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Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work

by Richard Penberthy
February 3, 2007
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
212.875.5456

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New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet (office)
New York State Theater
20 Lincoln Center
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www.nycballet.com

New York City Ballet
The evening's program featured two luminous Balanchine ballets sandwiching Robbins' Dybbuk.

Balanchine's Serenade (performed to Serenade for Strings by Tschaikovsky) was the first ballet George Balanchine choreographed in America, and it had its premiere when the very wealthy father of Edward Warburg (a Harvard classmate of Lincoln Kirstein and cofounder of the School of Amercan Ballet in Hartford) invited students to perform at a private party in 1934. In a few months, Kirstein, Warburg, Balanchine, and Dimitriev would found The American Ballet, one of several station stops on the way to the New York City Ballet.

Ballet was not a middle-class – and certainly not a working class – entertainment in America in 1935, between the wars, in an all too brief mid-Depression recovery. The period was a wild mix of escapism on screen and wildly mixed financial turmoil, only 6 years after the Crash. This ballet may have first entertained the financially insulated rich, but the intent of Kirstein and Balanchine was that it would be the start of something, that it and its successors would draw the American public, not just the wealthy; Kirstein and Balanchine would have little patience for dilettantes.

There is no set, but it must have been one helluva room! With the first tense strains of the Serenade, the curtain rises on coolly-lit intersecting geometries of 17 ballerinas en pointe in long chiffon skirts and pale lilac blue bodices (Karinska). The women slowly lift their arms, the only movement is their port de bras, and the music takes on form as they gesture, as they catch the phrasing and volume, and then they dance, they become the crescendos, as a friend observes, "they surf the music." The constant is the sweeping music as the dance, liquid, moves and merges and dissipates to duets and trios and quintets and back again.

In one element, principals Ashley Boulder, Maria Kowroski, and Kyra Nichols hold hands and Balanchine explores what flexibility there is – think London Bridges Falling Down – in maintaining this contact and moving through and under the arches of held hands and around and behind the central figure, then back again. The same sort of exploration recurs later in the ballet, when Stephen Hanna and Philip Neal (the men are in rather unfortunate very dark lavender unitards) join the three. There is surprising variation and possibility in these enchained tableaux – they engage the audience as if a magician were onstage.

Dybbuk, choreographed by Jerome Robbins to Leonard Bernstein's music, is a new revival of the 1974 original. Based upon Central European Jewish folklore concerning an unquiet spirit that may inhabit and control a living being, the tale is complex, and it might have succumbed to mime and tedious narrative. It is told instead in a series of scenes without sign-language blather to link them. The tale, after all, is succinctly told in the program.

As youths, two close friends pledge to each other that their future children will marry; the future comes and those children do indeed fall in love, but the girl Leah (very effectively and dramatically danced by Jennifer Ringer) is rich; so she is promised to someone also rich but hates it; Chanon the boy (Benjamin Millepied in his glory, especially in the Kabbalah episode) seeks help to from an ancient incantation but finds epiphany instead and dies in ecstacy; Leah longs for him, awakening his spirit, which become a Dybbuk which clings to her; the religious community performs rituals to expel him; Leah would rather die than live without him, and they cling together, still in love, in Sheol, oblivion.

Costuming (Patricia Zipprodt) uses black phylacteries on the forehead and spiral-strapped along the left arms of the students and religious elders to create a pattern of repeated curves that only accentuates the frequently angular choreography. When cast as youths, the dancers are in body-hugging white, but when elders, they wear black gabardines and long dresses so sheer that the white glows through them – brilliant costume design. At key moments in the dance, messengers appear, denoted by black (one in red) tufted straps along their arms, which might as well be feathers – angels, of course, came to mind.

Rouben Ter-Arutunian is credited with scenery, comprised solely of projections that back the dancers. But, what projections they are – impenetrable dark and mysterious symbols from Kabbalah, ancient Jewish mysticism. Asymmetrical design and dark framings on a sepia ground brings home the weightiness of the theme.

This is not West Side Story choreography. It is not drunken sailors competitively dancing to woo floozies. Whether it is the demanding, ultimate-seriousness of Bernstein's music, the theme (the displaced affection two young men evidence as they promise that their unborn children will marry – hello!), or the faith or hope that love survives – it is clear that Jerome Robbins paid attention to everything here. This is a strikingly well-crafted, careful, and ultimately whole ballet, more, much more than the sum of its parts. From the opposing lines of kneeling women and men in the exorcism and impact their mass would have on the sober dance of the elders, to the suggestive, yet not lewd, clinging of the Dybbuk to Leah, to the spark of a man-like partnering Leah offers the Dybbuk as he arabesques away from her, to the whirling variations (pirouette and arch at the same time – go ahead try it!) at the Invocation of the Kabbalah – Sean Suozzi, Antonio Carmena, Jonathan Stafford, and especially Adrian Danchig-Waring excel – this is a very fine ballet, and on Saturday, it had a brilliant presentation.

The final ballet of the evening, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, from 1972, was choreographed by Balanchine nearly 30 years after the opening ballet of the evening, Serenade. It is interesting to wonder if Kirstein would recognize in it the distinctly American form of ballet that he so wanted, for by 1972, the world had long since begun to borrow back from Balanchine. At its premiere, there would probably have been more blue jeans than there were on Saturday, since the dress code has swung back a little from that casual extreme, but clearly then and now, the audience represented a broad demographic, and ballet is not the bailiwick of the elite.

Saturday's principals Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans (Aria I) and Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins (Aria II) were at lift-off pitch, with reliably exciting, refined performances. It is a black and white ballet, performed in off the shelf ballet class uniform – tights and leotards. So, its excitement lies as much in "surfing the music" as Serenade's does, but more figures and offbeat (literally) gesture is involved. When the principals duck beneath the arches of each other's arms, there seems more attention paid to connectedness than to the pure visual delight of weaving and unweaving. Or, perhaps it's the spirit of the times.
Kyra Nichols, Stephen Hanna and Maria Kowroski in NYCB's Serenade

Kyra Nichols, Stephen Hanna and Maria Kowroski in NYCB's Serenade

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik


Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied in NYCB's Dybbuk

Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied in NYCB's Dybbuk

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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