You could ache with pleasure just watching a team of eight young men stitch precise athletics onto the foreground or background of George Balanchine’s Kammermusik No. 2. When four bright-eyed guys dance behind Sofiane Sylve as she exercises her lovely purring strength to Hindemith’s forthright music, you feel the patterns they prick out might form a net around her any minute, although they never do. (These men are far more alive than Charles Askegard and James Fayette, the stolid, closed-faced partners that Sylve and her fellow ballerina Maria Kowroski drew last Wednesday.)
The pleasure is more acute in another ballet on view in the spring edition of New York City Ballet’s Balanchine Centennial: the great, soul-stirringly romantic two-part Liebeslieder Waltzer, like Kammermusik fastidiously coached by Karin von Aroldingen, and performed by a splendid cast: Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Miranda Weese, Wendy Whelan, Jared Angle (back after an injury, assuredly noble and ardent), Nikolaj Hübbe, Philip Neal, and Jock Soto. The four couples have come together in their satin gowns and tailcoats for an evening of high-end gebrauchmusik in a palatial room. But as four singers and two pianists spin out Brahms’s achingly beautiful love songs, the onstage listeners don’t simply waltz in pairs or frisk in group dances or trios (“She’s mine!” “I’ll catch her on the next spin”), they allow their desires and questions for their partners, their shared joys and shadowed visions—so ravishingly embedded in the music and choreography—to shape their dancing. In one moment, after all the embracing we’ve seen, Neal gently lifts Nichols from a standing position and dances away with her laid out across his arms, and we feel for a second the closeness of death and ecstasy.
Dancers who appear not to see onstage can detract from choreography while those who do enrich and mold it. Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun is all about seeing—two young people probing their mirror images as they unite in dance. Alexandra Ansanelli and Damian Woetzel do this thoughtfully and sensitively. And two guest artists from the Paris Opera Ballet, Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris, make Balanchine’s slight Sonatine (Ravel) into a charming adventure for two, as much by their interest in each other as by their polished dancing. Hübbe—who launches himself into the Andante from Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet as if hearing Balanchine’s voice in his head urging him to go higher, wider, deeper, stronger, to give more—brings out the best in Yvonne Borree with the ardor of his gaze. Stephen Hanna proved a fine partner for Miranda Weese (how good to have her back and in radiant form) in the same ballet. In its Hungarian-flash finale, “Rondo alla Zingarese,” Woetzel and Whelan share their enjoyment of the music in zestful, flirtatious competitions. Benjamin Millepied, bounding through the third movement of Symphony in C, makes us see his glowing powerhouse of a partner, Ashley Bouder, through his eyes: What a woman! Legs aside, the eyes have it.
I saw the NYCB fresh (or rather jet-lagged) from a week’s exposure in Budapest to contemporary dance performances by Hungarian artists and discussions with young writers from Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, and Hungary. This “Criticism Initiative,” designed to help improve the quality of dance writing in East and Central Europe, was put together by the enterprising Workshop Foundation and held in Tráfo, a former electric company building housing a sizable black-box theater, a large studio, and a coffee shop where we could procure enough caffeine to keep us going through one show at 8 and another at 10).
What contemporary dance there was prior to World War II in the countries of our lively bunch was afterward relegated to the deep freeze by the Communist governments’ exalting of ballet. (That modern ideas often persisted in pantomime and drama groups may contribute to today’s bent toward dance theater.) So we were discussing histories of contemporary choreography that had begun—as late as the end of the 1980s or early ’90s in some cases—with independence and/or the end of what they often referred to simply as “the regime.” With liberation in her native Estonia, said Kristiina Garancis, little dance companies sprang up “like mushrooms.” A guest lecturer from Prague, critic Nina Vangeli, noted that in the whole cultural realm of imagination she saw as lying between the vampire and the werewolf, something was still “boiling to be released.”
In much that we heard about and almost all that we saw on stages and in studios carved out of abandoned factories, what was released were feelings about the body and the psyche, emerging in gestures that alluded more to the self and its desires than to the surrounding space. Lithuanian critic Jurate Turleckeite said, in some surprise, that eroticism, sex, and violence weren’t predominant in her country. (This was not long after a showcase where we’d watched a duet, Two, by the talented Marta Ladjánski, in which she solemnly and ritualistically massaged and pulled at her bare breasts with increasing intensity.) It was a heady week of cultural exchange and goulash overload. (To be continued on the Voice website next week.)