Koch Theater, New York, NY: September 24 and 26, 2013

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet's Robert Fairchild, Megan Mann and Georgina Pazcoguin in 'The Four Temperaments' Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild, Megan Mann and Georgina Pazcoguin in ‘The Four Temperaments’
Photo © Paul Kolnik

After an introductory week consisting of six “Swan Lake” performances and its Fall, 2013 Gala, this past week New York City Ballet got down to doing what it does best – presenting ballets from its repertoire by Founding Choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, as well as more recent creations by contemporary choreographers.

The first two Fall, 2013 repertory programs featured masterpieces by Balanchine and Robbins that are frequently presented and always welcome: “The Four Temperaments,” “Duo Concertant,” “Symphony in Three Movements,” and “Dances at a Gathering.” The relative novelties were the infrequently seen Balanchine black and white ballet “Episodes,” and Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Vespro.” Although having four ‘black and white’ ballets in one program, and three ‘piano ballets’ in the other, was a bit too much of a good thing in both cases, each was an excellent program that in large part demonstrated Balanchine’s and Robbins’s genius in crafting pieces that go beyond simple creativity. Of these, “The Four Temperaments,” perhaps less familiar than the other three, is an incomparable celebration of the human spirit, and its stirring and inspirational concluding segment is one of the most extraordinarily moving in all ballet.

I once described Balanchine’s “Serenade” as the choreographic equivalent of caviar for the soul. If “Serenade” is caviar, “Episodes” is choreographic castor oil: It may be good for you, but it tastes awful. The piece, which premiered in 1959, may be demonstrative of Balanchine’s genius in generating movement quality that can complement and enhance almost any sound accompaniment (for example, “Variations Pour une Porte et un Soupir”), but it is a difficult piece to watch despite the inventive choreography.

“Episodes” is choreographed to an assortment of orchestral works by Anton Webern. Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and although not in exact date order, the four compositions that Balanchine here used loosely track Webern’s progression from Schoenberg atonality through twelve tone serialism: “Symphony, Opus 21” (1928); “Five Pieces for Orchestra,” Opus 10 (1911-13); “Concerto for Nine Instruments,” Opus 24 (1935); and “Ricercata in six voices from J.S. Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ [Fugue No. 2]” (1934-35). Regardless of its underpinnings in music theory, and even though the exaggerated sounds have a purity to them, to a casual listener and to my untrained ear, the music, particularly in the first three pieces, sounds strained and grating, academic rather than pleasurable.

Balanchine’s choreography in “Episodes” comes across as similarly academic: snippets of movement to Webern’s snippets of musical ‘episodes’. This doesn’t make it poor workmanship – on the contrary, much of “Episodes” is a brilliant visualization of Webern’s music that doesn’t just mimic it, but expands its impact. But it’s as tedious to watch as the music is uncomfortable to hear, and looks more like an experiment in technique; a ballet meant to educate, rather than entertain, its audience. The initial three Webern pieces, though well-performed respectively by Abi Stafford and Sean Suozzi and corps, Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour, and Janie Taylor and Sebastien Marcovici and corps, featured unfeeling bodies in motion glued to Webern’s unfeeling sounds. In particular, Ms. Reichlen and Mr. la Cour were exquisite as their bodies visualized the purity and sterility of the score.

But the piece ended well, most likely because the Webern music in this segment, based on Bach, was more accessible. Balanchine’s accompanying choreography was less ascetic, and created an appearance of contemporary classism thoroughly in keeping with the other ‘black and white’ ballets on the program. Maria Kowroski and Jonathan Stafford led the segment, with Ms. Kowroski particularly outstanding. Clotilde Otranto conducted the NYCB orchestra’s crystalline performance of the Webern pieces.

“Vespro,” the novelty on last night’s program, is a contemporary ballet by Mauro Bigonzetti, created for NYCB’s 2002 Diamond Project to a commissioned score by Bigonzetti’s frequent collaborator, Bruno Moretti. Perhaps because I was instantly put off by the garish costumes that made the dancers look like human race cars, and by the initial images of one dancer repeatedly interrupting the relatively gentle-sounding piano music by coldly crashing his feet into the piano keys, in the end I was pleasantly surprised. Although dated (as ‘contemporary’ pieces often are beyond the time when they are ‘contemporary’), Mr. Bigonzetti’s piece is a stimulating and reasonably entertaining exploration of movement to sound.

‘Vespro’ is Italian for ‘vespers’, prayers or hymns. Nothing in the program notes indicates any relationship between Bigonzetti’s choreography or Moretti’s composition and sacred music, but titles usually aren’t selected indiscriminately, and Moretti’s music does convey a sense of simple purity and repetitive, chant-like warmth consistent with reverential prayer. And I found myself thinking, as I watched the piece evolve, that the ballet’s central character, the dancer who sits or stands atop the piano that is centered upstage (surrounded by an assemblage of worshipful corps dancers and the two lead couples) and occasionally disrupts the musical flow with his body creating sounds resembling cacophonous thunderclaps, is a sort of ‘god of the piano’ figure who controls the flow of the music and the congregants’ response to it – an aloof, impulsive, restless Apollo who enjoys being in control but finds the reverence tiresome. For example, as the dancers (predominantly the lead couples: Maria Kowroski, Ashley Bouder, Amar Ramasar, and Gonzalo Garcia) move to the music’s current, this sole male figure (Andrew Veyette) directs them, interrupts them, interferes with them, and watches over them, occasionally blocking their movement with barrier arms, breaking into pas de deux, and controlling the musical and choreographic ebb and flow.

At times I found the choreography exasperatingly annoying and tiresome, as well as unnecessarily intense. For example, Bigonzetti’s repeated image of the ‘controlling’ male dancer’s arm swinging in its socket (with the arm either straight or bent at the elbow), as if this were the visualization of his ability to control the action, comes across odd and forced – and if I’m right about the god-like force that the character is intended to represent, it pales in comparison to similar movement quality created by Balanchine in his “Apollo.” Also, the ‘contemporary’ angularity that permeates the piece conflicts somewhat with Moretti’s placid composition, and the repeated image of women being lifted up by the neck is repugnant to me. On the other hand, the intricate partnering of the paired couples is glorious, and the choreography that accompanied the saxophone is intriguing. Overall, I found “Vespro” to be an interesting piece, with performances of exceptional clarity and dynamism from all five lead dancers (a role debut for each except Ms. Kowroski). And although I’m not familiar with Moretti’s music, his live presence (he was the pianist for his own composition) added an invaluable personal quality to the musical presentation. Meg Bragle was the mezzo-soprano; Allen Won the soprano saxophonist.

“Symphony in Three Movements” and “Duo Concertant” have been recently reviewed, and don’t require extensive elaboration. In the former, Sterling Hyltin, Rebeca Krohn, Ana Sophia Scheller, Amar Ramasar, Mr. Veyette (his role debut), and Daniel Ulbricht led the ensemble with their usual brilliance. In the latter, Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle (replacing the injured Chase Finlay) were the couple on Tuesday, and Ms. Hyltin and Robert Fairchild reprised their roles last night. All four dancers were splendid, both technically and in character, with Ms. Fairchild presenting as the adorable kitten you took home and fell in love with, and Ms. Hyltin the ballerina next door who stole your heart.

“Duo Concertant” visualizes the dancers’ relationship with the two stage instruments as well as their relationship to each other. To cement the significance of this relationship choreographically, in the piece’s initial choreographed movement the dancers are briefly seen mimicking the physical act of playing the violin. Until Thursday’s performance, I had thought that that was the only such direct reference. Thanks to Ms. Hyltin’s clarity, I now see another. In the final mutual reverence segment, danced in relative darkness, I always considered the ballerina’s upraised arm at the ending simply to be a visualization of joyous love.  However, in Ms. Hyltin’s performance last night, I noticed that the hand of her upraised arm was turned in, and for the first time saw that her arm and hand mimics the arm/hand position of the violin player as he holds the instrument.  In effect, she is saluting the violin, her musical partner, as she celebrates her relationship with her partner in dance.  Brilliant and subtle choreography; brilliant and subtle execution. Kurt Nikkanen was the violinist at both performances; Susan Walters was on the piano on Tuesday, and Cameron Grant last night. Each gave accomplished and spirited performances.

New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz in "Dances at a Gathering' Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz in “Dances at a Gathering’
Photo © Paul Kolnik

It’s been awhile since I’d seen “Dances at a Gathering.” Piano dances have become somewhat of a choreographic cliché since Robbins created this piece in 1969, but “Dances at a Gathering” remains the iconic masterwork, the mother of them all. Given contemporary sensibilities, it may feel as if it goes on too long, but for me, each dance is more beautiful than the next, and the notion of cutting one to shave time is the equivalent of forcing a mother to choose between multiple children. Each of the dancers was sublime: Ms. Fairchild, Ms. Kowroski, Ms. Krohn,Tiler Peck, Brittany Pollack, Mr. Angle, Antonio Carmena, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joaquin De Luz, and Mr. Ramasar. The rendition of the magnificent Chopin pieces was performed with equal magnificence by Ms. Walters.

“The Four Temperaments,” the ballet that opened the repertory season on Tuesday, is a fitting piece upon which to focus the concluding words of this review. The ‘four temperaments’ reference the ancient belief that the human body was comprised of four different ‘humours’ (bodily fluids), representing different ‘temperaments’ – melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric – and the ballet is divided into an opening theme, a conclusion and internal variations that may be seen as roughly matching the temperaments. But “The Four Temperaments” is more than the sum of its parts, as a human is more than the sum of his or her temperaments. In its conclusion, with ballerinas sequentially lifted, Balanchine’s and Hindemith’s reverence for the human spirit, for the ‘human’ in humanity, is the equivalent of a soaring prayer – a quiet, understated, song of joy.

Listing the large cast is prohibitive, but the sterling performances by Mr. Fairchild (‘Sanguinic’), Mr. Danchig-Waring (‘Phlegmatic’), his debut in the role, and Ms. Bouder (‘Choleric’) must be highlighted. Guest conductor Carolyn Kuan led the NYCB orchestra’s stirring performance (as well as “Symphony in Three Movements” later in the evening).

The first of these programs will be repeated again during this Fall season, and “Vespro” and “Dances at a Gathering” will be repeated in Winter 2014. Missing the opportunity to see the Balanchine/Robbins masterpieces, or to see them performed again with new bodies and faces, is unthinkable.