David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
May 2(m), 2015: Black & White I
Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Concerto Barocco, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Episodes, The Four Temperaments
May 3: Black & White II
Apollo, Agon, Duo Concertant, Symphony in Three Movements
Last fall, NYCB began its season with separate programs dedicated to Balanchine/Tchaikovsky and Balanchine/Stravinsky masterpieces, and I commented that full evenings devoted to one choreographer and one composer might have been too much of a good thing. The same holds true for this season’s opening two-week ‘festival’ of Balanchine’s Black & White ballets – no matter how good they may be, eleven nearly consecutive performances exclusively devoted to them is a little much.
More than that, the ballets, though concededly groundbreaking, are more cerebral than emotional, and – with a few exceptions – are more appreciated for their intellectual rigor than their ability to capture a viewer’s heart. And a season that begins with Monumentum/Movements fails to stir the soul as does a season that begins with Serenade.
Further, they are not all ‘Black & White ballets’ in the sense generally understood to apply to the term. In Apollo, the dancers are costumed in white, but it’s hardly a ‘Black and White’ ballet to be considered in the same breath as, say, Concerto Barocco or Episodes; it has more in kinship with Balanchine’s Orpheus, or even Prodigal Son (which is long overdue to be returned to NYCB’s repertoire).
All that being said, it’s enlightening to see all these ballets in one place at one time, even though, unfortunately, they’re not presented in chronological order.
What impresses most about these pieces is – consistent with Balanchine’s genius – not how homogenous they are, but how different they are; and if you blend in other ballets that Balanchine created in between them, how different they are from others as well. The common denominator, if there is one, is not that they’re ‘Black & White’, but how they collectively illustrate the evolution of Balanchine’s style, how they distill movement to its essence, and, how they translate the music to which they’re choreographed into visual terms and complement, reflect, and enhance it.
Those ballets that are the most enduring are those generally agreed to be masterpieces: Apollo, Concerto Barocco, Agon, The Four Temperaments, Duo Concertant, and most of all Symphony in Three Movements. These ballets are known quantities.
On May 3, Apollo was danced by Adrian Danchig-Waring, who had debuted in the role the previous Wednesday. While it lacks a measure of excitement and does not yet match the superlative work in this ballet by his fellow principal Chase Finlay, who is injured and is not scheduled to dance it this season, Danchig-Waring puts his own stamp on the role, and it’s very well done. His portrayal is not quite as god-like as others, but he conveys the essence of a god-in-training appropriately, and he visibly matures before the audience’s eyes – an essential element of any Apollo portrayal.
As an aside, isn’t it refreshing that, when the ‘usual’ leads are injured or otherwise occupied (Finlay, and Robert Fairchild on Broadway in An American In Paris), Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins gives opportunities to other dancers in the company rather than inviting guest artists who may already have danced the role.
The three muses, Lauren Lovette as Calliope, Ashly Isaacs as Polyhymnia, and Tiler Peck as Terpsichore, have danced their roles before, and were uniformly excellent. Although Isaacs officially also debuted in her role on May 6, in fact this casting represent a reunion of the three who danced the roles at a Dancers’ Choice program in 2011 (a program which, unfortunately, NYCB has abandoned in recent years). Isaacs’s portrayal has gained considerable depth, and the performance of the three muses was remarkably well-balanced.
Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor is a Baroque masterpiece. Among other things, the genius of Concerto Barocco, choreographed to it, is that there’s nothing particularly Baroque about it. Balanchine doesn’t just make the music come alive, he transforms it. The juxtaposition of contemporary (at the time, revolutionary) movement quality with the Baroque music creates a visual and aural feast, and it explains why the ballet has rarely been absent from NYCB’s repertoire. Seeing the corps translate Bach’s off-beat counterpoint (an antecedent of syncopation) is breathtaking, and watching the principals, here Teresa Reichlen and Sara Mearns, deliver their performances in perfect sync with the timing of the two violins, is watching Balanchine’s brilliance condensed and encapsulated.
But in order for the ballet to work, the timing must be impeccable, and while the May 2 matinee performance was an improvement over that of the same cast last fall, and Mearns was a little less dour, it still didn’t equal the best that NYCB do. Still, Concerto Barocco is one of many Balanchine landmark pieces worth seeing at any time.
Agon also did not receive the same level of quality seen from NYCB previously. Particularly, the men generally appeared more stiff than usual. But with NYCB, the performances are at such a high level that such criticism is nitpicking. I particularly appreciated the work of Ashley Hod, a member of the corps, in one of the lead roles. Her performance was somewhat understated compared to her more experienced colleagues, but her execution was crisp and clear as a bell.
Sunday’s performance of Duo Concertant was a pleasant surprise. Balanchine’s Black & White ballets are often considered noteworthy for the dancers being relatively blank slates – stoic instruments of, and conduits for, his genius. That’s not entirely true, but the ballets did create the erroneous impression that NYCB dancers lacked acting ability. Regardless, even for a Black & White ballet, Duo Concertant is notable for requiring a measure of emotional gloss – which possibly is why I’ve loved it since I first saw it, with Peter Martins and Kay Mazzo.
Ashley Bouder is a chameleon who seems to change moods as the role requires, and as a result doesn’t transmit a particular stage persona – admirably, she usually excels displaying whatever stage personality a particular role might require. However, Anthony Huxley is more problematic. He’s a supreme technician and classicist, and on his own he consistently performs at a high level. But his partnering has been suspect. He pays attention to his ballerina, but seems to have a difficult time interacting emotionally with her, and as a result an essential component of the partnership is lost. Duo Concertant requires that kind of relationship. And Huxley, who debuted in the piece on May 6, was relatively stone-faced at first, but he quickly warmed up to the role, and although not as warm or effusive as Bouder, did a fine job with the emotional, as well as technical, components.
The Four Temperaments and Symphony in Three Movements are two of my favorite Balanchine ballets. They’re very different. Commissioned by Balanchine, the Hindemith composition embodies musical expressions of the ancient belief in ‘four humors’ – melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric – that form the human personality. Balanchine’s ballet does the same visually, but also releases the humanity that is somewhat buried within the score. And the closing moments, as women are lifted by their partners, sequentially, and carried across the stage, could not better demonstrate the ability of a human being to be more than the sum of his/her parts. Visually, it’s nothing less than a paean to the nobility, and inherent divinity, of the human spirit.
Although he’s danced this role previously, Gonzalo Garcia exceeded my expectations in the opening Melancholic variation. Ana Sophia Scheller, back from a lengthy period of recuperation from an injury, and Tyler Peck smartly led Sanguinic. Amar Ramasar handled Phlegmatic brilliantly, but quite differently from Craig Hall. Rather than appearing somewhat tortured and tormented, Ramasar was more a neutral presence. Nevertheless, his execution of the choreography was immaculate, and his reception by the audience following the performance indicates that he finally may be gaining the recognition he has long deserved. Bouder’s fiery Choleric completed the variations.
Symphony in Three Movements stands out for sheer invention and dazzle. Complex but never tortured, endlessly fascinating despite being devoid of emotional gloss, the piece is a marvel of geometric variety with all forms in perfect harmony; propelled forward – but not controlled – by the rhythm of the score.
The opening and closing images sear into the memory and are alone miracles of stagecraft: the opening line of ballerinas in white leotards and tights stretching from upstage left to downstage right, appearing concurrently both linear and soft-edged, and which is echoed and reemphasized at the end of the first movement when the same line suddenly softens and the ballerinas Romantically twist and turn in sequence to face the opposite direction; and the closing visual symphony of angled arms and bodies.
But there’s much more choreographic creativity that fills the piece. Symphony in Three Movements is an Art Deco ballet; a Chrysler Building of a ballet. It’s filled with circularity combined with angularity, in perfect harmony. And while it is categorized as a ‘Black & White’ ballet, it includes not only the visual variety of choreography that to some extent is absent in others, but color punctuation as well – the principal ballerinas wear leotards in multiple shades of red.
Everyone shone at the May 3 performance. Of the lead couples in particular, Erica Pereira and Daniel Ulbricht danced with sublime vitality. Though not as obvious here as in other pieces, Pereira continues to play off Ulbricht in a way that adds texture to the overall performance, and Sterling Hyltin was her usual glorious force of nature.
Gems though Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, and Episodes may be (and similar, in a way, to the miniature masterpieces of Joseph Cornell), they’re too rigorous for my taste. But the lead performances in each by the incomparable Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour must be recognized for their brilliance. And among the stellar leads in Episodes, Jennie Somogyi reappeared following a serious on-stage injury over a year ago. I and others were convinced that, having then only recently returned from another injury, her career was done. Rumors of her dancing demise, however, were greatly exaggerated. Partnered by the extraordinarily capable Craig Hall, Somogyi, miraculously, looks and performs as if the injury was a mere hiccup.