writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Balanchine's Magical Confection

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, New York
January 17, 2004, 2:00 p.m.

by Nancy Dalva
copyright 2004 by Nancy Dalva

Even if a stage filled with jesters is your idea of dance hell, you should see Harlequinade (1965, revised 1973), brought back with an all-new cast as part of the New York City Ballet’s “Balanchine 100". Particularly to those who tend to think of Balanchine as a superlative modernist, it will be interesting to see him working his wiles in this backward-glancing Petipa mode. It is a reminder of the scope of his genius. Balanchine could do anything in dance. This makes what he chose to do, and when, that much the more compelling food for thought. Of course if you start with Harlequinade, you’ll be starting with the candy course, and listening to Riccardo Drigo.

The ballet seems to have been inspired by a convergence of means and circumstances—for which you may read, if you like, “inspiration,” of which Balanchine, a practical man, had no need.

First, the handy availability of a fabulously charming set devised by Rouben Ter Arturian for a New York City Opera production of Cinderella. (The companies shared a theater, as they still do today.) His adaptations for Balanchine include fantastic, silly, vibrant, costumes and mad hats that prefigure the colorful couture of Christian LaCroix. Not only is Ter Arturian’s play theater set–he places a proscenium within the proscenium, and a very pretty mansard-roofed house within that—perfectly right for a ballet derived from the commedia dell’arte (comedy tonight!) , but it also mirrors the relationship of the ballet itself to its antecedents. Within the framework of Petipa’s Harlequin’s Millions, in which he danced as a child, Balanchine set a very pretty ballet perfectly right for his own company.( Perhaps it was his memories of dancing as a boy which impelled him, in 1973, to expand the piece, adding a ballabile des enfants: mini-polichinelles, mini-harlequins, mini-Pierrots and mini-Pierrettes, they all have a smiling moment front and center.)

Second, the commodiousness of the New York State Theater, where the company had arrived only the year before, in 1964. The move, it has been suggested, inspired Balanchine to create, or re-create, some of the story ballets of his youth. Along that line of thinking some say Harlequinade leads towards Don Quixote, because both are narrative. While one can make a case for almost any dance, except a choreographer’s first and last, as transitional, I am not convinced myself that Harlequinade is a practice anything, but more a serendipitous something. If you have a perfect Harlequin and Columbine at hand, why not make Harlequinade?

Hence the third element in the convergence: the felicitous availability of a male lead whose physique was suggestive of the story’s Italianate source: that handsome devil Edward Villella, who had just tambourined up a storm in Balanchine’s Neapolitan-style Tarentella. His partner in that and in Harlequinade was Patty McBride, whom it was impossible not to love. Indeed, their encounters in Harlequinade are full of actual kisses—pecks, mad air smooches, romantic petits baisers, and even kisses thrown to the audience by the kissable Columbine.

Last Saturday, the kisses were thrown by Alexandra Ansanelli, in her debut in the role. Her hunger for dancing and the joy with which she finds herself on stage well suit her to the role, as does her adorableness, which she does not exploit. Rather, hers is a romantic yet sophisticated Columbine, just dreamy enough, with the adorableness merely innate, like the size of her eyes. Her elegant line matched her to her suitor, Benjamin Millepied, a smooth and elegant Harlequin, quite believably ardent. He is not a pyrotechnical dancer–his jumps have no hang time– and his very smoothness precludes thrills. He does not lust, he loves, and handsomely.

The only thing at which his inamorata faltered was that outward turning of the blown kisses. Nothing in Ansanelli’s training or her repertory has encouraged her to flirt outright with her public, but the moment has come.

As their servant counterparts—Figaro and Susanna, more or less—Joaquin de Luz and Megan Fairchild were charm itself, echoes of the leads, but with the sunny confidence of the already mated. De Luz adds a nice sad-sack grace to his role, and Fairchild continues, as she has been, to enact her name.( If you are looking for a young ballerina to start with now and follow, look no further.) Some excellently goofy drunken policemen upped the ballet’s happy quotient.

Nothing in the story—which is only incidentally about the disgusting rapaciousness of a father who would sell his daughter to the highest bidder—would make you anticipate, in its middle, an encounter with divinity. Still, there’s nothing like a gorgeous surprise, so when—in a remarkable demonstration of that theatrical chestnut about there being no small actors, only small roles—Sofiane Sylve turned her part as La Bonne Fée into the arrival of Venus, one could only revel in her grandeur. She was no mere good fairy; she was divinity, as befits a character who comes to life from classical statuary. (Some hocus-pocus with a pedestal.) In her beneficence, she bestowed upon Harlequin two gifts. The second was money, always useful. The first was a magic wand, or baton, to my mind the very sweetest element in the confection of Harlequinade.

This item enables Harlequin to summon dancers. In case you wondered what Balanchine thought real magic was, he tells you here.

He himself would later say, “You discover that what stays with you are the essential things. You discover what you are really doing is Petipa.” Harlequin’s Millions was first presented at the Hermitage Theater in St. Peterburg in 1900. In Harlequinade we see Petipa—a metonymy for everything Balanchine learned in St. Petersburg— neither as Balanchinian super ego or subconscious, but as pure, and happy, id.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 3
January 19, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on January 11, 2004