Balanchine’s NYC Ballet Leaps To 75th Year, Still Looking Bold, Brilliant

Indiana Woodward and members of the New York City Ballet in a recent photo of George Balanchine’s ‘Serenade,’ set to music by Tchaikovsky. (Photo by Erin Baiano)

PERSPECTIVE – The ballets of George Balanchine pass from generation to generation through a lineage of dancers going back to the master himself, the founding artistic director of New York City Ballet. Seventy-five years on, the company has the implicit mandate to mix it up, and that is traditional, too. From the first, Balanchine, City Ballet’s founding artistic director, welcomed novelties not only from company dancers feeling his Promethean spark but also from guests as distinctive in their approaches as Frederick Ashton, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham.

Since Balanchine’s death in 1983 at age 79, the quest for alternative perspectives has only intensified. But apart from the multiple-threat Jerome Robbins, whom Balanchine brought on board as associate artistic director in 1949, the dance-maker who leaves a lasting mark on the company’s high-def technique or inclusive aesthetic has yet to appear.

The New York City Ballet gave its inaugural performance on Oct. 11, 1948. Of the 425 items listed in Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works (published in hardcover in 1982, now available online on the George Balanchine Foundation website), the company claims to maintain 150 in active repertory — an Aladdin’s cave crammed with treasure of every ilk. Old-fashioned storybook ballets with all the theatrical trappings, even mime. Ballroom ballets that are all dazzle. Ballets of nuance, spun of mood and atmosphere. Boundary-breaking plotless ballets, often danced on a bare stage, in practice clothes. Many used to call them “abstract,” a label Balanchine disliked; I prefer to think of them on a spectrum from Euclidean, for their geometry, to Platonic, for their concentration on pure form. Pick your genre; Balanchine was a master. 

Balanchine (Photo by Tanaquil Le Clercq)

A 21-gun salute, then, for the City Ballet’s all-Balanchine fall residency, marketed under the heading “The Foundation” (Sept. 19-Oct. 15). All-Balanchine evenings have, of course, always been commonplace in his company. But opportunities for concentrated total immersion without distractions, to discover unsuspected connections, to add fresh impressions to mental images gone hazy — such opportunities roll around on the timetable of the blue moon.

I was sorry to miss the opening week, devoted to the plotless triptych Jewels, which serves up French-scented moonlit romance (“Emeralds,” danced to Fauré), space-age Big Apple flash (“Rubies,” danced to Stravinsky), and imperial St. Petersburg splendor raised to a higher power (“Diamonds,” danced to Tchaikovsky). But 16 titles remained, packaged in five mixed bills of all-time favorites with a dusting of collector’s items. The musical spectrum spanned from Bach to Ives, with emphasis on Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky — a fair reflection of Balanchine’s broad, unpredictable, and sometimes esoteric likes.

Balanchine was the most musical of choreographers, and also musically the most knowledgeable. He read scores fluently, as responsive to their architectonics as to their poetry. It was often said of him that his dances made you see the music, and so, in a sense, they often do. At the same time, they show something else, something more. The inner connection between music and choreography from the level of massed movement down to individual steps is a monumental topic, seldom addressed and beyond the scope of these comments. The focus here will be on choreography, but before we move on, this might be the moment to acknowledge the indispensable contribution of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, its stylistically protean music director Andrew Litton, associate music director Andrews Sill, and resident conductor Clotilde Otranto.

Miriam Miller and Peter Walker in Balanchine’s ‘Agon’ (Erin Baiano)

I joined the party on Oct. 1, when the program opened with Bourrée Fantasque (1949), likely the cheekiest ballet in the canon. Set to Chabrier at his most irrepressible, the work presents as sheer froufrou, on a stage crowded with Gallic revelers dressed to the nines in sleek silk and satin.

The opening movement is a divertissement for the court of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, with much tipping forward and back from the waist, like pins on a clothesline. In the principal roles, the long-stemmed Mira Nadon, fan in hand, and whippet-lean KJ Takahashi pranced through their impish paces with unflappable, sweet-tempered refinement. Emilie Gerrity and Gilbert Bolden III lent grave romance to the scrolling and unscrolling floor patterns of the ensuing adagio. Alexa Maxwell flew through the daredevil air turns of the finale undaunted, squired by the confident David Gabriel. And let’s not forget the corps de ballet — separate cohorts for each movement, all joining in for the big finish, everyone in exultant form.

The centerpiece of the evening was the Platonic Agon (1957). The Stravinsky score harks back to French court dances of the 17th century, deploying large orchestral forces not for mass but for color, with plenty of lilt, lift, and bounce.

Anthony Huxley in Balanchine’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ (Paul Kolnik)

The dozen dancers — four principal couples plus four women — function as an all-star chamber ensemble, shifting in and out of smaller constellations. Yet there are segments that focus on individuals. Jovani Furlan stood out in the solo Sarabande, in masterful control of spiral movement that originates in the upper body but terminates in the legs. In the climactic pas de deux, Miriam Miller — ranked as a soloist on the company roster but cast as a principal — deployed long, tapered limbs with Circean authority, the tensile power of her poses conjuring up sculpture of Brancusi (Bird in Space, anyone?). Agon tells no “story,” and the dancers’ faces in the pas de deux give nothing away. Yet the psychic charge is galvanic. Overcome by the ballerina’s sheer force of projection, her cavalier — Peter Walker on this occasion — falls flat on his back at the pointe of her toe shoe as she snaps into extreme arabesque, legs straight up and down, like the hands of a clock at six.

The evening ended with the comic chaser Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936), a self-contained, one-act jazz ballet with dialogue from Rodgers and Hart’s Broadway musical On Your Toes. This is the spoof people remember for two things: (a) the Keystone Kops chasing through a speakeasy to the tune of “Three Blind Mice” and (b) the Striptease Girl, who promenades across the stage in fishnet stockings, high heels, and a deep backbend, kicking high enough to smash the chandelier. Moments after, a jealous lover shoots her dead, but no worries. This is farce. She’ll rise again.

The Striptease Girl of the City Ballet premiere in 1968 was the young Suzanne Farrell, who had vaulted into legend three years before as a 19-year-old Dulcinea to Balanchine’s Don Quixote. Louche casting, you might think, but the sleaze was tongue-in-cheek, and Farrell floated above it, setting the precedent for many aloof City Ballet beauties to follow. Now it’s the turn of the extraordinary Sara Mearns, a virtuoso technician who wears her glamour lightly, losing herself in the sheer joy of dancing. Her most magical moment in Slaughter was also the least showy. The hijinks are over, the cast is lined up for bows, and the crowd is cheering when soft, sweet music starts welling up from the pit again as if released by the motion of  the Striptease Girl’s gently undulating arms. As Mearns made it happen, it was nothing at all, just bliss.

Sara Mearns in Balanchine’s ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,’ set to music by Richard Rodgers (Erin Baiano)

One program down, four to go. Big picture, the main takeaway may simply be how reliably the company hit the mark. Of the ballets on my dance card (several of them seen twice, with different casts), I can think of a single misfire. Theme and Variations (1947, set to the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite. No. 3 in G, Op. 55) delivers classical bravura at its most diamantine. At curtain rise, the beaming principals Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley looked ready to kill it, but as challenges escalated, they kept slipping out of focus and out of sync. Yet even so, not all was lost. The ensemble came through taxing assignments with flying colors, giving every phrase its full measure, pouncing on every attack, landing without a sound, like so many cats. Of course, total engagement is what Balanchine demanded, and if — as in Balanchine’s time — line formations were not always straight as an arrow, the deviations were a small price to pay.

Over the course of the season, timeless cornerstones of the repertory reappeared in mint condition — notably, the impulsive dreamscape of Serenade (1935, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings) and clockwork-and-rubato Concerto Barocco (1941, set to Bach’s Double Concerto for Violins, BWV 1043). From descriptions, you might expect to look down your nose at Western Symphony (1954), with its saloon, cowpokes, dancehall girls, and goofy nod to Swan Lake. Same for the John Philips Sousa extravaganza Stars and Stripes (1958). But no. Balanchine’s tongue-in-cheek Americana whisked us back to an age of innocence that may exist only in the collective imagination.

Balanchine teaching class (Photo by Nancy Lasalle)

As time marches on, a certain type of textbook balletomane will always be complaining that the stars of the moment pale beside memories of the stars of yesteryear. I’d have to agree that the principals and rising soloists on the City Ballet’s current roster, as admirably prepared and giving as they are, can be hard to visualize, characterize, or tell apart. It’s common knowledge that Balanchine never tolerated “acting” in his ballets and that he had no patience with affectation. Personality was another matter. People insist it can’t be taught, yet there’s no doubt Balanchine recognized and fostered it in ways later keepers of City Ballet’s flame seem unable to. All the same, some emerge.

Take Sara Mearns, whom we’ve encountered in Slaughter. In the fall season, she was everywhere, in some of the most exposed roles in the repertory. Perhaps she shone brightest in the adagio from Symphony in C (1947, originally mounted on the Paris Opéra Ballet as Le Palais de Cristal to the music of Georges Bizet). With its swooning falls and dreamy pirouettes on the bent working leg, the ballerina’s dance is the “Ah, non credea mirarti” of ballet, evocative beyond all explaining. Partnered by Tyler Angle, who shocked the house with his shaved skull, Mearns unspooled Balanchine’s mystic cantilena to ravishing perfection.

In a darker vein, she made a spine-chilling Siren in The Prodigal Son (1929), tiptoeing onstage with upraised hands and a towering headdress, bewitching the eponymous wastrel, drugging him, and picking him clean. In an alternate cast, the enthralling Miriam Miller of Agon staked out a more clinical, in no way less compelling claim on the role. She’s a personality, too, as is Tiler Peck, jubilant this season in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. Like Cinderella at the ball, she swept all before her, relishing every moment.

And it’s not just ballerinas who impress. Stepping into the iconic title role of Apollo (1928), Chun Wai Chan was marmoreal yet electric, his straight right arm gathering force as it whirled like the blade of a windmill. The diminutive Daniel Ulbricht gave a phenomenal account of the Prodigal, etching fury in leaps like lightning bolts and pirouettes like cyclones. In the Third Campaign of Stars and Stripes (“Thunder and Gladiator”), Ulbricht was no less impressive, all polished parade-ground precision.

And as if just to remind us that charisma will out when you least expect it, a nova exploded in the Gothic fantasy La Sonnambula (1946). Goreyesque avant la lettre, danced to melodies of Vincenzo Bellini, La Sonnambula spins a yarn of murder involving a jealous baron, his mistress, the poet she covets, and a ghostly woman in white who appears to the poet, darting through the night fast asleep with eyes wide open and a lighted candle. With the tallest men in the corps de ballet partnering the shortest women, the party dances in the current revival struck an irresistibly giddy note. But somehow, the subliminal mesmerism that drives the Sleepwalker never quite registered, leaving a void at the heart of the canvas.

Unity Phelan and members of the New York City Ballet in Balanchine’s ‘Western Symphony’ (Erin Baiano)

Harlequin to the rescue! In someone bounded, from out of nowhere, a trim vision in motley, hooking all watchers on sight with his rubbery wiggles and spiked angles, sealing the deal with the bounce and symmetry of his jumping jacks, and then stopping our breath with a twinge of feigned sciatica. Here, in two minutes, was the soul of commedia dell’ arte. Who was that? The program gave the answer: Cainan Weber, still listed in the corps de ballet. I think we’ll be seeing more of him. Balanchine’s two-act Harlequinade, a comic bauble for all ages, with stunning bits for all the kids in ballet school, has Weber’s name all over it.

City Ballet’s anniversary festivities resume Nov. 24 with Balanchine’s full-length holiday bonbon The Nutcracker, continuing through New Year’s Eve. A winter season under the label “The Evolution” honors Jerome Robbins and other choreographers with a steady association to City Ballet — but not without reserving seven of a total of 15 slots in the program for Mr. B (Jan. 23-March 3), with Liebeslieder Waltzes, Ballo della Regina, and Symphony in Three Movements coming into the mix. Under the handle “The Future,” the concluding spring season counterbalances nine Balanchines — four holdovers from earlier in the year plus Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and more — with two premieres and a sprinkling of revivals of recent hits by other hands (April 23-June 2). Like many a past season, “The Future” rings down with Balanchine’s heaven-sent Shakespearean revel A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Time cannot wither nor custom stale… Thank you, thank you, thank you, City Ballet. Thank you, artistic director Jonathan Stafford and the generations of teachers and former Balanchine dancers whose dedication makes such seasons possible! Oh, and while I’ve got you — here (incomplete and in no particular order) is my wish list for the years ahead: one of Mr. B’s two Firebirds (or both!), his three-act Don Quixote, his one-act Swan Lake restored to its original form, his Square Dance (with or without the caller), La Valse, Episodes, Raymonda Variations, Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” Movements/Monumentum, Chaconne, Divertimento No. 15, Divertimento fromLe Baiser de la Fée,’ Mozartiana, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Union Jack, Vienna Waltzes

The dance goes on.