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 Rubies from 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.

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.

For those attending this provocative and fascinating season, comparisons with NYCB are inevitable. The master’s company, we assume, gets the pick of students emerging from its affiliated School of American Ballet and is uniquely equipped to mount his ballets. But clearly, Balanchine’s lean style is understood by dancers from New York to U.S. cities to Paris to Moscow and St. Petersburg. (In mounting Balanchine, Russia is recovering a part of its ballet history that was wiped out by Stalinism and the Cold War.) And NYCB, committed to maintaining an immense repertory, cannot always give each ballet the rehearsal it needs. For companies with smaller repertories, every Balanchine ballet is a treasure to be dusted and polished. That certainly shows in Washington.

The New York dance season used to rev up in October. This year it started right after Labor Day. What with series like Dancenow Downtown, Evening Stars Onstage, and Y Dance, a tireless viewer could catch at least 35 works in a single week.

It’s great to have dance at the 14th Street Y again, even though the big gym, where Oceola Bragg presented programs for a dozen years, is no longer available. Beverly Blossom, doyenne of robust eccentricity, and Matthew Mohr, ex-Cunningham dancer in his first New York appearance as a choreographer, exemplify the range of the recent series. Blossom, grandly gowned and extravagantly hatted for her Sorry, Miss, holds forth from a chair centered on the Y’s small proscenium stage. To Sibelius’s “Valse Triste,” she makes important gestures, then abandons them in distaste or appears to drop off for a catnap. When she speaks of her nervy first audition in the New York she’d come to conquer years ago, her “NO PREVIOUS TRAINING!” becomes a rhythmic element in her superb performance. Mohr avoids center stage and characterization. He falls in from the wings, turns his head to regard us, and rolls off. His absences become as important as his lean, grave presence, and the empty space of this Landscape for One is held down by Tobias Ralph’s drumming (my son—his presence took me by surprise). Mohr injects and ejects himself in skillfully timed, gradually escalating appearances—crawling lizardlike, squirming, ploughing across, briefly erect and dancing.

Amy O’Brien (ex-Tharp dancer) and Matthew Hope perform O’Brien’s Bottleneck Blues to honky-tonk music. It’s a clever piece with fine rhythmic variety. Given O’Brien’s cropped hair and pants, the two look like two feisty boys—linear and almost doll-like in their precision. In Cadenza, Graham Lustig (ex-Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet et al.) also plays with the idea of a matched pair; Jennifer Cavanaugh and Bat Abbit dance wearing 18th-century jackets. The opening harpsichord sounds in Henryk Gorecki’s music give extra bite to their initial ingenious and bold side-by-side dancing. A middle section with lifts is more ordinary.

In Mark Dendy’s Frieze, Felicia Norton molds herself into poses, balancing tension with sensuously smooth control—a bacchante glimpsed in slow motion. Amos Pinhasi wears a black gown and pulls rose petals from its every fold in his Two Sentimental Songs. While Dalida’s voice sings goodbyes to love, Pinhasi scatters petals, swooping lugubriously, but also snarls and shreds one unlucky rose into oblivion.

The amount of stylistic variation was unusual and heartening. You couldn’t pin any labels on this program, except, maybe, excellent.

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