“There are no sisters-in-law in ballet.” Is that what Balanchine said? He was dead right. Parents and children, yes. Commanders and subordinates, enemies, lovers–yes to all those. It’s not hard, if you wish, to manipulate the classical vocabulary to show feelings: the despairing pirouette, the elated arabesque, the indecisive bourrée, the enraged battement, the developpé flung as a challenge.
But dancing resists showing complex thoughts or mundane details. Can a performer in a ballet convey the layers of feeling that the male protagonist of a story reveals about the woman he is staring at: “this little woman, in no way remarkable, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lornette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy…” ? Of course not. But such thoughts are the lifeblood of Anton Chekhov’s frail short story “The Lady With the Dog,” which choreographer Alexey Miroshnichenko has turned into a work for the New York City Ballet.
With his customary brusque delicacy, Chekhov tells of a chance encounter in Yalta between Dmitri Dmitrievitch, a fortyish married man who is given to casual affairs and has a low opinion of females, and Anna Sergeevna, a younger woman, also unhappily wedded. Both are vacationing by the sea; their intimacy progresses slowly, flowers, and ends when they must return to their separate cities and spouses. They try to forget each other, but the man realizes that, for the first time in his life, he has fallen in love. He goes in search of her. The story ends enigmatically; they realize that they must be together, no matter what the cost.
Choreographers have not been falling over one another to build dances on this nuanced tale. However, the great Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya choreographed it in 1985 as a star vehicle for her 60-year-old self, and Miroshnichenko has dedicated his The Lady With the Little Dog to her on the occasion of her 80th birthday, setting it to music composed by her husband Rodion Shchedrin. In 1999, Martha Clarke tackled “The Lady With the Dog,” along with other Chekhov tales, in her Vers La Flamme, setting it to music by Alexander Scriabin. Hers was a spare, evocative, if not entirely successful dance theater work, with both lovers’ families part of the picture.
In Miroshnichenko’s hands, the story becomes simply a pas de deux, with little in it to suggest the characters of the protagonists or the subtleties of their relationship. Andrew Veyette wears glasses. That’s supposed to tell us that he’s older. Sterling Hyltin does walk on with a little dog on a leash (her own), and on opening night, it turned very charmingly to stare at us before being led away.
The first duet builds from decorous meeting to rapture, with Veyette wearing a white summer suit and Hyltin a short, pretty black dress with a full skirt (costumes by Tatiana Noginova). For their erotic encounter, they wear underwear, and Mark Stanley’s lighting reddens.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Miroshnichenko had a clever theatrical idea. The lovers are almost never alone. Eight male dancers, garbed in gray unitards and billed as “angels,” act as fate figures, puppeteers of destiny. They unroll, roll, and re-position pathways of flooring designed to bring the lovers together. For the sex scene, they carry Veyette in laid out like a log and undress both protagonists on stage.
The best thing about these men is that, although they dance very nimbly at times, they act more like dogs than like your usual angels. Crawling and scrambling over one another, they all but push the rolls of flooring with their noses. And, at the end, they crouch like good pups on either side of the path that they’ve arranged to point toward the horizon, so that the lovers can walk, hand-in hand toward their unknown future.
There are several other good things about the ballet. At one point, the slanting, angled patterns on Philip Dontsov’s backdrop get smaller and begin to speed across the painted surface to indicate the passage of time. A few non-balletic touches create a whiff of Chekhovian dailiness. Veyette removes his glasses; Hyltin puts them back on for him. After she pulls herself out from under his post-coital sprawl and steps into her dress, he fastens it up in back. He sees that she’s cold and drapes his jacket over her shoulders.
Nothing about the movement is surprising, but you can admire the sensitivity and generosity of Hyltin and Veyette’s dancing. His energetic solo after the lovers separate can’t convey the ideas that Chekhov gives his changing character, but Veyette shows you a man troubled by thoughts, tossed this way and that by the unaccustomed turbulence of his feelings.
This new ballet shared the program with the Balanchine-Stravinsky Agon and the Balanchine-Glazounov Cortège Hongrois. Together they wonderfully illustrate what different worlds the architect of NYCB style could create, depending on the music that inspired him. Just as in its Stravinsky score, the 1957 Agon mingles dissonance and the thrust and drive of athletics with the elegance of baroque court dance, and Cortège Hongrois (essentially the last-act celebration of Marius Petipa’s 1898 ballet Raymonda) is all tsarist grandeur and protocol with a spicy taste of Hungarian folk steps. Is it possible to create a Chekhovian approach to ballet? Or is that a cause pretty much lost?
If you can believe that a girl is able to wake up from a hundred-year sleep as fresh as a daisy and ready for love, then perhaps you can also accept the vision of happy communist youths of the 1930s going through their calisthenics in front of a bloody sickle, a gigantic broken-off arm holding a hammer, and the decapitated stone head of a statue of Lenin. And if Sleeping Beauty can be thought of as a light-hearted look at resurrection, then perhaps you should try to admire Dmitrij Simkin and James Sutherland’s 1995 attempt to re-shape Mikhail Fokine’s 1911 ballet Petrushka by making the hero a rebel against communist repression of individuality.
Watching the Györ National Ballet from Hungary perform at the Joyce, you’ll perhaps be able to hold down a bubble of laughter when an oppressive commandant (Balázs Pátkai of the long, powerful scything legs) rolls the huge Lenin head around the stage like the light-weight plastic object it is, and despondent gulag prisoners are crushed under the weight of its symbolism.
Stravinsky’s music for Petrushka being ill-suited to strenuous precision drills, the score is preceded and later interrupted by another (unidentified) piece by the composer that features high, ringing voices. There are a number of moments in the Simkin-Sutherland work that are effective in theatrical terms. When the ensemble splits into trios, anchored by spotlights, the hero (Bálint Sebestyén) visits each in turn—trying to integrate himself into the ongoing sculptural complexities or attempting to alter them. A point is made when the performers—now out of their Communist Youth, sailor-collared outfits and maid’s uniforms (don’t ask) and wearing ragged prison stripes—make feeble, rag-doll gestures toward keeping up with the calisthenics that were drilled into them.
The ballet acquires a certain resonance if you know the original Petrushka. The dictatorial oppressor blindfolds Petrushka and flings him around, the way the Magician might handle his puppet (even when the blindfold comes off, Sebestyén has trouble seeing). To the music written for the stiff dance of Fokine’s ballerina puppet in Petrushka’s room, two women, egged on by the villain’s two helpers, tempt and tangle with our conscience-of-the-people hero. But this Petrushka, who refuses to be a puppet, doesn’t utter the last little crow of triumph that Stravinsky wrote into the music before the doll’s final collapse. He’s alone and dead when the curtain falls. The brutal system tolerates no rebels, not even gentle ones.
Sebestyén’s performance is one of the best things about this cardboard creation. He’s adroit at suggesting the naïf confronting a society that controls every individual’s moves and beliefs. You see him weighing possible options, experimenting with conformity, and finally resolving to fight the system.
No such combative choice is open to the sacrificial victim of the ballet that Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky created in 1913 as Le Sacre du Printemps. The Chosen One in Attila Kun’s revised version of this epochal music doesn’t just dance herself to death; she is mauled by the crowd and released to crawl across the stage drenched in blood. This is no primal redemptive ritual; it’s a mob scene. You expect the participants to start eating her.
This work is spatially more fluid than the updated Petrushka. Men in white pants with tails (as in the bottom part of tailcoats) and women in white bandeaus and white trunks with aprons behind (costumes by Zsuzsa Molnár) chase one another across the stage and into the wings. They prowl and stalk. In one mysterious moment, a white silk curtain falls across the background, and figures behind it imprint themselves on its billows. There’s not much suspense. We know quite soon which woman (Lilla M. Horváth) is going to be sacrificed, although there’s no hint of impending doom in her amorous duet with Krisztián Horváth. She’s trembling as the others dress her for the rite, although she’s the one who turns and nods when one man is late to join the circle tightening around her.
The dancers of Györ National Ballet perform these two updates of works made famous by Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes with conviction and intensity (the men appear to be technically stronger than the women). But the choreographers who tackled the two brilliant, very dissimilar Stravinsky scores seldom plumb the richness of their shifting rhythms and harmonic and melodic colorations. Kun finds the beat and treads on it; his choreography may respond briefly to a mood change, but any attempt to delve into the music’s depths seem done with a shovel rather than a sensitive probe.