By the time you read this, the New York City Ballet will be in the throes of its Nutcracker, but the program that kicked off the company’s “Balanchine 100: The Centennial Celebration” promises the wealth to come throughout the centennial of George Balanchine’s birth. It began with Serenade, the first ballet Balanchine made in America, and ended with Symphony in C, which opened the company’s 1948 debut season under its new name at City Center. Between these masterpieces came the sole centennial performance of Bugaku (1963), a sort of sexy amuse-bouche for opening-night gala patrons.
Serenade was first performed in 1934 by students of the new School of American Ballet. To re-create that White Plains event, NYCB had the first movement danced by advanced pupils at today’s SAB. It’s something of a shock when, to those heart-pulling opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the curtain rises not on women in long, pale-blue net skirts, but on girls in short tunics. However, beautifully coached by Suki Schorer, they gaze at the horizon as raptly as their elders do, and the leg-revealing costumes only clarify the academic steps that Balanchine gradually tinged with romantic yearning.
In the years following Serenade‘s 1935 Manhattan premiere, Balanchine made many small changes, and today’s dancers are slimmer and more expansive in space. But surely audiences have always seen tides of women flocking, swirling by, rinsing the stage with their dancing. At this performance, Kyra Nichols was in her glory, riding the music, slipping inside it. She, and fragile, sharp-dancing Yvonne Borree, and a new principal from France—Sofiane Sylve, with her rounded way of moving—made an interesting trio to wrap around James Fayette. These muses fairly hang on their Apollo’s neck.
When Jerome Robbins saw Symphony in C at its premiere in 1948, he instantly asked to join the company in whatever capacity he could be used. He was stunned by its glistening order, the brilliance of its steps, the way Balanchine illuminated Georges Bizet’s music, and the heartbreaking beauty of Tanaquil Le Clercq in the second movement. The grand displays of women in white tutus and their cavaliers in black extend the boundaries of late-19th-century Russian classicism, while alluding to its Romantic underpinnings. At the gala, Maria Kowroski danced the haunting second movement with Charles Askegard. I’m still waiting for Kowroski to develop further. Abundantly endowed, creamily smooth, generous in space, she’s a generalizer. Her performing reveals no intelligent nuances or shifts of focus, unlike that of Jennie Somogyi, who, partnered by Robert Tewsley, animated the first movement. Janie Taylor—oddly fey sometimes, but interesting—almost matched Benjamin Millepied’s superb loft in the third movement, if not his exuberance. Pascale van Kipnis and Albert Evans were fine in the final section.
A Japanese graduate student once handed me a paper that ripped Bugaku to shreds. I understand his rage. David Hays’s design refers to the stage used for this ancient Japanese court dance, but Balanchine extended ballet steps with allusions to martial arts, 19th-century chinoiserie in ballet, condescending portraits of “Orientals” in Hollywood movies, and the extreme positions of Japanese erotic art. He applied the ceremoniousness of ancient Bugaku to a mating ritual.
Still, Bugaku, while not a major work, has effective music by Toshiro Mayuzumi and an alluring heat beneath its decorum. Or should have. Jock Soto is appropriately stolid, although not as bold in his lunges and wide-legged stances as his four servants. There’s nothing sexy, however, about his ornate couplings with Darci Kistler, who looks as dainty as a figure on a teacup. Second-string Balanchine is still Balanchine, and what matter a few rhinestones amid the diamonds?