Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante and Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Robbins’ Cage and Andantino at the New York City Ballet

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Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette of the New York CIty Ballet in George Balanchine's Allegro Brillante. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette of the New York CIty Ballet in George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Lincoln Center: Sunday June 2, 2013

Allegro Brilliante
Choreography – George Balanchine
Music – Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75 (1892)
Costumes – Karinska
Lighting – Mark Stanley (current production)
Piano – Elaine Chelton
Megan Fairchild
Andrew Veyette

Choreography – Jerome Robbins
Music – Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1875) (Second Movement)
Costumes – Ben Benson
Lighting – Ronald Bates
Piano – Susan Walters
Tiler Peck
Gonzalo Garcia

The Cage
Choreography – Jerome Robbins
Music – Igor Stravinsky, Concerto in D for String Orchestra, “Basler” (1946)
Costumes – Ruth Sobotka
Set design – Jean Rosenthal
Lighting – Jennifer Tipton
The Novice – Janie Taylor
The Queen – Teresa Reichlen
The Intruders – Jared Angle and Giovanni Villalobos

Conductor – Clotilde Otranto

Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Choreography – George Balanchine
Music – Igor Stravinsky, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major (1931)
Lighting – Mark Stanley (current production)
Conductor – David Levi
Violin – Arturo Delmoni
Sterling Hyltin, Robert Fairchild, Maria Kowroski, Adrian Danchig-Waring

The style of the New York City Ballet is almost tree-like, branching and spreading in a floral rather than faunal manner, achieving a harmonious whole that is not purely rational or classical or athletic or anything covered by a single label. Their pure and natural variety of grace certainly suits Balanchine’s choreography, bringing out its best qualities. Allegro Brilliante, as the title might suggest, opens with style and grace, there is a certain abstraction with this stylish dancing before a plain blue screen and following no definite plot or action. We have Tchaikovsky’s music speaking to us very eloquently through Clotilde Otranto’s baton and Elaine Chelton’s fingers, music with fairly strong and definite, but not heavy, emotions. The costumes, the women’s light dresses in gentle hues and secondary colors and the men’s loose sleeves and waistcoats, do not place them absolutely as characters, but are enough to complement simply the movements. Yet there is a sense of a social entity, of mute social forces at work, drowned out by the music perhaps, and even a suggestion of court in the group scenes in their almost 17th Century style of abstraction, as they blur the lines slightly between social and theatrical dancing; the interactions of the dancers on stage are absorbing and interesting, brought across by their dramatic sense, their sense of theatre. The dancing doesn’t borrow openly from any real historical form but somehow the push and pull of social dancing is suggested. The piece at least gives the feeling of being indoors. Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette dancing the leads give a particularly strong sense of conversation in their dancing together in the pas de deux and also amongst the larger group. Nothing happens, the ballet remains abstract, yet it develops in an arc into something very moving and ineffable beyond the music, as if the entire piece, developed into a whole wishes to give something to you, and the performance succeeded in this and the lack of downrightness was very refreshing.

The Cage is one of those fortuitous examples of science inspiring art, science in the old-fashioned sense of a curious observation of nature, more natural philosophy really. Jerome Robbins had on his mind the habit of certain insects and spiders where the female eats the male after mating with him. Whether this is a more promising premise for a work of art than Balanchine’s sort of abstraction is hard to say. Interestingly Robbins chose to call his creation The Cage rather than ‘The Web’ (which no doubt would have have given the current production a too obvious modern interpretation), more interesting, the choreography and costumes are not necessarily arachnoid, or any particular species of Earth insect, and in the end this helps to generalize, even humanize, the ballet. Jean Rosenthal’s decors leaves the stage almost entirely black with a backless abyss behind, just a few suggestive threads of angular web tied up at the top and a few cobweb strands straggling between. Premiered in 1951, the ballet has remarkable similarities to the style of today’s modern dance, with many low crouching movements and hovering over or sprawling on the floor, but there is a spontaneity and alien grace to Robbins’ choreography which relieves it of any suspicion of arbitrariness, indeed absorbing you without knowing into its strange world. It is in fact quite literal-minded by necessity, at least in its portrayal of violence. There is also a Tarantinoid quality to the way the ballet approaches its subject, in referring to, and nearly becoming, a B science fiction movie. The music by Stravinsky, the Concerto for Strings in D, is well suited to the drama of the insect world, and certainly goes nearly half way to creating this absorbing sub-world in the theatre, really the music and choreography and decors are so well integrated it is unfair to try to separate any’s own effect.

The cast evidently took to the ballet with glee, despite the movements which would seem to feel awkward on the human body, and I think it was partly this appearance of enjoying the dancing, these strange quick, gangly, unpredictable steps, and the roles they tend to define, which made the whole piece of theatre organic, unfolding in a very natural, sometime even inevitable, way. The dancers do have a strong sense of theatre, which had showed in a much subtler way in Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante. The corps de ballet, or ‘The Group’ as Robbins bills them, paints in with detail and precision the blanks. Their hair frizzed out and done up in huge topknots and wearing body tights, they move angularly, even jaggedly at times, crouching and then extending the body a limb at a time, but then suddenly surging forward all together. They add greatly to the unpredictability of the scenario. Teresa Reichlen made a magnificent Queen, seeming to tower, she occupied the stage even as she crouched and bent herself, arms akimbo into odd shapes with great natural stage presence. Somehow she seemed more a life form pursuing its own natural behavior than a merely ruthless monster as pop science may lead us to expect. Janie Taylor’s Novice cut no smaller a theatrical profile as a sort of nymph, in the scientific sense of the term rather than the mythological — if anything she was more a maenad. Her movements are quicker, lighter — she gave the impression she could climb the walls if needed — her sharp angles more acute the Queen’s. There is a sense of myth to the piece, the forms and even general manner of stylization recall Egyptian painting, and more obviously there are parallels to the Orpheus myth: the outsider delving into a dark cranny where he doesn’t belong, in the end having his head torn off, a myth very popular among poets, dancers and artists of the first half of the 20th century, especially before 1939 — Yeats’ King of the Great Clock Tower and A Full Moon in March with Ninette de Valois, Wilde’s Salome and Strauss’ later setting of the play as an opera-ballet, not to mention Carl Jung’s writings on Salome and John the Baptist. Jerome Robbins’ note on the program speaks of ‘rites.’ In the end this little world so out of scale, in time and space, is really in fact blown up, transformed, whether by a microscope or a theatrical genius, into a human scale and so the ballet speaks to humanity on a strong emotional level, even though not as subtly and powerfully as Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante.

Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia in Andantino, Choreography by Jerome Robbins, New York City Ballet. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia in Andantino, Choreography by Jerome Robbins, New York City Ballet. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Robbins’ other piece on the program was Andantino named for its chosen concerto movement. On the surface it is close to Balanchine’s style, much closer than The Cage in any case. It follows Allegro Brilliante in interpreting a single Tchaikovsky piano concerto movement, but it is quite different in the end. It is paired down to a single couple’s pas de deux, and their interactions without plot. The ballet has only the tempo indication for a name and no modifier or indication of mood as ‘allegro brilliante’ has, even though Tchaikovsky’s actual indication in the score is ‘andantino semplice’ suggesting Robbins wanted a more abstract title. Andante, literally meaning walking, implies a fundamental human time scale, about the same as a heart beating, or breathing, which is suitably vague. Andantino is not a slow tempo, often faster than andante, but not always in all periods of music, in any case not fast either, but the tempo chosen by Clotilde Otranto and Susan Walters worked very well. Compared to Balanchine’s, the choreography is much more openly warm and romantic, in both uses of the word, softer and more beautiful in a way, and the music Robbins chose is quintessentially romantic. Tiler Peck’s soft, extremely light way of stepping into the piece was very expressive and plastic and Gonzalo Garcia’s partnering had style, blending with his dancing, going far beyond mere support. They both individually and together had in spades the plastic qualities the choreography demands. Somehow, like in Allegro Brilliante, the choreography seems to me to help finish the music as a work of art, even though Andantino is more a straight interpretation of the music. I don’t think it’s correct to think of a piece of music or any performed art as a finished art work in the head or the ear of the composer or on the page as they wrote it. It must be interpreted of course, but also the sense of movement of music, its sense of space and occasion in a very unconcrete way implies some kind of dance. Not to say that a piece of music remains incomplete until it is danced to, this is not even necessarily the case for music composed for dance, but there is a very broad spectrum of what constitutes good music for dancing. Why Tchaikovsky’s and Stravinsky’s is so well suited to ballet is a fascinating question; perhaps music which makes on person fall over makes another dance. To see both together in a program worked wonderfully and in complimenting each other helped to answer this question. Tchaikovsky’s sense of space in his music seems very strong, well-defined and expansive. The music of Swan Lake, for example, could well be listened to in a concert hall on its own even if the ballet’s drama and imagery, being so familiar, would be hard to keep out of one’s head. The Third Piano concerto, though, seemed somehow to reach its full depth with Balanchine’s choreography, cooperating to create a mysterious and indefinable emotion which either piece on its own would be unable to summon and express.

The Stravinsky Violin Concerto then is the odd-ball of the program, it is abstract, with monochrome backdrop and very simple costumes of leotards and tights in black or white, like in Allegro Brilliante these costumes help the dancing to stand out, but now seem to flick and curl to the more sharply bent movements, because of the effect of Stravinsky’s music on the human body. Less purely graceful, less beautiful to a classical eye, Violin Concerto has the dancers whipped up, in short scenes which waste no time. The music dominates more here in this way, more so than Tchaikovsky’s in the earlier ballet. And of course the difference between 1956 (première of Allegro Brilliante) and 1972 (première of Violin Concerto) is a part of this difference. Violin Concerto certainly gives a feeling of being outdoors. Somehow the older Balanchine taking on such a youthful concept, his choreography full of sharply bent green spring twigs and overflowing with sap to match Stravinsky’s music, isn’t quite as convincing in the end except as a frolic. The whole of the piece if expressing more than one man’s reflection on the music, remains aloof to my eye.

About the author

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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