Balanchine: The City Center Years
New York City Center
New York, New York
November 1, 2, and 3, 2018
Program II: Apollo (The Mariinsky Ballet), Concerto Barocco (New York City Ballet), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (The Royal Ballet), Divertimento No. 15 (San Francisco Ballet)
Program III: Scotch Symphony (San Francisco Ballet), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (The Mariinsky Ballet), A Midsummer Night’s Dream pas de deux (Paris Opera Ballet), The Four Temperaments (The Joffrey Ballet)
Program IV: Apollo (The Mariinsky Ballet), Tarantella (The Royal Ballet), Agon pas de deux (Paris Opera Ballet), Symphonie Concertante (American Ballet Theatre)
Sometimes Gala “Events” such as City Center’s six performance celebration of Balanchine: The City Center Years fail to live up to expectations. Based on the three programs I was able to see, however, this one did. While there may have been a few missteps, overall this event, considered by many to be the centerpiece of City Center’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, was a huge success.
Since most of the Balanchine ballets or excerpted pas de deux are familiar, my focus here, with some exceptions, will be on the dancers, some of whom are relatively new to any stage, and some of whom are new to me (though I knew of them). To summarize the highlights (in rough performance order; and not including New York-based companies): To the surprise of no one who views social media, Maria Khoreva, who just graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy in June and immediately was accepted into the Mariinsky Ballet, was a standout as Terpsichore in Apollo; what may have been surprising, however, was how well her two fellow muses and June Vaganova graduates performed also. In her first New York appearance, Mathilde Froustey, a young Principal with San Francisco Ballet, made a stunning first impression (at least first to me) in Scotch Symphony, and The Royal Ballet’s Marcelino Sambé and Anna Rose O’Sullivan delivered noteworthy New York debuts as well. The Joffrey Ballet, which I found disappointing in recent NYC appearances, did superb work in The Four Temperaments. And then there was the Mariinsky’s Kimin Kim – and little more need be said beyond “explosive.”
In July, 2017, during the Lincoln Center Festival’s 50th Anniversary Jewels Celebration, Alina Kovaleva, who graduated from Vaganova the previous year and went directly to The Bolshoi Ballet, stunned me and the rest of the David H. Koch Theater with her performance in Diamonds. Now there’s another noteworthy Vaganova graduate. While it’s far too soon to make realistic comparisons – between them or between either of them and other dancers more familiar to New York audiences (and wouldn’t be appropriate based on only one performance anyway), Khoreva has the same pristine clarity of execution and apparent technical facility that Kovaleva exhibited, together with a similarly serene stage presence that is remarkable in someone so inexperienced. It’s almost other-worldly, and it’s breathtaking to watch.
And Khoreva is not alone. As Calliope and Polyhymnia, Daria Ionova and Anastasia Nuikina also displayed technical ability and performance confidence that do not appear, if they appear at all, until a career is far more advanced than theirs. While I anticipated Ionova’s quality from various internet snippets, Nuikina was a huge surprise, with a sweet stage disposition that might be unsettling in her role had the requisite technical ability not been present as well. And overall, in this high-profile introduction to New York audiences, all three 18-year-olds appeared to be perfectly relaxed and enjoying the opportunity.
But more significant than whether they had discernable stage personalities is the fact that these Muses are true characters in addition to being representatives of their art.
In performances of Apollo by New York City Ballet that I recall seeing, the choreography alone provides whatever “characterization” might have been appropriate for the three Muses, and I assumed that this was the way the roles had to be. But it isn’t. If you stop to think about it, didn’t all Greco-Roman gods and demi-gods have personalities that complemented whatever was their particular role in the pantheon? And isn’t a particular personality part of what makes a muse a muse? So after awhile, seeing Nuikina’s engaging affect, Ionova’s playful and spirited demeanor, and Khoreva’s smile emerge like a slowly growing ember that melted any sense of icy distance all appear perfectly appropriate.
It’s also what may have been necessary to make this Apollo take notice.
From the beginning, Xander Parish’s Apollo was both different and problematic. This Apollo didn’t appear to be a nascent god as much as a rock star in training or some god-like hyperactive wild child with flailing long limbs and a seeming inability to focus. His force of personality was so dominant that at times I thought he was the one educating the Muses.
But at the second Apollo performance that I was fortunate enough to attend, I began to see the merit in Parish’s interpretation. There really was no other way he could have done it. While most of the Apollo’s I’ve seen are relatively compact and inward-focused (sensing a deficiency that needed to be addressed), that approach wouldn’t have worked for someone as tall and gangly as Parish, a Mariinsky Principal, is. So in this interpretation, Parish supplements the manifest physical difference between him and more typical Apollos with an emotional difference that needed to be addressed in order for him to mature as a god: he required a calming, distracting experience as much as an educating one to enable him to refocus his energy. Accordingly, after the Muses gain his attention, one can see Parish’s Apollo not so much grow in stature as the piece progresses as lower the ambient decibel level so he can fulfill his promise. The Muses didn’t just educate him in the arts, they civilized him.
One can agree or disagree with this analysis, but characterization aside, an Apollo/Terpsichore pas de deux that was as finely executed as it was here would have made this performance memorable by itself: Khoreva looked so relaxed balanced on Parish’s back that she seemed to be both unconcerned and floating on air, which is exactly where she should have been with this god and the impression she should have transmitted. It also made her promotion to First Soloist hours before her first appearance in New York fully understandable, and justifiable.
I don’t doubt that there were stylistic differences to this Apollo in addition to the emotionally-transmitted ones, but my primary concern as an audience-member is a coherent impression, and execution that’s consistent with the choreography (although if an important choreographic phrase is eliminated for some reason, that’s different), especially when the dancers make no claim to be “Balanchine dancers.” It was a meaningful, and delightful, performance all around, made yet more exciting by the spirited and perfectly-paced conducting of the NYCB orchestra by Clotilde Otranto.
And one last thought before I move on. While these comments focused on the young Mariinsky dancers, it would not at all surprise me if American-trained young dancers (at the School of American Ballet, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, or other high caliber schools) accepted into major companies can execute as well, but audiences very rarely, if ever, see them in major roles until they’ve been in the corps for at least several years.
I had not seen Scotch Symphony in many, many years, and was pleased to see it listed as one of the dances to be performed in this celebration. The 1952 piece, to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, is a very interesting Balanchine distillation and reimagining of La Sylphide that bears little relationship to that iconic Bournonville Romantic ballet beyond the Scottish ambiance and costumes, and its rough utilization of characters that, in an undefined, abstract way, relate to those in the La Sylphide. I thoroughly enjoyed it again at this performance: although there’s no Bournonville style to be found, seeing the piece within a relatively standard Balanchine framework of individual dances, duets, and corps work was great fun. But seeing it with Mathilde Froustey was icing on the cake.
I’d heard of Froustey, but had never seen her dance. Now I can’t wait for San Francisco Ballet to return to New York and bring her with them. Appropriate for a dance inspired by La Sylphide, the lead ballerina here, sans wings (and sans Madge), must be strong and fast and effervescent but also as delicate as a sylph. That Froustey is, executing the intricate choreography with ease. Aside from admiring her performance, as I watched I kept thinking that she’d make a captivating Giselle – which I found out later she’s already danced … captivatingly.
Her lead colleagues, Joseph Walsh and Dores André, made excellent impressions as well – Walsh for his partnering (the role doesn’t require the Bournonville explosiveness), and André for her handling of the extended rapid-fire Scottish cum Balanchine solo soon after the ballet began.
I saw the pairing of The Royal Ballet’s O’Sullivan and Sambé twice during the three performances: first in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and the following night in Tarantella. Both were very fine performances, though not at the level of those routinely danced by NYCB. [And having only recently seen Tiler Peck dance Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (with Joaquin De Luz) admittedly rendered any performance afterward less accomplished by comparison.] More significantly, when NYCB dancers perform these pieces, they’re delivered fast and smooth; the athleticism and power are there, but they’re not emphasized. As a general observation based on the performances I’ve seen by other companies, many treat Balanchine pas de deux like Petipa pas de deux, with the appearance of bravura strength and power dominating over finesse.
In that vein, in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Sambé, a First Soloist (who reminded me somewhat of Fernando Bujones, only more compact and muscled), brought down the house with his acrobatic leaps and turns and thoroughly commanding demeanor. O’Sullivan, an engaging red-haired sprite, seemed somewhat nervous as the pas de deux began, but settled in nicely, and did, or at least attempted, what the choreography routinely demands. And their flying horizontal fishdives in the coda were particularly spectacular, with Sambé seemingly saving his ballerina from crashing her head on the stage floor in the nick of time – both times. In Tarantella, O’Sullivan, a young Soloist, appeared much more at ease, and delivered a very fine performance. Sambé, on the other hand, while he executed very well and filled the piece with exceptional acrobatics, appeared more rough-hewn than is my preference in this role. Regardless, these pas de deux provided a intriguing introduction to these dancers, who I hope I have the opportunity to see again.
On this same program, and the night following the O’Sullivan/Sambé Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Viktoria Tereshkina and Kimin Kim, both Mariinsky Principals, danced the same piece, with mixed results. Kim, an occasional American Ballet Theatre guest artist, was simply extraordinary, leaping higher and driving faster and farther than I can recall anyone doing – and landing everything perfectly. He was electric. Tereshkina appeared far more confident than O’Sullivan in the same role (appropriately, considering her greater experience), but was overly self-congratulatory and omitted the backward chugs entirely.
I was not optimistic about The Joffrey Ballet’s The Four Temperaments. First, the relevance of The Joffrey to this celebration appeared limited at best – although Balanchine has a connection with Chicago, it’s not as substantive as the connection with other venues and companies, and I’m unaware of any specific relationship that he had with The Joffrey (which was one of my favorite companies when it was venued in New York). Perhaps they were selected because of their connection with City Center, which was The Joffrey’s home base for many years.
Be that as it may, I was disappointed with the company when it returned to New York a couple of years ago, and doubted they could deliver this Balanchine classic. I was wrong. The Joffrey’s performance left an extraordinary impression: a much more emotional execution than I’ve seen in recent NYCB performances (which makes it different, not wrong) that displayed one of my favorite Balanchine ballets – one that was a watershed for him, and one that celebrates the human spirit as being far more than the sum of its humors – in a new light. In the Joffrey’s hands, this classic ballet became an anthem.
Following the opening “Themes,” danced by Anais Bueno and Aaron Renteria, Nicole Ciapponi and Graham Maverick, and a superb Jeraldine Mendoza and Edson Barbosa, Yoshihisa Arai performed an extraordinarily passionate and moving “Melancholic” variation, and Christine Rocas and Dylan Gutierrez a youthful and buoyant “Sanguinic.” Greig Matthews’s “Phlegmatic” and Victoria Jaiani’s “Choleric” led the other two variations, and The Joffrey corps performed admirably as well. These Joffrey dancers may not have NYCB’s polish, but they have pizazz and an emotional commitment that greatly enhanced this performance.
I will gloss over the remaining pieces on these programs not because they were poorly danced, but because I have less to say. San Francisco Ballet added to its luster with a beautiful performance of Divertimento No. 15, which closed Thursday’s program. Frances Chung, Sasha De Sola, Koto Ishihara, Ana Sophia Scheller (looking much more confident and commanding since migrating from NYCB), André, Benjamin Freemantle, Angelo Greco, and Lonnie Weeks led the cast, which included a fine eight dancer corps.
The two pas de deux danced by representatives of Paris Opera Ballet were disappointing. Neither the pas de deux from A Midsummer Night’s Dream nor that from Agon sufficiently represented the dances from which they were excerpted, and came across as relatively insignificant. Even in abbreviated form, the Dream pas de deux must provide a flavor of the characters involved, and while Hugo Marchand appeared well-suited to be Oberon, Sae-Eun Park seemed miscast as Titania. Granted as a standalone pas de deux the characterizations aren’t as critical, but this performance left a lot to be desired regardless. Their execution the following night of the pas de deux from Agon was much better danced by Park (Marchand executed very well, as he had in Dream), but out of context it lost significance.
Finally, the two New York City-based companies left a mixed impression. ABT’s performance of Symphonie Concertante, with a cast identical to the one I reviewed just last week (led by Christine Shevchenko, Devon Teuscher, and Thomas Forster), again provided a brilliant exhibition of dance artistry. NYCB’s performance of Concerto Barocco on Thursday, however, looked uncharacteristically strained, and did not represent the company at its best.
Overall, however, this was a beautifully-conceived tribute to Balanchine’s years at City Center, and my only regret was being unable to see the two performances by Miami City Ballet (Serenade on the Festival’s opening night, and the “Glinka” Pas de Trois on Saturday afternoon. I may quibble with some of the selections and omissions (Theme and Variations, created for ABT in 1947 and which premiered at City Center, is an obvious omission, as are Prodigal Son and Orpheus), and including the participation of the Royal Danish Ballet and La Scala would have been appropriate, but you can’t have everything. What was there was a fine and reasonably comprehensive presentation of Balanchine’s body of work from 1948-1964, and the celebration succeeded in communication Balanchine’s astonishing choreographic breadth, as well as that his dances belong not only to NYCB’s little corner, but to the world. All such events should be as rewarding.