The Master and His Disciples

New Yorkers get regular feasts of horse's-mouth Balanchine from New York City Ballet, the company he founded. The Kennedy Center's ingenious Balanchine Celebration offers six companies, three of them headed by former Balanchine dancers, in four different programs. Because of contractual obligations to orchestras, NYCB itself could not appear (nor is Pacific Northwest Ballet in the lineup). The not too surprising revelation is the extraordinary care and pride with which disparate companies attack the Balanchine repertory. Perhaps, too, the element of competition that shared programs engender puts dancers on their mettle.

The only criticism that could be leveled at Program A is that it's a sparkle-plenty affair (the others are more balanced). Mozartiana (performed by the Bolshoi), a deep and enigmatic ballet, begins the evening; then we're into the coruscating wrangles of Rubiesfrom Jewels (Miami City Ballet), the glinting cat's cradles of Square Dance (Joffrey Ballet of Chicago), and that witty applause machine, Stars and Stripes (Miami again). Still, who's complaining? Certainly not the audience, and Balanchine's most entertaining ballets can offer profound revelations about the power of music and form to stir the heart.

Suzanne Farrell staged the Tchaikovsky Mozartiana for six members of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet (the four little girls who frame the ballerina in the opening "Preghiera" are Americans). What Nina Ananiashvili has absorbed from Farrell—for whom Balanchine made the 1981 ballet—is miraculous. Her limbs look longer, her performing more porous. Her gift for projecting emotion is not so much muted as contained, purified. When she gazes upward, lifting her arms and arching slightly, you feel she's opening herself to the light of divine grace. And in the brilliantly complex necklace of alternating solos that she and her partner, Sergei Filin, string together, she's bright-footed and intelligently playful. He's a lovely dancer too—composed and serene, yet forceful in both feathery footwork and butter-smooth turns. Dmitri Belogolovtsev is not quite up to the kinky eccentricities of the "Gigue," but Yulia Efimova, Anna Rebetskaya, Oxana Tsvetnitskaya, and Marina Zharkova perform excellently as the four busy-footed ladies-in-waiting.

Miami City Ballet’s Stars and Stripes: a witty applause machine
photo: Carol Pratt
Miami City Ballet’s Stars and Stripes: a witty applause machine

Probably no one understands better the dart and tug of Rubies than MCB's director, Edward Villella. Balanchine made the ballet on him; it's as if the tension between symmetry (gem structure) and the asymmetries fostered by Stravinsky's music found analogy in Villella's classical skills versus his tough, boyish attack. MCB displays an easy blend of elegance and spunk. The 1967 ballet is full of those sassy Balanchine moves that appall some feminists. Jennifer Kronenberg knows just how to paw the floor and switch her hips to make her skirt's short fringe swing, and every swish or turn-in of one bent leg calls to mind showgirls of the 1930s—speeded to a breathless pace. She and Eric Quilleré make a spicy team, and Sally Ann Isaacks is splendid as the independent female all the men want to twist about.

Stars and Stripes, made in 1958 to celebrate NYCB's 10th anniversary as NYCB, celebrates also Balanchine's delight in American popular culture: the Sousa marches, the strutting majorettes, the parading cadets. You see clearly what Lincoln Kirstein meant when he said that every corps member in a Balanchine ballet does as much difficult dancing as a soloist in the 19th-century repertory. Here, too, MCB's verve and clean, authoritative style make the ballet shine. Paige Fullerton is wonderful as the baton-twirling leader of the First Regiment, and Luis Serrano excels in the witty virtuosity of the all-male Third Regiment. Iliana Lopez and Franklin Gamero dance Liberty Bell and El Capitan beautifully, but, surprisingly, miss the timing that makes the small jokes register.

Square Dance, premiered by NYCB six months before Stars and Stripes, is another of Balanchine's "American" ballets. It lost any overt regional twang in 1976, when Balanchine banished the onstage chamber ensemble to the pit and dispensed with the square-dance caller who tailored his commands to the choreography. Any way you slice it, Square Dance is brilliant ballet, but only the earlier version, which Robert Joffrey acquired in 1971, nails Balanchine's little joke—which is that American squares and contras are democratic versions of 18th-century court dances.

The Northeast hasn't seen the Joffrey, now based in Chicago, for some time. With the exception of one or two inexperienced men, the dancing is on a very high level, and director Gerald Arpino and his ballet masters have done a fine job of remounting the ballet (including the meditative male solo Balanchine added in 1976 for Bart Cook). Balanchine made the pace so rapid that, much of the time, you can imagine a hot floor causing the dancers to sputter into jumps. Yet when caller John Oldfield orders them to "make your feet go wickety-wack," the resultant assemblés battus and gargouillades (with their midair flourishes) nod to baroque style. Tracy Julias is a lovely, strong, unpushy dancer, and, in the central duet, she and Willy Shives skillfully articulate Balanchine's intricate over-under arm games. I was less fond of their smiles, which looked pasted on, and the on-off flicker of their rapport.

The caller, good as Oldfield is, can become intrusive, and, fortunately, doesn't speak during all the sections. I understand why Balanchine eliminated him; the follow-the-leader patterns and convivial spirit, the hard, egalitarian work involved in getting through the ballet, must have said "America" to him on a subtler level. Still, this earlier version frisks like a colt with the wind at his back.

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