David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

January 24 (m): All-Balanchine II (Donizetti Variations, La Valse, Chaconne)
January 29: Hear the Dance: Germany (Concerto Barocco, The Goldberg Variations)

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet in Goldberg Variations (taken from the 4th Ring of the David H. Koch Theater). Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in ‘Goldberg Variations’
(taken from the 4th Ring of the David H. Koch Theater)
Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet continued its Winter 2015 season with another all-Balanchine program and a program under the heading “Hear the Dance: Germany”, which might have been more appropriately identified as a tribute to the music of, and choreography to, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Of the dances on these two programs, the most eagerly awaited was the revival of Jerome Robbins’s “The Goldberg Variations”. There are ballet masterpieces, and then there are ballet masterpieces that are monumental. “The Goldberg Variations” is in the latter category – not so much because it’s long (which it is), but because it’s is so remarkable. There are things that many consider to be essential to do in a lifetime: seeing “The Goldberg Variations,” at least once, must be one of them.

In a program note written by Mr. Robbins in 1971 (the year the piece premiered), he recounted that the ‘Goldberg’ name relates to Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, one of Bach’s pupils, who was the private harpsichordist to a Count Keyserling. The Count, it seems, suffered from insomnia, and commissioned Bach to compose music that might help him through the sleepless nights. Goldberg then played it for him. Presumably, the music had a calming effect – but had the Count seen Robbins’s choreography to it,
he would have been energized.

The structure of Bach’s 1742 composition “Aria mit verschieden Veraenderungen” (roughly, ‘theme and variations’), is different from a theme and variations which plays off the composition’s melodic phrases. Bach’s work plays off accompaniments to the theme – the harmonies. But as important as the piece’s structure is its playfulness: it is light, airy, joyful – and just a bit mischievous. Bach must have had a ball playing with the harmonies, playing with the musical architecture of each variation, and playing with the playing of it. In constructing his ballet, Robbins took this ‘theme-and-different-kind-of-variations’ and applied it to his choreography. And he also took, and applied, the composition’s ‘joy’, as well as not a little of its mischief.

The first NYCB performance I ever attended included “The Goldberg Variations” (which also provided my initial exposure to a NYCB ballerina named Gelsey Kirkland). I’ve seen the ballet since then, but I doubt that I’ve seen any performance of it, top to bottom, more superbly danced than NYCB presented Thursday 29th – even more remarkable since all but four of the fourteen leads were role debuts. And it’s a bit unsettling to think that probably none of the dancers on stage last night had been born when I first saw the piece danced on that same stage.

The ballet opens with a couple, Faye Arthurs and Zachary Catazaro, costumed in baroque outfits, dancing reverentially, in baroque style, to Bach’s theme. As they yield the stage, the dancers in Part I of the Variations replace them, dressed in contemporary-looking ballet costumes. Then the fun begins, as the six lead dancers, Abi Stafford, Lauren Lovette, Daniel Applebaum, Joseph Gordon, Anthony Huxley, and Taylor Stanley, liberally mixed with the supporting 6/6 corps, dance Robbins’s contemporary choreography to Bach’s baroque variations. And most of these choreographed variations are also liberally mixed with humor – not gut-busting hilarity, but clever, giggle-inducing takes on the music that emphasize the playfulness and humanity common to both. And each variation (or in some cases each separate segment within the variation) ends with a reverential bow by the performers to each other or to those who simply stand on stage and watch others dance, acknowledging them and thanking them for the privilege of having danced for them.

Each variation is a gem. Describing them all would take almost as long as the piece, but I particularly enjoyed the spirited dance for the four lead men, and Ms. Lovette’s turn oozing her blend of sensuality and innocence in a solo demonstration in front of a semi-circle of six relaxing male dancers who are not so much ogling her as letting her aura wash over them.

Then the cast in Part II of the Variations replaces the Part I cast. The difference between the two sections, aside from costuming (and a brief change of key), is that the six leads in Part II are presented as couples: Sterling Hyltin and Jared Angle, Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, and Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia. Each pair is assigned a separate, lengthy pas de deux, which each pair performed magnificently.

Following their pas de deux, when each pair subsequently returned to the stage, they had changed their costumes into something that looked more ‘baroque’ – as if the baroque costumes of the ‘theme’ pair and the contemporary costumes of the Part I dancers had merged. The supporting corps (12/8 in Part II) did the same.

And in the final variation, Robbins pulls it all together. The cast from Part I joins that from Part II, with all now dressed in the more contemporary/baroque costumes (the simple but effective costumes were designed by Joe Eula), and ultimately they all retreat around the stage perimeter as the original ‘theme’ couple, Ms. Arthurs and Mr. Catazaro, return, now wearing contemporary costumes matching those of the Part I dancers. They repeat the initial theme, and the piece ends with mutual respect and acknowledgment – ‘reverance’ – from the baroque couple to each other, from the contemporary dancers to the baroque ones, from one period to another, from one choreographer to one composer, and from one cast to its choreographer. Had I had the opportunity, I would have done the same. Somewhere, Robbins and Bach must be smiling.

The music was played with characteristic skill and exceptional vigor by pianist Cameron Grant, who received a well-deserved individual ovation during the curtain calls.

“Concerto Barocco,” Balanchine’s Bach masterpiece that preceded “The Goldberg Variations” is a classic that needs no elaboration here. The piece received a somewhat less than ideal performance for three reasons: the tempo was a bit slower than usual (perhaps to take into account the larger size of the lead ballerinas), the corps was a bit raggedy (one girl wore her arms like lobster claws, another held them practically straight with no bend at all), and Sara Mearns, who shared the lead with Teresa Reichlen, managed to inject pathos into a role that doesn’t call for it. The music (“Double Violin Concerto in D Minor”) is subtle, but it’s expressive rather than maudlin. Ms. Reichlen smiled gently and appropriately; the corps dancers either echoed her or were facially passive; but Ms. Mearns was pensive and somewhat sorrowful. Aside from the pace and Ms. Mearns’s demeanor, the footwork by all was impeccable. Arturo Delmoni and Kurt Nikkanen were the stellar violinists.

The all Balanchine program on the afternoon of Saturday 24th was a curious combination: a wildly melodramatic ballet, “La Valse”, sandwiched between “Donizetti Variations” and “Chaconne”, both of which are choreographed variations from operas. While the pieces that opened and closed the program are superior pieces of choreography, “La Valse” is the one that a viewer is likely to remember after leaving the theater.

“La Valse” has a curious history. Its post-war creation in 1920, and its feverish Romantic score, has led commentators to link the piece to some anticipated dissolution of European civilization as then known after World War I, or to the expected decay and disappearance of the waltz form itself (or both, or the latter as symbolic of the former). However, Ravel himself denied any such connection, and although the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated after the war, the waltz form and European civilization certainly did not. Regardless, it is the sense of impending doom, and the visualization of the seductive poison of exotic (and perhaps erotic) excitement that will ultimately destroy innocence, which permeates the choreography.

Ashley Bouder in 'Donizetti Variations'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Ashley Bouder in ‘Donizetti Variations’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

There’s a sense of celebratory decadence that the first half of the ballet introduces, somewhat akin to the decadence in post-World War I Germany portrayed in “Cabaret”. In the ballet’s opening section (choreographed to Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales” – a piece that introduces some of the same motifs that he later used in “La Valse”), the chandeliers are dimly lit; the costumes and sets are bathed in dark colors, and between waltzes, dancers pose as if they were echoing friezes from a long dead civilization. Suddenly a woman in white appears, the picture of innocence; the typical sacrificial lamb. As the ballet segues into its second part, the waltzes transform into frenetic whirlwinds that presage an approaching calamity. A skeletal visitor appears, seduces the innocent maiden, and ultimately kills her. There’s no mystery to the piece (as there is, for example, in “La Sonnambula”); it just is. Ms. Hyltin was the youthfully vivacious debutante amid the decadence; Jared Angle her gallant but somewhat stoic escort (intentionally, as if a measure of decay had already set in), and Amar Ramasar the seductive, tuxedoed vision of death.

“Donizetti Variations” is one of those few Balanchine ballets that is wonderful when you watch it, and then you forget about it until you see it again. Nothing stands out in the memory – it’s merely a brilliantly crafted series of variations – in this case, to music from the composer’s opera “Dom Sebastian” – that has nothing at all to do with the opera. Indeed, Balanchine created it to balance a program of more somber ballets on a 1960 “Salute to Italy” program, even though the 1836 opera is an historical tragedy set in Portugal.

There’s nothing tragic, historical or otherwise, about the ballet. It’s a buoyant delight, interestingly crafted from the outset with permutations on the supporting corps of six women and three men, and particularly noteworthy for the exuberant pas de deux by the lead couple – on this occasion, Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz. Mr. De Luz was in his element here – with the possible exception of Daniel Ulbricht, no male member of the company is quite as explosive. And “Donizetti” took on added significance so soon after having seen excerpts from “Napoli” on the program recently presented by Principals and Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet at the Joyce. The Balanchine piece has the same spirit as “Napoli,” and at times seems to have borrowed some Bournonville choreographic trademarks (particularly the joyous forward leap, with ‘welcoming’ arms extending outward, for the men).

“Chaconne,” which completed the 24th program, is choreographed to ballet music from the Gluck opera, “Orfeo et Euridice”. Like “Donizetti,” it’s a series of exquisite variations that have nothing to do with the underlying opera, and it has a central anchoring pas de deux. But unlike “Donizetti”, and except for a breezy duet featuring Erica Pereira and Anthony Huxley, the overriding sense is one of majesty and seriousness rather than buoyancy. Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle led the sterling cast.

I have not mentioned the corps dancers in any of these dances, because NYCB continues to proudly highlight its embarrassment of riches, and recognizing those who excelled would require naming all of them. But standing out in the multiple pieces in which they appeared were Alina Dronova and Sara Adams for their technical clarity; Megan Johnson, Lydia Wellington, and Likolani Brown for their serenely unaffected elegance, and Claire Kretzschmar for her surprising sparkle.

The string quartet playing on Balanchine's birthday. Photo © Jerry Hochman

The string quartet playing on Balanchine’s birthday.
Photo © Jerry Hochman

Two final notes: the 24th program represented half of NYCB’s annual day-long birthday salute to Balanchine. In recent years, a demonstration program has been presented in between the matinee and evening performances. It has always been well attended and enlightening, and hopefully its absence this year is not intended to be permanent. Regardless, and perhaps as a sop to crotchety critics, the matinee was introduced with welcoming remarks by Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar, both of whom are as engaging as speakers as they are capable as dancers. And prior to the performance, a string quartet of NYCB orchestra musicians entertained audience members on the theater’s promenade with a delightful performance; playing, among other things, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” Hear the music; see the dance materialize in your mind.

And in recent years NYCB has sponsored an annual art series featuring pieces by contemporary artists that relate to ballet in general, or NYCB in particular. This year, the third in the series, includes sculptures, called ‘psychogeographies’ – massive blocks consisting of vertical layers of fused glass ‘slides’ – within which Brooklyn-based artist Dustin Yellin has inserted cuttings from magazines, books, or, as he has described, street garbage, arranged to represent a sort of 3-D, X-ray view of abstract figures in various ballet poses (spectres of dancers), or of fantastical stage sets. They’re remarkable – and a dramatic contrast in style to the equally remarkable floor installation by JR a year ago. Even if you cannot stay for the performance, see the exhibition.

Dustin Yellin’s installations at the David H. Koch Theater (all photos below © Jerry Hochman):

Dustin Yellin installation 1          Dustin Yellin installation 2          Dustin Yellin installation 3

Dustin Yellin installation 4          Dustin Yellin installation 5