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Published: November 6, 2018
Category: review

NY City Center Balanchine Tribute Raises Questions about Choreographic Continuity

By Rachel Straus

Tributes to historic masterpieces and their creators are a tricky business. In dance, the choreographer and original dancers with whom he or she created the piece are long gone. What has been passed on inevitably undergoes changes from the original, sometimes seismic ones. So rather than catering to nostalgia, the curators of “Balanchine the City Center Years (October 31-November 4)” — City Center President Arlene Shuler and VP of Programming Stanford Makishi—forwarded the idea of Balanchinian continuity. They did so by presenting a diverse group of national and international ballet companies, all of which have been shaped by performing Balanchine’s works. The results were fascinating, and occasionally confounding.

Maria Khoreva and Xander Parish in Apollo. Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik

The event, a year in the planning, involved American Ballet Theater (ABT), The Joffrey Ballet, The Mariinsky Ballet, Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet (NYCB), Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and the NYCB Orchestra (under the batons of four conductors from ABT and NYCB). The companies performed nine of Balanchine’s ensemble works (two in excerpted form) and four smaller works. Enfolded into this ambitious project was an anniversary, not of Balanchine, but of New York City Center’s 75th year as a flagship theater for dance and theater. Thus, the ballets showcased had all been premiered, or presented, when City Center was home to NYCB, from 1948 to 1963.

City Center provided a major boon to Balanchine’s career. For his first 15 years in the U.S. he was a freelancer, assembling pick-up troupes when he could make ends meet. Then in 1948 City Center Director Morton Baum offered him a home in the 2,250-plus seat house, providing both a high-profile performance space and ample rehearsal studios. Finally legitimized, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein christened the troupe New York City Ballet. This changed their—and Balanchine’s—lives; the troupe could now devote themselves to the great choreographer’s works. Also changed were audiences’ perception of ballet, for whom the full range of Balanchine’s oeuvre–the quaint and the imperial, the romantic and the coolly calibrated, the duds and the masterpieces—was on view and at affordable prices.

Balanchine restaged Apollo (1928), his first work with Igor Stravinsky, in 1951 at City Center and produced the respective neoclassical and neo-romantic masterworks The Four Temperaments (1946) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962) there as well. NYCB’s first generation of dancers—Maria Tallchief, Nicholas Magallanes, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Francisco Moncion et.al—developed their stage personalities on 55th street and became household names. What some of them lacked in perfect line, a prerequisite for today’s ballet dancer, was made moot by their nuanced phrasing and thoughtful plumbing of the works’ meanings. It was these dancers who made Balanchine’s art a revelation.

Given the importance and impact of their contributions to the originals, the  issue of choreographic continuity is key. The questions that surfaced while watching this tribute became, does it still exist? To what degree and among which dancers? The Balanchine Trust’s tight control of his actual steps notwithstanding, it appears contemporary interpretations of Balanchine works are an open source affair. Take Apollo, which concerns the birth and maturation of the Greek sun god, as he learns from his muses of dance and song, mime and poetry. Staged by Francia Russell of the Balanchine trust (seen in programs I/Nov. 1 and V/Nov. 3), the Mariinsky’s interpretation seemed unrelated to the core story. Xander Parish inhabited the title role in a manner that brought to mind a cruel ballet director. In the scene where Apollo watches the solos of the muses, in this case Maria Khoreva, Anastasia Nuikina, and Daria Ionova, he is meant to be learning from them. Instead, Parish made a gesture of disdain after each of the latter two’s lithe, precise performances, as if rejecting them. Only the muse of dance, as represented by Khoreva, was of interest to him, at which point Khoreva’s previously straight, solemn face burst into a smile as if she had been saved from oblivion. The Mariinsky’s Apollo seems to be about female winners and losers under the gaze of male authority figure.

Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Marcelino Sambé in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux
Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik

Better serving Balanchine continuity and intent were Royal Ballet dancers Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé, both in their Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (1960) and Tarantella (1964). In the latter, hitting is hip playfully with his tambourine, Sambé brought some of his native land’s Samba to the ballet, beloved for its joyous gamesmanship between a happy couple. The pair competed for audience adoration through increasingly impressive pyrotechnical displays of leaps, turns, and overhead lifts. O’Sullivan was a pitch-perfect match to Sambé’s tambourine showboating by interpolating her beats and scissoring point work with shoulder shrugs, as if to say, “tis nothing.” At the ballet’s end, Sambé chased his teasing partner across the stage, catching up with her and landing a big smooch on her neck, just as they disappeared into the wings. The audience exploded in appreciation.

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, renowned as the most difficult eight minutes of dancing Balanchine ever made, was also performed by Viktoria Tereshkina and Kimin Kim of the Mariinsky. At six-feet tall, Kim executed parabolically perfect explosions into the upper reaches of the proscenium space as if without effort. Audience members didn’t just express excitement, but ooh-ed and ahh-ed in wonder at Kim’s technique. Clearly he is a stage animal; whether he is a dramatic dancer-actor remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Tereshkina, the People’s Artist of Russia 2018 awardee, approached her role with sexy confidence. While her lower body was slicing up the floor like a tap dancer in point shoes, her upper body moved with an uncanny ease and openness. Balanchine would have loved this pair.

He purportedly encouraged his dancers to reach beyond what they thought were their limits, even if it meant occasional failures. It is in this context that I mention the Joffrey Ballet’s interpretation of The Four Temperaments (1946). Staged by Colleen Neary and seen on program III (Nov. 2), its depth and technical commitment was beyond the Chicago-based dancers, with the exception of Victoriana Jaiani’s highly charged performance in the Fourth Variation, “Choleric.” Created after the devastation of World War II, the ballet’s heart lies in the title of and choreography for the male solo, “Melancholic.” While Yoshihisa Arai possessed the requisite back flexibility to portray a man physically unhinged by despair, he expressed scant understanding that this was more than an acrobatic exercise. Surrounding him at the section’s end were six female dancers. If there were stage directions for this part of the ballet, they might read, “The women enter like forces of darkness.” Instead they wore bright, enthusiastic smiles and failed to execute the prescribed archaic arm movements with the gravitas they were designed to portray. The Four Temperaments is not a pageant. It expressed in 1946, and should express today, reality laced with foreboding, resplendent with physical beauty.

Copyright Musical America

 

 

 

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