Balanchine Continued …at Ballet Arizona
by Susan Reiter
There were two highly appealing aspects to last week's installment of the worthy, and ever more enterprising, Works & Process series. First there was the opportunity, for those who admired Ib Andersen during his decade as an illustrious principal dancer with New York City Ballet, to catch up with him 14 years after he left the company. It was clear that many in the audience fell into that category. In addition, the program offered a chance to get a sense of what Ballet Arizona, the company he has directed since 2001, is like.
Since the evening was the first in a W&P series titled "Balanchine Continued," an extension of its celebration of the choreographer's centennial, the context was that of interviewing an artistic director who had worked closely with Balanchine and is now running his own company, presumably incorporating the master's teachings and influence. (Additional programs in this series will include Edward Villella/Miami City Ballet and others.) So the conversation portion of the program, with Mr. Andersen's former colleague (and current executive director of the Balanchine Foundation) Lourdes Lopez as moderator, focused on Mr. Andersen's brief but intense experiences with Balanchine and how they have affected his work as an artistic director.
The nine members of the 30-member Ballet Arizona who joined him gave an idea of the company's own Balanchine performances, offering excerpts from "Divertimento No. 15" and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." But one got the sense that, given the unfortunate uncertainty of the company having another chance to perform in New York, they wanted to take advantage of this occasion to showcase as generous a sampling as possible. So they also performed five sections from "Mosaik," a two-act full-evening work by Mr. Andersen that had its premiere last April and three brief sections from his most recent ballet, "Elevations."
In the fourth movement of "Divertimento No. 15", the sublime sequence of compact yet far-reaching duets for the eight principals, the Ballet Arizona dancers displayed warmth and serenity along with effortless musicality. It was a bit jarring that the men were in appropriately elegant pale-blue costumes while the women wore generic white leotards and tutus that were apparently borrowed for the occasion because of the cost of transporting the costumes. But if these costumes resembled what one might find at a school performance, the dancing itself was graciously professional. These dancers had clearly been coached to phrase along with the music, to fill out each movement completely, and to blend precision with expansiveness.
Natalia Magnicaballi, familiar from her performances with Suzanne Farrell's company of the past few years, and evidently the prima ballerina of Ballet Arizona, then shifted gears, donned a slinky fringed black costume, and paired up with the debonair Michael Cook in the first of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"'s two major duets for the Striptease Girl and the Hoofer. (Susan Hendl has staged the complete work for the company.) They danced it very appealingly, but with an air of springtime romance rather than the necessary sensual urgency and hints of abandon. Naturally, taking the duet out of context makes it more difficult to get into character, but they cold have plunged more deeply and daringly into the music's jazzy languor.
Before engaging Mr. Andersen in a discussion about Balanchine, Ms. Lopez recalled the amazement of his fellow NYCB dancers, when he first joined the company, at his afifnity for the Balanchine repertory. "Ib immediately fit in; he never went through a transition phase. It seemed to all of us that he had been trained by Mr. B," she noted. Mr. Andersen described the company's dancing at the time he joined, in 1980: "they danced with an amazing ability to move in an incredibly articulated way. That has been lost, in a way—don't you think?" Asked how he tried to elicit that approach form dancers who never knew Balanchine, he replied, "I try to teach musicality, how to articulate the steps, to be as expressive as possible with your body, not dancing with the eyebrows."
Ms. Lopez then introduced a surprising and invaluable bit of film footage—a clip of an onstage "Mozartiana" rehearsal at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with Mr. Andersen dancing one of the buoyant, virtuosic variations with Balanchine watching and then applauding as the dancers collapses with (mock) exhaustion. Recalling the creation and premiere of that late Balanchine masterpiece, Mr. Andersen spoke of how the choreographer drew on his dancer's Bournonville training in fashioning the role's fleet intricacy. He said the "Mozartiana" choreography has been created within less than two weeks, and that at its premiere, the ballet was not yet what it would become as it matured. "I think he knew from the beginning what he had done, and he was hoping we would get there."
Moving on to a discussion of the practicalities and multi-tasking that the job of artistic director requires, Andersen somewhat apologetically kept coming back to the financial constraints and how the limited funds available affect what the company can do. He described "Mosaik," which had been taking shape in his mind for seven years, as a full-evening non-narrative work to music by an array of composers, one in which the individual sections can both stand on their own as well as form parts of a whole.
Two demanding male solos led off the selections from "Mosaik" and made it clear that Mr. Andersen likes to offer Ballet Arizona's men considerable challenges. Joseph Cavanaugh, wearing beige trunks and performing to two medieval scores, was a grave, grounded figure of classical purity and introspection, establishing a noble set of ground rules. Astrit Zejnati, in a mercurial solo to Rossini, took a more overtly bravura attack. Three contrasting duets then followed, some of which felt over-extended. The gem among them, performed in simple red practice clothes by Ms. Magnicaballi and Mr. Cook, was set to the Chopin piano composition that accompanies the opening section of Jerome Robbins' "The Concert." Andersen makes you hear it in a completely new light, taking it as the inspiration for a gently lyrical, deceptively simply duet in which the dancers are drawn together, pulled apart, and reunited. The choreography at times recalls Robbins' "Andantino," a 1981 ballet created on Mr. Andersen and Darci Kistler, with its adaptations of figure-skating spins and gently spontaneous air. The concluding duet, to the somber slow movement from Schubert's Piano Trio in E-Flat, was ambitious in using just two dancers to inhabit this extended, shifting journey towards an inexorable fate. There were intriguing moments, but at times one felt the strain.
The sampling from "Elevations," set to celebratory music by Handel, displayed an unforced musicality and showed the dancers off well, while breaking no major new ground.
Andersen, who had a reputation for being not particularly fond of interviews during his years with NYCB, proved to be a candid, quietly humorous, rather sly conversationalist in this public forum. He dared to gently bad-mouth that ubiquitous sacred cow of the ballet world, "The Nutcracker," recognizing its money-making role for companies while lamenting the necessity of presenting it, while so few other ballets can ever gain that kind of recognition.
"The older I get, the less critical I get about myself," he remarked charmingly at one point. He also spoke eloquently about his then-and-now perspective on ballet, comparing his days as a young performer to what he currently observes. "I feel I was very lucky that I was born when I was. Ballet companies used to commission work more often. Choreographers need to develop their craft, and there are just not enough opportunities to choreographers."
Photos: Two views of Andersen's "Mosaik." Photos courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process proogam.
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