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Flash Review 1, 5-29:
A Balanchine Tour
...And a City Ballet Tour-de-force
By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick
I was given a great 2.5
hour mini-tour through George Balanchine's "style" through Friday
night's New York City Ballet program at the State Theater, which
contained four works spanning some twenty years. When I danced in
Cincinnati with the ballet company there, the Balanchine ballets
were fascinating to me. Being a guy in the corps, I had plenty of
offstage time for watching these elite dances re-staged (by Vicki
Simon, I believe?), rehearsed, and performed. Here were traditional
steps linked in very untraditional ways, and seasoned with all sorts
of unconventional shapes and movements. There certainly was a new
mode of musicality in them, great speed -- when appropriate -- and
a whole new realm revealed when partnering came into play. I feel
lucky to have been around for those "intensives" on "Concerto Barocco,"
"Scotch Symphony," "Serenade," and especially "The Four Temperaments."...
It is as if Mr. Balanchine were making a dance-tapestry of his century,
and in this new century his dances look vital, eloquent, ironic.
While I'm not a regular
attendee at City Ballet, I do declare that the company looks terrific
in this Spring season. The dancers are very tuned, and might I add
that the orchestra (conducted by Maurice Kaplow Friday) is as well.
Far be it from me, after dancing so-many-hundred times to taped
music, to overlook the power of the Real [live music] Thing in the
house. What an asset!
Er, as I was saying,
the dancers looked sharp, and this was crucial to the success of
the opening ballet, "Le Tombeau de Couperin." The set-up is simple:
two "quadrilles" or squares of four couples each are discovered
onstage, stage-right and -left, and they execute a 20th century
version of a court dance. Far from mincing or fussy, it is run through
Balanchine's filter and emerges as a sleek vehicle for the sixteen
eager dancers. They approach the centers of their respective quadrilles
and regard each other appropriately, the men squire the women around
attentively, all the factors we'd expect: unison, balance, aplomb.
But Balanchine turns up the heat with deceptively simple and hypnotic
variations on short phrases, sometimes at break-neck speed. It is
like a beautiful song full of very small words. Terribly inventive,
particularly in the partnering department. The architecture of it
is very dependent on the clarity of the square groupings reappearing,
and I thought the dancers did very well (nice brises, ladies!) with
the merciless structure of it. The music is Ravel (sounding a little
Prokofiev in spots). "Tombeau" means "tomb," and Ravel composed
this piece to remember six friends who died in World War II. Appropriately
enough on this Memorial Day Weekend....
After a pause, the act
was completed with the lovely "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." With its
title, conventional format -- adagio/Msolo/Fsolo/coda -- and no-surprise-here
costumes, an impatient observer might overlook the innovations Balanchine
was using and assume this was lifted from some existing full-length
classic. Choreographed in 1960, this Pas seems to have one foot
in the nineteenth century and one firmly in the twentieth. It succeeds
beautifully no matter what century you're watching from.... Margaret
Tracey was rock-solid on pointe, full of daring, trusting musicality,
and it seems she'd be that way if the tempi were three-times faster
or slower! Her partner was a guest artist, Stuttgart Ballet's Robert
Tewsley, who has one helluvan arabesque, and is a silky jumper.
We were all smiling start to finish, as this duo showed us Mr. B's
new take on an old favorite. This one's easily good for another
"Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze'"
I found a little strange, and liken it to Balanchine's "Liebeslieder
Walzer" (see Flash Review, 2-25: Symmetry Rules).
There is an onstage pianist (Richard Moredock) and a set suggesting
a real place: a ballroom or salon beside the sea. Gauzy curtains
and neat/creepy chandeliers. Again, there is the sly mid-stream
shoe-change offstage --heels-to-pointes -- for the women. Four couples
are our dramatic characters here, in 18 sections suggesting the
wild highs and lows in the life of Robert -- and Clara -- Schumann.
One of Balanchine's last major works (it had a 1980 premiere), it
offers interesting allusions to psychology, both in the mores of
the times and also the emerging awareness of Freud's new "science."
That's all well and good, but I wouldn't say the psychology of it
made it so hard to sit through. It felt long, perhaps because the
music was a series, always sounding a little similar, and holding
no promise of surprise -- not much variety in that landscape after
a little while, and sustaining our interest is yet another challenge
for the cast of such a dance.
And such a cast! It was
a real who's-who out there, with debuts all over the place: Helene
Alexopoulos, Wendy Whelan, Jock Soto, Charles Askegard, and Maria
Kowroski.... Who'd have thought most of these individuals hadn't
already been IN everything? The octet was rounded out by the ever-appropriate
Kyra Nichols, a fiery Nikolaj Hubbe, and Nilas Martins. A very heavy-hitting
cast, called upon to show great finesse and range of expression,
and they did so admirably. As in the aforementioned "Liebeslieder
Walzer," the artistic insight of the performers gives shape to the
phrasing, imbuing the dances with that subtle psychology that the
choreographer was after. Not spin-and-grin, but portraits of people
running the gamut from hysterical to morose. Can't leave such a
task to the fresh corps-folk, without the thing looking like a parody
of itself (and that would feel reeeally long!) While all eight attacked
this suite with considerable fervor, I had my favorites: Ms. Alexopoulos
was radiant and feline, and Jock Soto excelled in bringing us into
that world with him, as always a consummate partner (to Ms. Kowroski,
who was again an eye-popping marvel.) But this is not a competitors'
piece, and I could tell they'd all put a lot of work into it. The
costumes were sorta "period," by Ruben Ter-Arutunian (who among
other things devised the very strange designs for Paul Taylor's
"Fibers" a few decades ago...) Bravi, one-and-all!
The "tour" ended with
"Symphony in Three Movements," and in doing so made me happy to
discover another dance that I could watch over and over.... Dating
from 1972, this work shows us a Balanchine (and a company) deep
into the modern. Through an ongoing affiliation with Stravinsky
and the influence of other "asymmetric" composers, the choreographer
was having a surge of compositional revelations. I love this era
of Balanchine's work: the black-and-white dances, the complex rhythms
and surprising mutations of steps. There are heel-walking motifs,
explosive jumps and ankle-busting combinations of steps, all of
which are performed with the power and speed that are emblematic
of the America that George Balanchine met all those years ago. It
was thrilling! I marveled at the musical sense of it all, trying
to soak up all those cool shapes and moves, and once-again the partnering
work is so deft, economical and right. Another very clear structure
here, kept clear by the accurate and impassioned dancing of the
NYCB. I loved this one!
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