DanceView Times, New York edition
A Gala Opening, with Brilliant Dancing
The news is that the audience left this gala drunk on the performance of George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which, for the first time in memories going back at least a decade, fielded four principal couples who were more than adequate to their roles, a flock of demi-soloists who danced with finesse and close attention to detail, and a superbly rehearsed corps de ballet. Symphony in C—presented (with Concerto Barocco and Orpheus) at the inaugural performance of the New York City Ballet on October 11th, 1948—is debatably the cornerstone of the New York City Ballet repertory: both a condensation and a summation of Balanchine’s gifts and a monumental index to the full company’s depth and range. A Karinska tutu ballet that, in this production, begins with a squadron of 12 dancers at attention in fifth position and concludes with a battalion of 50, photographically arrested at the crest of a rousing, almost jazzily swinging march toward Georges Bizet’s top note, the work stakes a powerful claim to just about every aspect of the classical lexicon—adagio, allegro, jumps large and small, corkscrew turns and smooth tours, transition steps and lifts—and, the ultimate program closer, it wages what is debatably the most persuasive campaign on behalf of classical dancing in the past 100 years. Even in uneven or indifferent performances of it, the ballet advances toward a sense of triumph; it is dancer-proof in that its individuals become subsumed in a larger whirlwind of energy and choreographic design.
Of course, as Elliott Carter and Suzanne Farrell have observed, the actual vocabulary of any Balanchine ballet is merely the outward emblem of an encompassing visceral and imaginative process; one looks at the steps and gestures as evidence of forces unseen, as one looks at eddying leaves as evidence of wind or at a barometric reading as evidence of air pressure. The final moments of euphoria in Symphony in C release a number of musical and imagistic tensions that have been building almost subliminally, and at various rates, in the three preceding sections, which feature, seriatim—and I can only speak in metaphors here, as there is no literal storyline whatsoever—the genesis of the world in the form of a matriarchal court, the felling and resurrection of a sacred principle, a Mozartian play of avian equals, and a glimpse of the gyroscopic universal order that keeps nuclei at the center of atoms and sidewalks under our feet. (I’m speaking now of NYCB’s production, which reflects the ballet as Balanchine last left it. The rights to the ballet are owned by the choreographer John Taras, who was given them by former company manager Betty Cage, to whom Balanchine left them in his will. Taras, whose work with Balanchine as a dancer and a ballet master goes back at least a half century, requires that when other companies mount the ballet they use a different, earlier incarnation of it, which does not produce the same effect.)
Yet, however one mentally organizes the ballet’s fluid moods and dynamic geometries, the impulse to do so at all is inspired by what emanates from the stage and the orchestra pit: the clearer and larger and more detailed the dancers’ dancing and the musicians’ playing are, the more powerfully the observer is prompted to look at the choreography actively, the way one reads a poem, rather than passively, the way one watches passing traffic. And although each of the four sections features male leads who are crucial as both partners and soloists (the male role in the third section, danced with ease and finesse at the gala by Benjamin Millepied, contains the most bravura choreography for a man in the ballet), the major responsibility for shepherding along the underlying process devolves onto the four ballerinas, particularly the first three. (The fourth—Pascale van Kipnis at the gala—shares her spotlight with the company finale.) At the gala, there was actually a fifth ballerina: NYCB’s Musical Director Andrea Quinn, whose impassioned conducting was rewarded with a huge bouquet of red roses, every petal well-earned.
On Tuesday, Janie Taylor, the ballerina of the airborne third section, was positively incandescent and, for the first time in my experience of watching her, was completely in control of her demeanor. (A natural jumper with a capacity for lyricism unusual in jumpers, she has had to take a while to figure out how to integrate these two aspects of her dancing.) In the first section, Jennie Somogyi—a virtuosa who consistently demonstrates both high dance intelligence and musical awareness—unflappably commanded her realm. In the exquisite and heartbreaking trials of balance and technical exposure that the ballerina undergoes in the second section, Maria Kowroski demonstrated an aplomb, a fantastical exactitude of line, and a decisiveness in her artistic choices that even her fans found completely new. One veteran balletgoer did feel that Kowroski still isn’t treating the space that surrounds her as material with volume and resistance—that she doesn’t make one feel the trajectory of her advance as she’s carried by her partner (Charles Askegard) to and fro across the width of the stage in those half-height lifts that Balanchine once characterized as the moon traveling across the sky. I’m not sure I agree, although it is the case that her dancing figure tends to invite observation, rather than to magnetize it. Even so, what an invitation! Kowroski is a tall, regal performer, and the unusual length of her legs between knee and ankle gives her moments in fondu (literally, a soft sinking of the body on a bent knee)—moments that are central to this role—the look of a statue on a grand pedestal. She has frequently been compared to Farrell, many of whose roles she dances; however, the resemblance, to my eye, is only in body type, not in quality of movement. Kowroski seems to me a much more conservative artist, and the restraint may be part of her dance personality, something subject to its own laws of evolution.
In the event, Symphony in C was the evening’s best news. Its worst news was the performance of Bugaku, the middle work on the program, which was led by Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, who showed that the ballet as process has entirely evaporated: the movements that remain constitute an empty shell of something that was once vibrantly alive. Even when Kistler’s golden tresses are covered in a black wig, as they are here, she remains a beautiful and charismatic theatrical creature; Soto is still the company’s greatest exemplar of partnering and one of its most careful male stylists. Unfortunately, both of them are beyond the point of no return in putting over this extremely delicate work, whose suggestive eroticism has been subject to brute erasure in general over the past two decades and replaced by blunt sexual equations. Once a showcase for Allegra Kent and Edward Villella, who invested it with a resonance that sprang from the double wellsprings of how their dancing rhymed and how they worked as dance-actors, Bugaku has become a place for principals to be put out to pasture, all of its quietness and pregnant nuance translated to entropy and absence. NYCB announced that this gala performance would be the ballet’s sole appearance during the year of the Balanchine centennial, and it may be that we have seen the very last performance of it for some time by this company. Given Bugaku’s current state of deterioration, I suppose that’s a blessing, although Kent’s coaching session of it with Janie Taylor and Albert Evans, filmed by The George Balanchine Foundation, is available to be studied. (Kent was not consulted as a coach for the gala performance.) Nevertheless, I should be sad to see it go, and very sad no longer to hear Toshiro Mayuzumi’s insinuating score that layers Imperial Gagaku effects onto a Western orchestra.
Serenade—the first work choreographed by Balanchine in America—opened the program, and its strengths and weaknesses provide an X-ray of a company in transition. In a tribute to the fact that Serenade was made for students at the nascent School of American Ballet (who danced it at its 1934 première), the first dancers we saw were current students of the school, coached by master Balanchine teacher and stager, Suki Schorer. Their punctilious attention to detail and technical refinement—fully visible, since they wore not Karinska’s ghostly allusions to Romantic tutus but rather little tunics with short skirts, which revealed the difficult steps completely—was extremely affecting and also set a standard of devotion that some of the company dancers in the Karinska costumes, who took over for the students, couldn’t quite meet.
In the current NYCB production of Serenade, also performed as Balanchine last left it, the material for the ballerina is distributed among three dancers. At the gala, the three were Kyra Nichols (who actually worked with Balanchine), Yvonne Borree (who joined NYCB in 1983, the year of Balanchine’s death), and Sofiane Sylve (a first soloist with the Het Nationale Ballet of The Netherlans during the 1990s who danced with NYCB as a guest artist during 2002-3 and is now on the company roster as a principal). Nichols, given the central, Giselle-like part, remains a wonder of musicality and clarity; however, at this performance, she was a wonder glimpsed as if from a very long distance, reduced. Still, her heroic moments—such as a terrestrial pose that seemed to swell her entire body into a tree leaning backward in a storm—are magnificent, and even though she conveys a smaller image than she once did, it remains an elastic, dancing image. Borree, brittle and insecure of footing, alas, conveyed little more than an ardent desire to be part of the ballet. Toward the end of the spring 2003 season, she danced much better than this, and it may take her time to achieve that level of performance this season as well; her appearance at the gala was a recognition of the company’s years between Balanchine’s death and the millennium. Sylve, in the part of the Fate figure who “blinds” the sole man of the “Elegy” (here, James Fayette) and impels him toward a destiny separate from the fallen girl, has, in one season, absorbed an astonishing amount of Balanchine into her body. She turned in a deeply engraved, resilient performance, strong and authoritative in every way. Her arabesque, which gloriously spreads out her limbs in space, may be the most beautiful to be seen this year on a New York stage.
A program note for Serenade reminds one that the Tschaikovsky Serenade for Strings had been previously used for a little, 1915 ballet called Eros, by Michel Fokine, which, the note explains, was in the repertory of the Maryinsky Ballet during Balanchine’s youth. I looked up Eros in Cyril W. Beaumont’s classic study Michel Fokine and His Ballets and discovered there both a photograph that gives the ballet a startling resemblance to imagery in Fokine’s Les Sylphides (which Balanchine much prized) and an account of the action for a Young Girl, a Young Man, Eros, and an Angel that leaves no question about the precedent for the “little story” that Balanchine made for Serenade’s last, “Elegy” section. In the Fokine ballet, the events turn out to be a dream of the sleeping girl; in Balanchine, they are life being lived, and the figures of Eros and the Angel have been poured into the Fate figure. In this editing is the ballet’s immortality.
The music for both Serenade and Bugaku was conducted by Hugo Fiorato, who began to work with Balanchine in the 1940s and who is approaching his own 90th year. He took a bow after leading the orchestra in the Mayazumi score, and it was very good to see the stagelights shining on his cloud of white hair, reassuringly familiar to tens of thousands of audiences whose first experiences of so much wonderful music were guided by his hand.
Second: Serenade. Woman aloft: Kyra Nichols. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Students from the School of American Ballet appearing in the First Movement: Emily Adams, Marika Anderson, Abigail Crutchfield, Adrianna De Svastich, Katy Foster, Coco Gonzalez, Evelyn Kocak, Olga Krochik, Lindsay McGrath, Tiler Peck, Cassia Phillips, Chantelle Pianetta, Rachel Piskin, Morgan Richardson, Abigail Simon, Erica Takakjian, Alies Van Staveren, Amanda Weingarten, Taryn Wolfe
Students prepared and rehearsed by Suki Schorer
Symphony in C
Second Movement: Adagio
Third Movement: Allegro
Fourth Movement: Allegro
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