The New York City Ballet Opens the New Ballet Season with an All-Balanchine Mixed Bill, and Some More Comic Programming

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New York City Ballet in Balanchine-Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. Photo from nycballet.com.

New York City Ballet in Balanchine-Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. Photo from nycballet.com.

Lincoln Center:
October 1, 2013: “Balanchine Black and White”
The Four Temperaments
Choreography – George Balanchine
Music – Paul Hindemith: “Theme with Four Variations (According to the Four Temperaments), for string orchestra and piano” (1940); commissioned by George Balanchine
Conductor – Andrews Sill
Piano – Susan Walters
Costumes – Kurt Seligmann (from 1951, performed in practice clothes and without scenery)
Set – Kurt Seligmann
Lighting – Mark Stanley

Gonzalo Garcia
Ana Sophia Scheller
Jared Angle
Ask la Cour
Teresa Reichlen
with dancers from the New York City Ballet

Episodes
Choreography – George Balanchine
Music – Anton Webern: Symphony, op. 21 (1928); Five Pieces, op. 10 (1911-13); Concerto, op. 24 (1934); Ricercata in 6 Voices from Bach’s “Musical Offering” (1935)
Conductor – Clotilde Otranto
Costumes – Karinska
Set – David Hays
Lighting – Mark Stanley (current production)

Abi Stafford
Sean Suozzi
Savannah Lowery
Amar Ramasar
Janie Taylor
Craig Hall
Rebecca Krohn
Jonathan Stafford
with dancers from the New York City Ballet

Duo Concertant
Choreography – George Balanchine
Music – Igor Stravinsky: Duo Concertant (1931-31)
Piano – Cameron Grant
Violin – Arturo Delmoni
Lighting – Mark Stanley

Sterling Hyltin
Robert Fairchild

Symphony in Three Movements
Choreography – George Balanchine
Music – Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements (1945)
Conductor – Andrews Sill
Lighting – Mark Stanley

Tiler Peck
Erica Pereira
Megan LeCrone
Taylor Stanley
Anthony Huxley
Andrew Scordato
with dancers from the New York City Ballet

October 6, 2013: “Family Fun”
Carnival of the Animals
Music – Camille Saint-Saëns: “Le carnaval des animaux,” arr. by Andrea Quinn
Conductor – Daniel Capps
Narration written by John Lithgow
Set and costumes – Jon Morrell
Lighting – Natasha Katz

Narrator – Jack Noseworthy
Oliver – Maximilian Brooking Landegger
The Lion – Ask la Cour
Cuckoos – Teresa Reichlen and Jonathan Stafford
Kangaroo – Lauren Lovette
Turtles – Brittany Pollack and Georgina Pazcoguin
Baboon – Amar Ramasar
Swan – Maria Kowroski
with dancers from the New York City Ballet

Jeu de Cartes
Choreography – Peter Martins
Music – Igor Stravinsky: Jeu de Cartes (1936)
Conductor – Daniel Capps
Costumes – Barbara Matera and Holly Hynes (original production), with Ian Falconer (2002 production)
Set – Ian Falconer (2002 production)
Lighting – Mark Stanley

Megan Fairchild
Taylor Stanley
Joaquin De Luz
Adrian Danchig-Waring

The Four Seasons
Choreography – Jerome Robbins
Music – Giuseppe Verdi: from I Vespri Siciliani, I Lombardi and Il Trovatore
Conductor – Clotilde Otranto
Set and costumes – Santo Loquasto
Lighting – Jennifer Tipton

Janus – Joshua Thew
Winter – Russell Janzen
Erica Pereira
Troy Schumacher
Ralph Ippolito
Spring – Stephanie Chrosniak
Sterling Hyltin
Tyler Angle
Summer – Dana Jacobson
Rebecca Krohn
Adrian Danchig-Waring
Fall – Aaron Sanz
Ashley Bouder
Andrew Veyette
Antonio Carmena

When do you ever see a bill outside Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center with no other names but “Hindemith,” “Webern” and “Stravinsky?” And at that with an extremely well played concert behind it with energy and seriousness and intelligence? Only at the ballet it seems. In an all-Balanchine quadruple bill, with all high expectations and excited anticipation after the very good Balanchine-Robbins quadruple bill back in June, and the Bard Stravinsky Festival in between, this NYCB program seemed a special opportunity, indeed to fall into place. And danced out it stood this way with me, as an extremely satisfying evening of theatre and music.

Hindemith’s “Theme with Four Variations” is a piece of music with a concept, one which nearly constitutes a program; however theoretical and conceptual it is not abstract. But like many great composers who impose rules on themselves only to transcend them, or to narrow down the possibilities and ideas to a coherent piece of music that others can listen to, this is music and not anything else, a piece which stands on its own. The ballet also owes something to the ancient view of physiology, but it owes a little more to the music. But to separate the dance and the music and analyze them on their own would be like separating the bile from the liver from the melancholy in the living being. That the theory straddles what we’d now label medicine, biology, psychology, alchemy and philosophy makes it better suited to art than any modern scientific concept, and better suited to ballet in particular, an art form with a unique concern of the body, the spirit and music. And it is of course Balanchine’s own understanding of the ancient idea, however scholarly or unscholarly, that brings the work into being. So it is no more “abstract” than anything with people in it can be, in fact it has characters with vivid, even individual personalities, and it is not general or descriptive.

New York City Ballet in Balanchine-Hindemith The Four Temperaments. Photo from nycballet.com.

New York City Ballet in Balanchine-Hindemith The Four Temperaments. Photo from nycballet.com.

The introduction (introducing the theme) shows us each humor briefly in turn, depicted more generically but not clinically, but then each following longer section expands and focusses into a portrait and there is a clear sense of real characters, they interact on the stage. The melancholic stands out, perhaps because he feels the strongest emotion, it isn’t sentimental at all — neither Hindemith’s nor Balanchine’s style are capable of admitting it. Gonzalo Garcia doesn’t lay on the slightest bit of sentimentality either, though there is a certain warmth, his dancing is strongly felt, drawing one into it. The Sanguinics of Ana Sophia Scheller and Jared Angle had enough sense of humor, with a certain Baroque quality to the dancing, there was a faint reflection of the lead ballerina in the Peter Martins’s Jeux de Cartes a few days later (see below). They showed an understanding of these essential qualities in Balanchine’s art. Also in each section, but especially in this one, the colorful dancing of the corps de ballet paints in essential and detailed background and context (though in the Balanchinian monochrome leotards), and some foreground too. Phlegm, danced by Ask la Cour, could have dragged and stopped up the ballet as a piece of theatre (where, as in the body there has to be some balance and continuous movement, even where there is stillness there is a certain implied gyration or pulse), but Hindemith’s phlegmatic “slow movement” has a faint pulse, and Ask la Cour carried the momentum of the piece through his section maintaining the intangible cohesiveness of it. Even so he could have taken his own time even more, as phlegm it wasn’t entirely convincing, perhaps an attitude a New Yorker cannot understand in its essence. In the “Choleric” section there was a tiny hint of humor, Teresa Reichlen frolicking in it without wallowing in it, but it was a serious and righteous kind of anger in the fore. This led very well into the finale which which has the sort of carefully wrought spectacle which Balanchine is so good at at his best, without glitter, or gloss, or downrightness, or asking of applause, which compliments particularly well this rich, ambiguous and finely layer ballet.

Episodes is Balanchine’s Webern baller, featuring much of his orchestral music, often offering the viewer-listener a different point of view on it, where words only approach tangentially. In this way both the music and the choreography, which doesn’t ever declaim or specify or try to explain to much in the music while dancing to it, makes you lean so far forward into it that the gap, the distance between audience and stage feels the smallest of any Balanchine I’ve seen, even while being perhaps the most difficult of them. Like Stravinsky, Balanchine in his own art, in so far as one can or cannot know him through his art, is by style very distant, aloof even. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in music — even Mozart, Beethoven, even the romantics I think practice it more than they are given credit. Balanchine’s own love of Webern’s music which shows here is enough. Extremely difficult to dance to, as it is to interpret for a musician, the music must surely be at the limit of ballet music, whatever the definition of that may be. So the cast all shone in their interpretive ballet skill and in their thoughtful dancing of this piece, which seems to have to be danced without a perfect understanding of the music if such a thing exists, but obviously with a deep sense of music. Likewise Maestra Clotilde Otranto and the NYCB Orchestra were at their best in their rational, clear, warm — where it should be — interpretation of this incredible, dense music. I would have liked to hear it again just on its own.

Much is carried on mood in Episodes, understandably, the instrumental color changes with the peculiar pantonal harmony of each piece, unique to the tone row of each (and that’s why the clarity in the performance was so necessary). Especially in the Opus 10 “Five Pieces” which has the most severe changes in tone color and is focussed on a pas de deux, a sort of 20th century shade of a grand pas de deux, though this seems the most personal, least abstract of the “episodes.” The final Ricercata, which Webern arranged from J. S. Bach’s six-voiced fugal “Musical Offering,” combines the two artists’ appreciation for Bach in this same style of sprung ending (in the best way, coming out of what came before), as in Four Temperaments.

New York City Ballet in Balanchine-Stravinsky Duo Concertant. Photo from nycballet.com.

New York City Ballet in Balanchine-Stravinsky Duo Concertant. Photo from nycballet.com.

After the interval, the relatively familiar Stravinsky emerged. The other symphonic pieces in the program felt a rapport between musicians and dancers as if sharing and mutually generating energy, creative energy, interpretive energy and otherwise. Of course they cannot see each other — indeed a dancer cannot see themself, in this way dance is not a visual art in the ways of painting and sculpture where the artist sees immediately the result and effect of each brush and chisel stroke, dance can only be made by feeling, through sensations and muscles, and the sense of hearing — but the conductor can see and that makes all the difference. In any case I do sympathize with the orchestra not ever seeing directly the work of art to which they contribute so much. Duo Concertant is different, it is one of a number of ballets where the musicians are on stage and in visual contact with the dancers, even interacting on the stage and not just through the airwaves. It is a very intimate piece, just the two dancers and seems one of Balanchine’s most sensitive and personal works. He calls for the dancers to stand still (not such an easy opening step for a trained dancer!) and listen to the music, then they step off to dance together or apart in the various sections, but do return later to their perch leaning behind the piano together just to listen. The dancers here did seem a little stilted in these still, listening sections, but as I mentioned it is a big ask to start a ballet with some much immobility. They danced the moving sections, which Balanchine has made quite full, with very natural movement, interpretation, vulnerable interaction and feeling, capturing together the peculiar delicacy of the choreography. It does seem quite fragile for Balanchine, partly because there is no corps de ballet and the man and woman are totally exposed, except for the tempering, even consoling presence of the two musicians. At the end the dancers are separated from the musicians (though presumably they are aware of one another), the lighting picking out only the dancers with two spots, the rest black, and there is a very poignant loneliness there.

Finally this extremely generous program — even if it did seem too short (say I greedily) — ended with the very famous Symphony in Three Movements. The entire company was finally together and seemed to know what they wanted to do with the piece, there was enormous energy, momentum and impulse, especially after all the inner convolutions and introspections of the earlier three. The act of interpretation with Balanchine is fascinating because his choreography seems so precise and definite in style, and so too the sorts of dancers this choreography attracts, that the space left for dancers’ creative interpretation is an odd shape, it’s hard to say exactly where this fits in. Perhaps something subtle felt in the overall effect, in the music’s ability to be looked at an infinite number of times and ways, and Balanchine did always choose the best music for his dancers. This is perhaps why the NYCB has such a definite unique style. The dancers seemed to understand the sturdy structure of Stravinsky’s Symphony and how that informs the dance, first the group scene, the corps in white in their striking avian, or maybe more aviation, formation, their movements in this performance were as deft as that metaphor implies. Then pairwise soloists come out, drawing different angles across the stage, overlapping with the corps’s almost like a cloud chamber, with each pair and each dancer contrasting in a specific way according in a large degree to each dancer’s different style and body (Balanchine’s work, I think, allows a bit more range of body type than conventional wisdom allows him).

The second, slow, movement, is a sort of extended pas de deux for one of the pairs from the first movement, Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley. They provided a middle, not as obviously or openly athletic as the two ends of the piece, but no less taxing, their more emotionally private dancing, at times even tragic, is very convincing as a part of the scene even while it is there partly for contrast. Throughout the piece, but especially in the last movement, the counterpoint, the jaunty, jazzy rhythmic variety and fascinating hues and harmonies that show Stravinsky’s sharp imagination paint a varied scene, and Balanchine does too on the stage, the teeming but generally geometrically organized choreography evocative of a city street, but an imagined street scene — almost novelistic — encompassing both a mundane view as well as something else outside the field of vision, and like society, counterpoint — fugue in particular — begins with imitation, confinement, norms, but then the parts break off, are freer, and there is great imagination, even while working harmony, at least in an ideal case, though it needn’t be utopic.

This evening, which with somewhat melancholy, tragedy and seriousness, did have a bright thread of a sense of humor, an element or at least an available possibility of levity, just a few oily duck feathers on the back, which is essential for ballet, and theater in general, was yet an evening to tickle and smile satisfied with it. Following was a triple bill presented as lighter fun and playful ballets, but was disappointing in comparison. This is maybe unfair as there were many good aspects in it, and The Four Seasons is a GOOD ballet, and the comparison probably doesn’t make sense anyway, but the other two pieces weren’t the best and the program didn’t arch as solidly and airily. But that first quadruple bill of ballets which all seemed larger than they were, really raised one up and I found I stayed up long after leaving the theater and whenever I recall it.

Carnival of Animals is light and maybe should only be taken as such, but it is very long and puts on a production, with scenery and costumes which are very elaborate for the NYCB, and seems to take itself highly in its large effects — the impressively-lit Tropical Fish section for example, or the Cukoo showing the boy protagonist’s worried mother. The ballet is a little precious and even twee, reminding me of the politically correct and insubstantial children’s books of a certain era that were recently brought up in another context in these pages. The choreography’s observation and reading of the animals isn’t apt or evocative and it goes on too long to justify straight goofiness, the raillery against certain types of people isn’t really funny, or offensive, usually coming across as just plain bratty. The dancers make to most of it, putting in their professional all, there is some tricky acrobatic work, and the Tropical Fish and Teresa Reichlen’s Cukoo saw very lovely graceful dancing, even if Christopher Wheeldon’s larger scenes were sentimental. The children’s ballet seems to be a modern invention, kids, even quite young one, for ages past who have the slightest inkling for dance or music or art have been fascinated by adult ballets when taken to them, even serious ones like Giselle, and that is how many of the famous dancers started off, so they deserve something seriously good.

Jeu de Cartes was much more satisfying. It is in a tradition, even genre, of game-ballets. Ninette de Valois’ Checkmate saw its premiere in 1937, the year after the original Balanchine Jeu de Cartes, and where the former is a deadly serious chess game, Stravinsky’s card game seems less intellectual on the surface even if it could make just as dark a ballet, with more grit. Daniel Capps conducted attentively, consistently, very interesting music. The NYCB danced the recent Peter Martins choreography — Balanchine had suggested he rechoreograph the piece — and remove it by extra level from the original card game. This newer version does have costumes with straight playing card motifs, though brought off with a certain creative distance from the actual figures on the cards and designed in an aesthetically pleasing way. At first it seems to promise a sort of 20th century American commedia dell’arte in Peter Martins’s style. Megan Fairchild carries the work with her extremely playful and very human “queen of hearts” (there are no characters or character names billed, just the identifiable patterns on the costumes) hopping between her jacks and aces very lightly, airily, but angularly. The ballet has been called a “shuffling of the deck,” it’s not so much the game itself that is important to the drama. The lack of action here — Stravinsky’s music is in “three deals,” but it can be reinterpreted — is very appealing and a good idea, especially in the way the “queen” equivocating and flitting diffuses and refuses any action, but Martins’s attempt to make it an abstract ballet doesn’t work overall. The leading ballerina’s part is virtuosic and has that appeal anyway, Megan Fairchild dances the steps flawlessly, as befits the role, and she directs these displays in an interesting way, so as to blunt anything that might otherwise happen, so that they don’t even seem displays. The leading men more or less keep up between the three of them, as the choreography demands, especially the “ace of spades,” though the choreography for these male leads leaves them a little flat. Meanwhile the corps de ballet fills in the gaps, as the numbered cards, though their danced patterns aren’t as imaginative as in some of Balanchine’s corps choreography. The ballet does seem to drag at times, in the places where the gloss seems thin and arbitrary (a character’s behaving arbitrarily is a different matter) and so is too slack. Then again I suspect it isn’t Stravinsky’s tautest piece.

New York City Ballet in Peter Martins-Igor Stravinsky Jeu de Cartes. Photo from nycballet.com.

New York City Ballet in Peter Martins-Igor Stravinsky Jeu de Cartes. Photo from nycballet.com.

The Four Seasons is a good little ballet. Jerome Robbins took the ballet music of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes, which went in between third and fourth acts as the ballet normally demanded by the Paris Opera, and using Verdi’s original notes for his livret. Robbins added to this the ballet ballet music from I Lombardi and Il Trovatore to create a satisfying ballet where nothing much happens but human beings living more or less rustically in nature. It follows the northern calendar, starting with winter after Janus’s the introduction of the New Year. The scenery is a backdrop with a baroque frame painted around a rustic scene, the lighting is generally warm and costumes colorful, Robbins allowing more yards of fabric than Balanchine might usually, floating and layering to suit the choreography and season. Winter has no real soloist at first, beginning very gradually from darkness, with a freezing group of underdressed ballerinas, maybe in a street outside the theater or an unheated studio before they’ve warmed up for class. One of them, the one with the coldest hands, Erica Pereira, whom the others cold shoulder, emerges irrepressible and begins dancing in short quick vigorous movements and eventually gets the rest moving. The men, Ralph Ippolito and Troy Schumacher, enter and generate some more heat.

For Spring, with Sterling Hyltin and Tyler Angle partnering, she floats in her diaphanous grass-green skirt, and the dance is vivacious and juicy and fresh, but the two dance it in an original way that avoids cliché and obviousness. Summer is sultry with the orangish lighting imposing a heavy atmosphere. There can be no athleticism here and the static long-day lethargy the dancers evoke in just their movement could have done well for the Phlegmatic in the Hindemith Episodes a few days before (see above). A couple, seeming to have grown from the mad merry may scene in Spring, are a little more grave, and little heavier and hotter, sweaty as well as glowing. Their movements seem a little more planned out, as they venture out of the shade, their interaction merely brushing at first, Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring’s partnering shows this, when lifts are or would be a production. The energy in the dance is ambient, less sharp and flexible than in Spring. Finally Fall — the NYCB scheduled The Four Seasons at just the right time at this rapidly changing time of year. The scene is a bacchanal, a fairly tame one, the dancers entering in procession, then dancing, winding around the stage in circles. The wine-colored corps de ballet, a character of its own in their carefree but thick, substantial way, coloring and setting the atmosphere for the gathering. The solo dancing is a ballerina with two men, Ashley Bouder filling the scene with her ample, generous effusion of fall tastiness — there are many props in this scene: baskets, fruits, cornucopias — and any tension in the other men’s dancing is diffused by the winey corps and the plentiful, varied choreography, with much more than you could notice in one viewing.

New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins-Verdi The Four Seasons (Winter). Photo from nycballet.com.

New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins-Verdi The Four Seasons (Winter). Photo from nycballet.com.

Andrew Miller

About Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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