The New York City Ballet has dedicated its 2007 spring season to Lincoln Kirstein, the man who jumpstarted it. This year marks the centenary of Kirstein’s birth. He was only 26 years old when he invited George Balanchine (29) to come to America and join him in founding a school and a company. The repertory for the opening six programs billed as “For Lincoln: 10 Modern Classics” underlines—perhaps inadvertently—how Kirstein’s taste developed from the 1920s, when he first fell in love with ballet.
The works presented in his honor epitomize Balanchine choreography—crystalline, unencumbered by plot, Utopian even at their knottiest. There’s scarcely a tutu or a piece of scenery in sight. When Kirstein decided that he wanted to found a ballet company, however, he wasn’t a Balanchine fan. According to Martin Duberman’s impressive new biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, when the ambitious young Harvard graduate saw the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets 1933 in Europe, it wasn’t Balanchine’s choreography that enthralled him, but that of Leonide Massine, whose works tended to feature temperamental characters meeting and flirting in colorful settings.
Kirstein seems to have fancied himself as a sort of Diaghilev, bringing painters, composers, and choreographers together to create an American cousin to the Ballets Russes, and brokering scenarios for choreography. You’d certainly get that idea from one of the works on the American Ballet Company’s first season in New York; Alma Mater, a humorous collection of scenes and characters, centered on football game at Yale. Balanchine evidently coped expertly with a subject that may have baffled him, but his great and enduring Serenade premiered on the same program, and Alma Mater bit the dust.
Program 2 of the “For Lincoln” series featured Square Dance (1957), Duo Concertant and Symphony in Three Movements (both created for the NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival) and Concerto Barocco. This last marked a coming together again of Balanchine and Kirstein in 1941 for a tour by a group they billed as American Ballet Caravan (Balanchine had been busy with musicals and movie, while Kirstein ran Ballet Caravan—a company featuring short-story Americana ballets by a number of choreographers and none by Balanchine). Concerto Barocco was revived in 1948 for the company’s first season under a new name: the New York City Ballet.
For this idyllic work, set to J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Balanchine creates garlands and arbors and wreaths of dancing for two principal women, a man, and eight additional women. Never has the simple holding of hands created so many metaphors. In a particularly beautiful performance like the one I attended on April 25th, you don’t simply watch precise, complex maneuvers; you see agreed-upon games, questions, and responses. When a woman in the corps de ballet moves to a new position, she can make you believe she’s leaving one friend and joining another. Wendy Whelan and Rachel Rutherford show an unusual degree of warmth as they circle each other in the first movement’s sprightly canons. When Rutherford leaves, and Albert Evans replaces her in the second movement as the voice of the second solo violin, you could swear she’s tactfully indicating, “Here he comes, I’ll just slip away;” when she briefly returns in response to a musical repeat and leaves again, it seems perfectly natural that she’d check the progress of her companion’s romance.
But none of what I’m inferring comes from “acting,” only from a gracious and focused way of performing. The same quality enlivens Whelan’s gently rapturous performance with Evans. They’re the first two I’ve seen in a while who make movingly obvious the nuances of feeling and the slight, but pleasurable strain that comes from moving like curling vines while keeping hold of right hands. And the eight women fulfill the couple’s patterns with alacrity. Anything to make this golden girl’s affair a delight.
Square Dance to music by Vivaldi and Corelli has outlived its original identity as a charming novelty. In 1957, its baroque score formed a witty contrast to the onstage presence of fiddlers and a real square dance caller. “Make your feet go wickety-wack” seemed perfectly natural given the gargouillades and jetés battus and other steps in which the dancer’s feet quiver or flick together in the air. But we don’t need that jovial voice to remind us that we’ve been invited to a dance party—even though it’s one of those parties where some couples leave for a breath of air or a cup of punch, while one pair stays behind for a quieter exchange of courtesies. Megan Fairchild has a lovely, innocent quality, but she’s bold too: she doesn’t just step into an arabesque, she explodes into it. When her terrific partner, Nikolaj Hübbe, lifts her three times, each lift higher than the previous one, she has to be having the time of her life. The two jump around each other like mating butterflies. Hübbe also performs marvelously in the twisty legato solo that Balanchine added in 1976.
The two Stravinsky ballets are as different as the music they’re set to. In Duo Concertant, a man and a woman seem to muse their way into dancing in response to the playing of an onstage pianist and violinist. When Cameron Grant and Kurt Nikkanen launch into the first of the sweet, yet astringent pieces, Darci Kistler and Nilas Martins simply lean against the piano and listen. Kistler is, as always, gently radiant rather than sparkly in terms of energy, but Martins is perorming with what strikes me as new power. I used to think he was shy about taking up too much space on stage. Now he looks sleeker, bolder, and more incisive.
Duo Concertant ends achingly, with the man and woman separating in darkness and the violin dropping questions into silence. The boisterous Symphony in Three Movements inspired Balanchine to create a whirlwind of patterns that makes the orchestra appear to be instigating Olympic games on an as-yet-undiscovered planet. From the beginning, when ponytailed women in white leotards, deployed along a diagonal, start, one after the other, lunging and wheeling their arms, you feel as if a large, handsome machine has been set in motion. There’s squad of race walkers (briefly anyway) and a pair (Ashley Bouder and Tom Gold) who jump over and around anyone in their path. The athletic modernism of the dancing matches Stravinsky in verve and forthrightness. Even the slower pas de deux nicely performed by Jared Angle and Abi Stafford, is more about curiously interlocking joints than about romance (unless you happen to see the two as insects).
The Stravinsky Festival was an enormous undertaking. At a time when many wondered if Balanchine was losing his touch, he re-emerged as a giant. And, of course, without Kirstein’s entrepreneurial flair and tireless fundraising, it couldn’t have happened. He’d found, I suspect, that, in the end, his ultimate happiness lay in giving Balanchine what he wanted.
Concerto Barocco will be performed again in June, and there’s no shortage of Balanchine masterpieces created during Lincoln Kirstein’s lifetime to be seen in the coming weeks.