New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

April 22, 2018
Concerto Barocco, Agon, The Four Temperaments

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet opened its eight week Spring 2018 Season, which features a “season-within-a-season” three week bundle of programs celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jerome Robbins, with the first of two programs of ballet masterpieces  by that other NYCB choreographer. George Balanchine: Concerto Barocco, Agon, and The Four Temperaments.  There was one noteworthy role debut at Tuesday’s performance (Miriam Miller in the final piece) and fine performances by the company all around.

The program’s three ballets are familiar, and have been discussed on many occasions by many commentators, including me.  What makes these three perhaps more unusual than so many other Balanchine masterpieces is how groundbreaking they were.

I don’t pretend to be a ballet historian, so I wouldn’t consider my observations definitive. With that caveat, not counting two dances he choreographed for Broadway’s On Your Toes (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and The Princess Zenobia Ballet) and several relatively obscure dances for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Concerto Barocco is his fifth ballet, and the second that he created in the United States. More significantly, it also may be the first purely abstract ballet.  By that I mean that it is not tethered to a particular extant style (like Fokine’s La Sylphide, generally credited with being the first abstract ballet) or to a particular time or place (like Ballet Imperial, which premiered on the same date as Concerto Barocco) or subject (Jeu de Cartes), and has no emotional gloss (unlike Serenade). It is pure “see the music.”

Created in 1941 for Ballet Caravan, and on NYCB’s initial program in 1948, Concerto Barocco is quintessential Balanchine – or what came to be considered quintessential Balanchine – beyond being a “black and white” ballet and beyond neoclassism.  It’s movement to music that complements and enhances the music, (J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor).  Although there may be an occasional smile, most often the dancers are emotionless – conduits through which Bach’s music and Balanchine’s vision flow. And Balanchine captures every beat, every nuance of the counterpoint and syncopation in the score, without seeming to be bound by it – indeed, if anything, the movement frees the music from any Baroque limitations it may have, making it thoroughly contemporary and completely timeless.

At Tuesday’s performance, two of the company’s veteran dancers, Maria Kowroski and Abi Stafford, led the cast. Kowroski had a superb season last Winter, which here shows no sign of abating anytime soon, and Stafford, who – unlike Kowroski – seems to perform infrequently (although that may just be a consequence of those performances I’ve seen), shows no diminution of ability.  Russell Janzen partnered Kowroski superbly – he adds a remarkable quality of combined insouciance and intensity that makes all of his performances particularly interesting to watch.  And the eight dancer corps of women were already in mid-season form.

A year prior to Concerto Barocco’s premiere, Balanchine commissioned a piece by Paul Hindemith which he could play at home for friends (Balanchine was also, reportedly, an accomplished pianist).  Hindemith’s score had its public premiere in 1944.  Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, to which the eponymous composition is choreographed, had a longer gestation period – it premiered in 1946 in the opening program of Ballet Society, NYCB’s direct predecessor (at New York’s Central High School of Needle Trades, the direct predecessor of New York’s High School of Fashion Industries).

The Four Temperaments, which closed the evening, would seem to be a step backward from Concerto Barocco, but it’s really a step in a different direction.  It too is abstract, but here, as in Hindemith’s score, it’s wedded to, but not bound by, the temperaments associated with the four ancient “humors” – black bile, blood, phlegm, and bile – an excess of one of which was though to determine a person’s temperament – respectively, melancholic (gloomy or analytical), sanguinic (active; passionate), phlegmatic (passive; relaxed), and choleric (irritable or independent). The four temperaments that comprise the four variations in Balanchine’s ballet are abstract translations of these four temperaments: they don’t so much reflect them as distill and then release them visual form.  But in the end, they’re far less significant than the collective human spirit that, together, they represent.

All four of the dancers of each of the individual temperament variations, as well as the featured dancers who introduced the ballet’s theme, danced magnificently.  Sean Suozzi, whom I had not previously seen in the Melancholic variation, was simply extraordinary, not so much reflecting a pensive spirit as embodying it.  Sara Mearns and Jared Angle led the Sanguinic variation with their usual flair, and Ask la Cour delivered a superbly executed Phlegmatic – more inner-directed than distant.  The Choleric variation is perhaps the least clearly defined of the four, but Megan LeCrone executed it well.  In the paired Themes introduction, Lydia Wellington and Andrew Scordato, Sara Adams and Aaron Sanz, and Miller and Cameron Dieck were the slates on which the emotions would later be drawn.  Each did very fine work, but to me, Miller took her role to a different and more refined level – a vessel at once empty of emotion but seething with some inner force waiting for direction.

In between these two iconic ballets was another.  Like Concerto Barocco, Agon is also purely abstract.  But the dance and Stravinsky’s score were created concurrently, and Balanchine’s choreography doesn’t “just” see the music – it and the music are inseparable.  Each variation is modeled after a 17th Century French dance form, but aside from that curiosity factor, the dance is independent of everything except the music – which marked a departure in Stravinsky’s tonal language that Balanchine’s choreography reflects.  But more than that, Agon displays remarkable sense of visual symmetry that goes beyond simple mirroring of patterns or steps.  It’s somewhat ascetic (though not academic, as some of Balanchine’s subsequent pieces to Stravinsky look to me) and may not stir the soul – it’s not the kind of dance one falls in love with, but it looks every bit as contemporary now as it must have when it premiered in 1957.

Teresa Reichlen and Chase Finlay repeated their roles in the central pas de deux that I reviewed during this past Winter Season, but the six other featured dancers were different:  Savannah Lowery, Lauren King, Ashley Laracey, Anthony Huxley, Devin Alberda, and Daniel Applebaum.  All did fine work, with Huxley, Laracey and King, individually and collectively, dancing a noteworthy First Pas De Trois, and Lowery executing particularly well in the Second.

I suppose it’s unusual for Balanchine masterpieces to be the opening acts for NYCB’s seasonal main event, but the scheduling serves a purpose beyond whetting the appetite for the Robbins masterpieces to come.  It also leads to what I’m sure will be an appreciation of the complementary differences between these two legendary choreographic geniuses, which I expect will be evident as this season progresses.