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The Brilliance of Balanchine Made Plain: "Tradition" and "Balanchine's World" at New York City Ballet

by Tonya Plank
January 21, 2008
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Two programs showing at New York City Ballet this season — "Tradition" in which two of the three ballets are by George Balanchine, and "Balanchine's World" showcasing, as the name implies, all Balanchine works — make clear why the choreographer is considered one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

The "Tradition" program began with "Square Dance," created in 1957. This ballet, one of Balanchine's many non-story ones, evidences the choreographer's genius at Americanizing the European dance form, endearing it to this country's audiences. Throughout, ballet steps, while retaining their classical poetry, are infused with the sweet-humored language of American folk dance. Danced to light string music by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, mercurial, foot-changing entrechat jumps and formal balletic partnered promenades are interspersed with playful kicks and swinging traveling steps, with the partners cradling each other in a "sweetheart" social dance position. The ballet is performed by a corps de ballet of twelve, with two principal solos danced by Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette. Fairchild was the ideal petite, allegro ballerina who gave the western square dance parts a buoyant American flair. Veyette, while a bit tall for her (Fairchild was a last-minute replacement for another dancer), has a tall, long-limbed body ideal for male Balanchine roles. However, he seemed nervous at points, and his jumps were sometimes led by a tense-shouldered upper body. But he has the strong potential to be a beautiful danseur if he will learn to trust himself, overcome his anxiety, and just let himself go, as he did at times, and to lovely effect.

Second on the "Traditions" program was "Prodigal Son," widely considered to be one of Balanchine's masterpieces, and one of his earliest, having made it for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1929. Based on the Biblical story of the same name (but absent the obedient son character), the ballet follows the young man, initially full of pent-up angst and desire to see the world, through his seduction at the hands of the Siren, his tragic beating by her cohorts, his struggle to find his way back home, and his poignant deliverance into the hands of his forgiving father. Part of the brilliance of this ballet is that, although it involves mime and acting, it can be told almost entirely through the choreography itself. High kicking jumps and scissor-splitting leaps well evoke the son's need to leave home and explore, the Siren's slow, high, leg-lifting developpes and her entwining her long limbs around the son's waist betoken seduction, and the sideways crab-like walks of her cohorts suggest grotesqueness and danger. Principal Damian Woetzel danced the lead brilliantly, emanating youthful innocence falling under the spell of an evil seductress, and his covering his hands to his face and crawling along the floor after his being stripped naked and beaten within an inch of his life convey with great pathos his attempt to return home. Principal Maria Kowroski danced the Siren with technical perfection, but her lack of facial or bodily expression past the demands of the choreography left her unable fully to inhabit the character.

"Traditions" ended with "The Four Seasons," choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1979, the only non-Balanchine ballet on that program. Set to Verdi music, the dance follows the small ballet the composer devised for his opera of the same name. Winter is represented by shivering dancers warming themselves through dance. In Spring, the dancers evoke warm breezes, summer is characterized by sunny yellow cheer, and Fall by a playful male faun, danced with typical virtuosity by Daniel Ulbricht, who happens upon and surprises the lovely ladies of summer. Also impressive was Rachel Rutherford, who, as one such lady, exuded a subtle sensual charm.

If "Tradition" offers a sampling of Balanchine's genius, "Balanchine's World" illustrates his versatility. "Le Tombeau de Couperin," which began that program, is a short ballet with a soft, understated charm, comprised of eight pairs of corps dancers – no principals — in which the pairs, dressed in simple black and white, make full use of the stage to make various geometrical designs. Using Baroque-flavored music by Maurice Ravel, the ballet is sweetly reminiscent of 18th Century court dances, in which pairs of dancers stand opposite each other, hold hands and lift arms to form a garland-laden passageway, under which each courting pair in turn jovially passes.

In contrast, "Tarantella" consists of a set of very high-spirited solos, one for a man, one for a woman, punctuated by frisky pas de deux between the two. The dancers, dressed as 19th Century Italian country peasants, compete with each other, each doing increasingly daring feats with each ensuing solo, at times with a tambourine, before coming together in a final kiss-concluding duet, then running off together. Unsurprisingly, the quintessential piquant allegro ballerina Ashley Bouder, who performed the female role, excelled, outdancing Gonzalo Garcia, who nevertheless gave her a good run for her money.

In "Bugaku," Balanchine combined classical ballet with Japanese style and movement. This dance was inspired by the Gagaku, a company of musicians and dancers maintained by the Japanese royal family, who often performed in the United States. As with his modernized "American" ballets, Balanchine adroitly infused classical ballet with traditional Asian expressiveness. The details – from the stage sets to the movement — are rich in Eastern styling. For example, the dancers' hands are often held flatly outward, palms up and bent severely at the wrist, but with the fingers curved inward in the manner of traditional Asian art and architecture, which emphasizes a circular shape, with all energy directed back inward, toward the center of the body, rather than outward, as in classical ballet. The story here is the union of an imperial man and woman. First, a line of female dancers enter, led by the 'bride-to-be,' danced by principal Maria Kowroski. They dance in a demurely seductive, geisha-like manner, then leave, completely exiting the stage before the men enter, as if it would be improper for the sexes to mingle at such an early point. Next a line of men come onstage from the opposite wing, led by the 'groom,' principal Albert Evans, and they dance with a very warrior-like flair, Evans at one point enthrallingly whipping around each wrist as if holding a sword he is prepared to use. The two groups finally unite, the leads do a dance of seduction, then are wed and perform a dance of consummation, ending with Kowroski's high developped leg into a full upright split, and Evans's wrapping his body around hers, then gently bringing her down to the floor. Evans was the consummate warrior / groom, but Kowroski was again lacking. Again, her technique was near flawless and her long lush lines gorgeous – her arabesque is downright delicious. But just as she gave her Siren in "Prodigal Son" no edge, here she brings no feeling to her supposedly demure Japanese woman losing her virginity. The character has to feel something, but watching her, I have no idea what it is. Kowroski is such a technically brilliant dancer with an absolutely ideal ballet body; if only she worked on her artistry, she could be so much more.

Finishing this program was "La Sonnambula," another work Balanchine made, in 1946, for Ballets Russes. This is a story ballet in which a romantic young male poet, reminiscent of Romeo, finds himself unhappily out of place at a frivolous society ball, and the obvious object of the grand mistress's desires. He dances with her, but cannot return her affections. He is bemoaning his predicament in private when suddenly a beautiful, ethereal creature holding a candle out before her tiptoes across the room. Immediately taken with her, he approaches only to realize she is deep in slumber, a sleepwalker. His diligent attempts at waking her – holding his arm out in front of her so as to trip her – come to no avail, as she steps right over his outstretched hand, all the while maintaining her slumber, making one wonder, is she really a woman who is merely sleeping or is she an otherworldly being meant to rescue the poet from his almost cruelly mundane situation? Eventually, the society mistress witnesses the poet's love for the sleepwalker, becomes overwhelmed with anger, and has him killed. The body of the young man is carried off by the sleepwalker, to a better place. Wendy Whelan's breathtakingly haunting savior, and Nikolaj Hubbe's wonderfully-acted poor, sad poet and his charming, boyish enchantment with the sleepwalker, together created a riveting drama. Unfortunately, the beginning three-quarters of the ballet, consisting of a masked ballroom scene overly-replete with court dancing, a solo by a silly bouncing harlequin and a pas de deux by exotic "Arabian" dancers, seems more fitting for the Nutcracker than a serious drama. More, they go on for far too long, leaving the real story to get underway only in the final third of the dance when the sleepwalker finally emerges. Perhaps it is this mismatching that keeps this ballet out of Balanchine's oeuvre of masterpieces, like "Prodigal Son." Nonetheless, overall, these two programs offer the new ballet-goer an excellent introduction to the genius of the great choreographer.
Damian Woetzel and Maria Kowroski in NYCB's 'Prodigal Son'

Damian Woetzel and Maria Kowroski in NYCB's "Prodigal Son"

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik


Andrew Veyette and Megan Fairchild in NYCB's 'Square Dance'

Andrew Veyette and Megan Fairchild in NYCB's "Square Dance"

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik


Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans in NYCB's 'Bugaku'

Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans in NYCB's "Bugaku"

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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