Square Dance, Harlequinade

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; February 18, 2015

Jerry Hochman

'Square Dance'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

‘Square Dance’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

This has been an astonishing New York City Ballet season. On Wednesday, the company presented a new program, its third evening devoted exclusively to Balanchine ballets, which featured two revivals: “Square Dance” and “Harlequinade”. If nothing else (and there’s a lot else), it further demonstrates the extraordinary, seemingly endless, NYCB legacy repertoire, and the equally extraordinary breadth of NYCB talent.

“Harlequinade” was the evening’s curiosity for me. It hasn’t been performed in ten years – and I’d never before seen it. It’s not a great ballet – but it’s not intended to be groundbreaking. What it is, is great fun to watch.

First however, the great ballet. “Square Dance” may not be considered one of Balanchine’s masterpieces, but if that’s so, it’s only because it doesn’t knock you over the head. It’s more subtle. But it’s an extraordinary piece of work, particularly when led, as it was at this performance, by one of its rock solid principals, Ashley Bouder, and one of its brightest soloists, Anthony Huxley.

“Square Dance” is Balanchine’s sort of tribute to the American square dance, with little of it having any apparent relationship to a square dance. Here he picks apart the style and form, distilling it to its essence. By itself that’s not unusual for Balanchine. But he also puts it in a balletic context that couldn’t seem more antithetical to the freedom and frolic of a square dance, and sets it to music by Archangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi that couldn’t seem more antithetical to music that might usually accompany it. He found the spirit and the flexible formality common to both styles of dance, and both styles of music, and it all works.

Perhaps to make the connection to a square dance more comfortable, Balanchine originally placed musicians, and a caller to call the steps, on stage with the dancers when the piece premiered in 1957. I also recall that the dancers – or at least the leads – wore ‘western-style’ costumes. In 1976, he eliminated these obvious square dance references, as if to strip the piece of impure, superfluous thoughts. I liked seeing the connection made more obvious (and particularly appreciated the caller), but that’s just Balanchine being Balanchine, and me being me – I also preferred the ‘birth’ scene that originally opened “Apollo”, and the sets and costumes for “Ballet Imperial” before it was purified to “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”. So it goes.

But except for the addition of a male solo, the steps appear to be the same as they were in its initial incarnation. The connections to a typical square dance may now be more difficult to see, but they’re there:  the clear, almost ubiquitous, bowed salutation to your partner or from one couple to another; the tougher to decipher do-si-dos and promenades; the inward and outward directional movement; and, in the final segment, the ‘squares’. But it’s largely camouflaged in the context of a contemporary ballet that looks as Balanchinian as many of his other plotless, neo-classical pieces, with the 6/6 corps forming lines, or broken lines, behind the lead couple, or the leads individually leading same sex battalions.

Mostly, however, the two disparate forms are united by a common thread of exuberance, exemplified by the lead ballerina repeatedly extending one leg forward and outward in mid-jump, as if she were jumping for joy and pushing stagnant air out of her way in the process. This is spirited dancing, with nearly constant movement – except when some or all members of the corps briefly watch others, as dancers in a square dance do.

Ashley Bouder doesn’t get enough respect. In a company that includes stars who have dominant stage personalities as well as extraordinary technical ability, she lacks that star quality, and sometimes one forgets just how good she is. She just goes out there every time and does everything right. Her performance in “Square Dance” is an example. It’s not a flashy role, but it’s a technical killer, and she nailed it – dancing impeccably, with both polish and flair.

Anthony Huxley, the lead male, has a near flawless technique, including a razor-sharp line and remarkable ballon. Nothing is ever out of place. His challenge is partnering in the sense that he seems incapable of making any connection to his partner. She’s just another object in space – albeit one who he happens to be dancing with. And he always seems deadly serious; rarely cracking a smile (which here he saved until the final segment). It’s the intensity of his concentration. But in “Square Dance” Huxley was in his element. There’s a lot of solo work, which he did brilliantly. And Ms. Bouder is so secure that she could probably handle things on her own anyway.

New York City Ballet in 'Harlequinade'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in ‘Harlequinade’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

“Harlequinade” premiered in 1965, more than seven years after “Square Dance,” but it looks like it’s from an earlier era – which is because it is. It’s Balanchine’s homage to Petipa’s “Les Millions d’Harlequin” – which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1900, and in which Balanchine danced as a student – and to the Commedia dell’Arte tradition. Many find it dated – which of course it is. It’s supposed to be, and that’s part of the ballet’s charm. As a salute, it’s not a step-by-step replica, but a faithful reconstruction of the spirit that reportedly was captured in Petipa’s original. And although it is not a comic ballet per se, it’s delightfully serious fun.

The characters are stock Commedia dell’Arte and the story is Commedia dell’Arte simple. Columbine’s father, Cassandre is afraid that his daughter will abscond with that vagrant and penniless Harlequin, with whom she is in love, rather than marry his choice – the foppish but rich Leandre. He orders his servant, the sad-faced Pierrot, to guard the house so that she can’t escape. Forget what may be the case in other Commedia dell’Arte incarnations – in this ballet, Pierrot has no unrequited love for Columbine; he’s just a lovable, not too competent sad sack. But with Pierrot’s wife Pierrette’s collusion, Columbine and Harlequin do manage to get away. In the interim, La Bonne Fee gives Harlequin a gift of golden coins, which she pours from a cornucopia, to make him acceptable to Cassandre. Act II is Columbine’s Wedding, complete with divertissements and pas de deux. Any resemblance to Petipa’s “Don Quixote” is probably not purely coincidental.

But this story is only the skeletal frame for the fun. The ballet is a Commedia dell’Arte ‘human fantasy’, complete with an obviously artificial stage set, artificial-looking costumes, and artificial-looking, outsized, theatrics. Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s set and costumes are fabulous, creating a theater within a theater and staged characters who look like staged characters. But it all looks real – as real as anything else must have looked in the world of Commedia dell’Arte. And Balanchine weaves the ballet so skillfully that its innocence, cardboard characters, and apparent (though deceptive) choreographic simplicity is a virtue.

Act II was wonderful. One of Balanchine’s many skills was recognizing the importance of putting young student dancers into company productions to give them invaluable stage experience – but also to give friends and relatives the opportunity to see them…and buy tickets. The kids from the School of American Ballet – 32 of them, danced beautifully, and with exceptional (and appropriate) joy.

Tiler Peck was a delicious Columbine. One of her skills – in addition to her manifest technical facility – is her ability not only to act a character, but to play with it. And just as Columbine teases and manipulates and plays with Harlequin and her father, she teased and manipulated and played with the audience – with an unstated wink and nod throughout. What a Kitri she’d be!

Joaquin De Luz’s Harlequin was more problematic. He performed well – except for pushing the turns too far in Act II. But his demeanor had a quality to it that made me understand Cassandre’s concern – it wasn’t the money (though of course it is in the story), it’s that this Harlequin is in love with himself as well as Columbine, and is as phony as a 5000 lire bill. Perhaps this is what Balanchine intended, but I suspect that Edward Vilella’s portrayal (he danced the role at the premiere) would have been less edgy.

Daniel Ulbricht and Erica Pereira were superb as Pierrot and Pierrette. For Ulbricht, Pierrot is a different kind of character – sad, a loser, relatively expressionless. That means masking his effusive personality completely – and he did. His was a marvelous, delicate, sincere portrayal. Ms. Pereira played her stage self – in effect, she dances Pierrette in almost anything she does. But that didn’t make her portrayal any less good. And the two of them have an unusual stage chemistry together that worked perfectly here – she’s the only NYCB dancer I’ve seen who can pretend not to be in the least bit interested in what Ulbricht is doing, which isn’t easy to pull off since he is so dominating a stage presence even where, as here, he’s trying not to be.

In other lead roles, Lauren King was a classy lead Alouette in Act II, and David Protas was fine as Kitri’s, I mean Columbine’s, father. And Emilie Gerrity, one of NYCB’s rising corps dancers, seemed understandably nervous at first, but came through with a precise and delicately executed La Bonne Fée, a fairy statue come delightfully to life.

Clotilde Otranto led the NYCB orchestra to its usual exuberance, with her usual flair.