On October 11, 1948, Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Society (two years old and boasting 800 subscribers) became the New York City Ballet. During its somewhat shaky first season at City Center half-filled houses at performances relegated to Monday and Tuesday nights George Balanchine's lean, musical style and his gleaming dancers turned aficionados into addicts. And popular prices drew a whole new crowd to ballet.
On November 24, 1998, fans filled the New York State Theater to celebrate the 50-year-old treasure, joining artistic director Peter Martins in a vodka toast to founders Kirstein and Balanchine and the recently deceased Jerome Robbins. At the end of the evening, accompanied by our cheers, 250 former NYCB dancers paraded onto the stage.
The anniversary gala reproduced the first-night program Balanchine's Concerto Barocco (1941), Orpheus, and Symphony in C (both 1947). Many dancing that night including Tanaquil Le Clercq, who performed the ravishing second movement of Symphony and led the hoydenish Bacchantes in Orpheus attended last week's gala. The evening was dedicated to Le Clercq, and film clips showed how her dancing balanced exactitude with ease and joy. In the Barocco, having grasped her partner's hand and pulled herself toward him, she leaned away for a second in what registered as sheer delight before continuing around him. No one does that now. In Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, she looked as natural as any young dancer fooling around in a studio; in the rowdy last movement of Western Symphony she was a wit, flashing long legs, shoulders, and a smile.
Concerto Barocco and Symphony in C are largely the domain of women in white (men were scarce, even in the postwar years). Symphony, made for the Paris Opera Ballet, honors tradition (Bizet music, symmetry, and tutus) and acknowledges the vivacity of French ballerinas by providing galloping little chassés and opportunities to charm. Barocco offers Amazons in tunics. But in the heartbreaking adagios of both ballets, Balanchine binds corps and soloists in a utopian vision of cooperation. Barocco's eight ensemble women behave as if they were accomplices in a love affair. They also become a maze of vines that the sole man twines and untwines around himself. It's a touching vision of Balanchine, the lover of women dancers, both adventuring into their mysteries and guiding their paths.
Orpheus is about the loosening of bonds between lovers, between life and death. In 1948, Balanchine and Maria Tallchief, his Eurydice, had been married for two years; perhaps he was envisioning the possibility of loss. In the ballet's beautiful climax, Orpheus leads Eurydice back to earth. She tries to make him look at her, and because he must keep averting his head, their voyage becomes as much about the intricate cross-purposes of each other's bodies as it is about going home. The Furies and Lost Souls are not so wonderful. I imagine the angular despair Martha Graham would have matched to the Noguchi decor and the Stravinsky score. In Balanchine's gendered hell, prickly-legged women goad downcast men who hoist huge rocks as if they were made of cotton candy.
The company danced with brio. Traces of nervousness surfaced occasionally (who'd want to be Miranda Weese doing Tallchief's part in Symphony with Tallchief looking on?). But Weese, delicate and precise, still a little guarded, rose to the challenge. Kyra Nichols made a stunning debut as a gentle, wifely Eurydice to Nilas Martins's somewhat muted Orpheus. In Barocco, Yvonne Borree took thrilling risks, often stepping far outside her natural range of motion; at other times she was almost brittle, especially compared to her sidekick, the lyrically sensual Jenny Somogyi. The even more sensual Monique Meunier (just promoted to principal) was a fine choice for the head Bacchante. Wendy Whelan, who's developed a wonderfully sensitive fluidity to contrast with her notable spikiness in modern works, excelled in the Le Clercq role in Symphony. These are only some of the champions.
A handsome new book about NYCB, Tributes (William Morrow and Company, 1998, $50) contains photographs, artworks, poems, and provocative essays by people who don't normally write about dance, like sportswriter Ira Berkow, playwright John Guare, and poet W.H. Auden. Critic Edwin Denby ends a letter by describing a painter friend's response to Symphony in C: ". . . during the rush and surge of the finale, tears came to her eyes because it was all so entirely objective." On this opening night, tears came to my eyes, too, but because that "objective" massing of all the dancers onstage for the first time multiplied beauty and made it seem as if all humanity were dancing.
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