeslieder Walzer” from Melissa Hayden, “Raymonda” from Patricia Wilde, and “Scotch Symphony” — the pas de deux — from Balanchine himself.
Later Balanchine brought in ballet masters. Now it’s not just the dancers who need coaches, but also a new generation of ballet masters, including Rebecca Krohn, Glenn Keenan, Craig Hall and Jonathan Stafford. It was Mr. Stafford, as leader of the interim team running the company, who brought in Ms. McBride to coach dancers in Balanchine’s “Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fée’” earlier this year.
“Glenn Keenan was a brand new ballet master for ‘Baiser,’” Mr. Stafford said, and Ms. Keenan had counted on getting insights from Mr. Martins. “It was kind of like, ‘Why don’t we take this opportunity to have someone come in — not only to coach the dancers, but to coach you?’ That’s our strategy: To bring in originals who worked closely with Balanchine.”
Ms. McBride has also worked on “Coppélia”; and in addition to “Rubies,” Mr. Villella will coach dancers for performances of “Prodigal Son.” Mikhail Baryshnikov stepped in to work on Jerome Robbins’s “A Suite of Dances” and “Other Dances.” And Mimi Paul, one of the leading ballerinas in “Emeralds,” a segment of “Jewels,” worked closely with Ms. Krohn, who, last year, became a ballet master after retiring as a principal.
“I have knowledge from dancing,” Ms. Krohn said, “and I have my own ideas, but to hear from someone that worked with Balanchine? The piece was made on her. Who has a greater knowledge than Mimi? It was invaluable.”
When Mr. Martins was in charge, Balanchine alumni outside of the artistic staff were mostly kept out of the studio. “Part of it was he wanted to protect his ballet masters who were there when Balanchine was there, as opposed to bringing in someone else who might have different opinions,” Mr. Stafford said. “But we have so many new ballet masters here who need this information so that we can pass it on for generations to come. And our dancers need this information so they can pass it on.”
“At least while I have the opportunity,” he added, “I want to do this.”
But teaching and learning takes time. In a recent performance of “Rubies” featuring Ms. Hyltin and Andrew Veyette, it was clear that they were still trying to incorporate all they had learned. “Some moments were neither here nor there,” Ms. Hyltin said. “I’m trying to change eight years of muscle memory. I think the next time ‘Rubies’ rolls around, it will feel much more cohesive — much more like the casserole will have melted.”
Ms. Hyltin said she realized how difficult it would be to absorb all of Ms. McBride’s changes to the point that they would feel and look natural. She had to make conscious decisions about how much to change during the performance. “I had to prioritize,” she said, “so I didn’t feel so completely out of my skin.”
For “Rubies,” Ms. McBride said: “To have it right with the musicality makes me feel good. And Mr. B did it jazzy and with energy. The counts never left me. What he showed us was just so exact.”
In coaching the male part in “Rubies,” Mr. Villella’s focus was intention: For the dancers to look at each other and to be as jazzy as possible while holding onto their technique. “It’s almost a boxer kind of feeling,” said the principal Gonzalo Garcia. “Keeping the integrity of the steps with that abandon is not easy to do.”
And some of the steps were not quite right. “There’s a crazy moment where the guy comes flying at the woman, and he does four turned-in steps — they’re old jazz steps,” Mr. Villella said. “Balanchine was doing it, I believe, because the score was that way, the character was that way. He wanted to have that kind of lilt and sensation. There’s a bounce to the whole thing.”
No matter the ballet, Mr. Villella said, a dancer needs to know who he or she is onstage. Of “Prodigal Son,” Balanchine’s 1929 ballet based on the biblical parable, he said: “The moment you step out onstage, you are that character. You have to have an imagination. You’re not on a stage. You’re in the middle of a life.”
Joaquin De Luz, who will dance in “Prodigal Son” for the last time on Oct. 10 — he is retiring from the company on Oct. 14 — said that he had never been even “near happy” with his performance of the title role.
“I cannot figure it out,” he said. “I have one more chance.”
Maybe he’ll succeed with Mr. Villella, with whom he also worked on “Rubies.” That, and the coaching of Mr. Baryshnikov, has been incredibly meaningful for him. “They have so much to give even with a gesture,” Mr. De Luz said. “It’s like you’re learning how to draw and Picasso comes back from the grave.”
And keeping Balanchine ballets alive is just as imperative to the older generation. “It’s kept my heart really close to Mr. B all of these years,” Ms. McBride said. “I have a vision of him showing me. He just let me be, but the musicality, the basis of it, was always there. That’s what I feel that we have to hold onto. Those counts are so precious.”
A previous version of this article implied that one former ballet master, Sean Lavery, is still alive. Mr. Lavery, who retired in 2011, died in February.