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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 forty years.

"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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