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1-8: Seeing Balanchine, Watching Whelan
Some Thoughts on Balanchine and Wendy Whelan's Double Smash
By Wendy Perron
Copyright 2000 Wendy Perron
When I leave
an evening of Balanchine ballets, I want to go out and make a messy
ballet. The amount of order he employs is too much for my blood.
From the "Tschaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 2" (1941) to "Agon" (1957) to "Mozartiana" (1981)--all
danced Friday by the New York City Ballet at the New York State
Theater--there seem to be endless rows of girls framing the principal
figures. Structurally, George Balanchine uses the devices of canon
and right-left repetition rather liberally. Symmetry prevails. For
those of us who see more Merce Cunningham than Balanchine, the look
of his dancers can seem very Cunninghamesque--vertical, quick-legged,
eating through space when travelling, but keeping to a contained
base otherwise, able to change direction on a dime, and rarely yielding
to each other. These two choreographic giants also share a knack
for making scintillating trios within a large work. But Balanchine's
trios (usually one woman with two men, or vice versa) are symmetrical,
whereas Cunningham's are more like what you might see on the street,
but with a sense of constantly finding new relationships. So with
Cunningham it's more fun to cull the order from the chaos. With
Balanchine, it's all too easy to figure out what he's doing structurally.
(A fleeting thought about the difference in their trios: Maybe Balanchine
believes in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, whereas Cunningham is
agnostic.) I think one reason that Balanchine is considered a god
by ballet-goers is that you always know where you are with him.
If you can get yourself inside his orderly world, you see the subtleties
within it very clearly, and that is a reward.
was an excellent opportunity to see different aspects of Balanchine.
The Tschaikovsky was originally entitled "Ballet Imperial" and was
done as a tribute to Petipa, whereas "Agon" is an entrance into
modernism. "Mozartiana" is a meditative pause shortly before his
death. The Tschaikovsky reminds one of Petipa with its the rows
of girls (in ballet, no one is called a woman or man) framing the
leads, and the gracious curtsies used as commas for pausing to remind
us of how imperial ballet was for a couple centuries. Everything
is orderly and contented and hierarchical. The girls bow lovingly
to their queen. I cringe to think that Balanchine made this piece
to show off the "purity" of European ballet to all the countries
of South America that he toured in the '40s with American Ballet
Caravan. Thank goodness he streamlined the scenery and costumes
in 1973, using Karinska's soft chiffon dresses instead of the stiff
imperial (imperious) tutus.
The ballet isn't
much, unless, as I've hinted, you adore wall-to-wall symmetry. So
when Wendy Whelan, dancing the lead for the first time, makes her
entrance luxuriously, energetically, extravagantly billowing thither
and yon, she saves an otherwise boring piece of work. She is an
impetuous creature, a white swan-type--edgy, not quite human, threatening
to elude the grip and support of her escort at every dive. Charles
Askegard is a gallant, patient foil to her wildness, but is almost
left behind. He is more at home with a string of "girls," generously
unfolding an arm to give the row a hand, while they loop around
behind him, ebbing in the breeze. This is a beautiful section, and
like much of Balanchine's work, he allows you to see it so many
times that you might not crave to see this particular ballet again
for a while. Another thing that reminded me of "Swan Lake" is that,
even though the ballet has been cleansed of story, when Whelan leaves
the stage, a dimness settles on everything, and there is a hint
of bereavement in the prince. He looks to one line of girls; they
turn away; he looks to the other line of girls; they turn away.
Somehow in the midst of this plotless ballet, this shtick works,
maybe because Whelan really does take the light with her.
in a featured role is pretty great too. She swirls with sweetness
and roundedness, and I'd want to see her do the main part sometime.
But I'm too happy with Whelan to think of that now.
In the opening
of "Mozartiana," the central figure, danced nicely by Miranda Weese,
is surrounded by four young girls. (These really are girls.) They
all wear black. Weese does some praying gestures, lilting this way
and that. But it doesn't feel very spiritual to me, maybe because
there is no connection between the woman and the girls. They neither
look at nor touch each other. The four girls seem merely decorative;
maybe they are preparing for a life as ladies. The achievement here
is to make black seem pretty and delicate. Damian Woetzel does some
fabulous turning, low to the ground with rock-sure endings. The
music, which is Tchiakovsky's tribute to Mozart, includes an exquisite
passage for solo violin. Trouble is, at that moment, the dancing
(or was it the choreography?) by the two principles was forgettable,
so I practiced Balanchine's advice of closing my eyes to enjoy the
music. This solo, played, I believe, by first violinist Guillermo
Figueroa, was piquant, with a slight feeling of a gypsy violin.
His rich tones carried many emotions, but on stage I saw only a
steady-state cheerfulness. Later the four little ones return, this
time jumping and skipping. Although the unison is a strain, the
ballet picks up at this point. The freedom lies in their youthful
burst of imperfect energy.
how Balanchine started breaking the line, influenced perhaps by
jazz (music and dance). A theme for the men was pulling themselves
off-balance by thrusting a leg out so far in arabesque that it pulls
them back on their heel so the foot flexes. There were turned-in
knees and pelvic thrusts (one or two of those in "Mozartiana" as
well, pristine-ness notwithstanding.) A trio for isolated body parts,
danced by Peter Boal, Jennifer Tinsley, and Kathleen Tracey, brought
a dash of humor. The tour de force, of course, was the Pas de Deux
that was originally made for Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams. The
series of intertwinings is so inventive that it makes us alert to
who puts what hand where and how each stretch is completed. Whelan
and Jock Soto create a real electricity here. But if you see the
video of Diana Adams with Mitchell, she is actually pretty soft
and yielding in it. However, with the atonal Stravinsky music, the
choreography seems to be made expressly for Whelan. Her line is
crystal clear, and she possesses a forcefulness that is especially
effective when she seems to be going in two directions at once.
She creates a pull between two destinations as well as between herself
and her partner. Her suppleness is a bit scary sometimes, but it
is never just for show. It is about stretching to her limits, and
there is both satisfaction and challenge in that.
If "Agon" were
a painting, art critics would say it has no "mass," that it is a
collection of parts with no weight to the whole. Musically the Stravinsky
music deconstructs any idea of direction; it doesn't build to a
climax like Tschaikovsky does. But it has another way of getting
to you. One motif I love is a curled-up position. This is how the
duet ends, with the two leads clasping each other in a huddle instead
of ending with a fanfare of the fantastic limbs they've been showing
us. One of the men's sections ends similarly: with the four individually
hunched over. This curved over, into oneself position, along with
the broken lines and syncopated beats, is one of the ways Balanchine
has gotten away from the grandeur and irrelevance of imperial ballet
and made it modern.
Note: It was
daring in 1957 to pair a black man with a white woman in "Agon."
They almost got pulled off the Ed Sullivan show for this, but it
was filmed in silhouette instead. Someday, I'd like to see a black
woman do it with a white man.
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