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Flash Review, 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.

This program 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.

Jennie Somogyi 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.

"Agon" shows 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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