Reintroductions on a Winter’s Eve
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Published: January 19, 2011
Life in New York just is more complete when New York City Ballet is in residence and dancing Balanchine. Let me add a few immediate qualifications to that. Like any of the company’s followers, I have my grumbles: I certainly don’t mean to imply that the company should dance nothing but Balanchine; yes, I sometimes see — mainly outside New York — other companies that dance Balanchine as well or better; and there are many other forms of dance and art that I crave. But in its wealth of Balanchine repertory City Ballet has an unmatchable asset, and to renew acquaintance with these ballets can be among the great and regular joys of living in New York.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Let nobody take that wealth for granted. The company’s winter season opened on Tuesday with an all-Balanchine program, and over the next six weeks it will dance 27 ballets, 12 of them by Balanchine. (Also on the schedule are works by Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky that I’m keen to see again.) Now compare that to how few other ballets are being danced by any other company in the world over a whole year. This prodigality of choreographic fare has been standard with City Ballet for more than 60 years. Nowhere else will you find it.
To those who wonder if Balanchine can be that great, Tuesday’s quadruple bill was a good corrective. In “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” (1980) the classical choreographer is Romantically inflamed. If ever Balanchine had re-choreographed the full four-act “Swan Lake,” I’d like to imagine he’d have made the scene for the antiheroine Odile like this: voluptuous, intoxicating, with the ballerina leading a female throng whose energies all grow increasingly wild around the bewildered but overwhelmed hero. (“Walpurgisnacht” is choreographed to music for a ballet orgy from Gounod’s opera “Faust.”)
In the “Duo Concertant” duet (1972), Balanchine is the radical modernist who turns Romantic at the end. The ways in which parts of the Stravinsky music are left undanced, the seemingly improvisatory manner in which the dancers start to move; the sudden final shift into a few spotlighted fragments of open-hearted gesture: in no other work does Balanchine seem so deliberately to drop his mastery of classical construction and instead give us something tantalizingly and intentionally incomplete.
“Valse-Fantaisie” from 1967 is strictly classical ballet in vocabulary, heartily Romantic in spirit. Ballerina, male dancer and four-woman corps de ballet are all borne along by the irresistible waltz impulse of Glinka’s music. It feels all too short. Closing the program is “The Four Temperaments” (1946), a Modernist work that embodies just how many contradictory ways Modernism can face at once. It’s a pure-dance theme-and-variations architecture in which a few sparse but subversive and exploratory movement ideas are assembled into a vast and unpredictable whole. It’s a startling new look at the sexes, with women dancing huge, strong and hard, and making fierce demands of men, who are compliant, soft and in some cases conflicted. It’s an expressionist work in which human energies are redefined in terms of the four humors of medieval physiology (Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric). It’s ballet galvanized by drastic impulses that feel very close to the root elements of contraction and release that underlay Martha Graham’s conception of modern dance. And these few notes only scratch its surface.
The musicality of Balanchine’s choreography is often — lazily — spoken of as if there were something inevitable about it, as if the music explained every movement. But it doesn’t take much analysis to see how often Balanchine picks out rhythms that aren’t simply the same as the music’s: frequently they play with expectations, anticipating or answering the music in ways that take you by surprise, arriving on an up just as the music arrives down, and much more. Even in ballets I think I know well, these effects of timing frequently take the breath away as with no other choreographer.
“The Four Temperaments” has been rehearsed to show a few aspects I haven’t seen in recent years, with male chivalry to women wittily reaccentuated. Certainly on Tuesday, the way the men skittered about to serve their women in the three Theme duets had an element (not unwelcome) of enjoyable comedy. The forceful cut-and-thrust that the tall, gorgeous Teresa Reichlen brings to Choleric was the most glorious event of the evening: it epitomized the ways in which Balanchine, and his view of women, went beyond — and remains beyond — all others in ballet.
The other great pleasure on Tuesday was Robert Fairchild in “Duo Concertant.” His first solo, pouncing onto the beat and exploding away from it, had an experimentalist freshness that is another epitome of ideal Balanchine dancing: you couldn’t believe he’d danced it before.
Most of the time Ashley Bouder, in “Valse-Fantaisie,” showed a similar sparkle. The main problem for this terrific virtuoso is her excessive need to project prepared facial expressions. It occurs only when she looks directly out front, as if addressing the rehearsal mirror; an element of calculation seems to enter her upper body. When she’s looking elsewhere — often in this ballet — her dancing comes like birdsong.
Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard could simply not meet the stylistic demands of “Walpurgisnacht.” Ms. Whelan’s sheer decisiveness and canniness do much to smudge over the cracks in her performance, and Mr. Askegard’s partnering is unsurpassed. But he is stiff, while the adagio and the allegro passages of her role expose problems in her technique. In these conditions, her upper and lower body cease to be precisely coordinated, and her long arms move as if to a different drummer.
As always at City Ballet, there are a number of dancers who, while striking as both beauties and as technicians, remain embryonic, unfulfilled as expressive artists. Sterling Hyltin’s figure has never looked more beautiful than in “Duo Concertant,” and her lightness is heart-catching. If only that lightness were etched more firmly, if only she exerted a new authority.
Andrew Veyette, a short-notice replacement for Joaquin De Luz in “Valse-Fantaisie,” showed a very pleasant warmth and fresh energy, but the elegance of his line is inconsistent. Ana Sophia Scheller, the soloist in “Walpurgisnacht,” is consistently elegant and rhythmically bright; I can’t help wanting her to be more luxurious in one way and more incisive in another. The female corps de ballet in “Walpurgisnacht” glowed with both talent and hope. But the season has only just begun. The story of each of these and many more dancers will unfold in the weeks to come.