Violin Concerto," "Polyphonia," "Glass Pieces"
Nothing is eternally modern; “modern” is a brief moment for each generation. Time is the great leveler; the most avant-garde thoughts and utterances get superseded eventually. Saturday’s matinee at New York City Ballet gave us three choreographers and three snapshots of modern times.
Balanchine began his work alongside Stravinsky and Picasso in the heyday of Modernism. Its tenets formed his aesthetic and they stayed with him his entire career. The Stravinsky Festival of 1972 was New York City Ballet’s high water mark as an institution. By the time he made “Violin Concerto” Balanchine had seen Modernism in dance change over a half-century from avante-garde to the establishment.
Modernism looked forward by looking backwards; traditional forms such as the Symphony and Concerto were utilized in new ways. Stravinsky and Balanchine were both time-travelers who seemed in their works to be in the era of composition, the era being referenced and the instant of performance all at once. That is one of the features of high art; it steps outside of time where popular art is temporal. One can see some of 1972 in “Violin Concerto”, but one can also see 1931 when Stravinsky wrote the concerto for violinist Samuel Dushkin, or a timeless Russia in the folk-influenced final Capriccio, or simply the dancers onstage at that very moment. Balanchine’s choreography is more didactic in “Violin Concerto” than it is in some of his other Stravinsky ballets. Its companion work on the opening night of the Festival, “Symphony in Three Movements”, with its ponytailed girls jogging in circles and in huge diagonals doing The Wave seems almost improvised in comparison. “Violin Concerto” seems to have a step for every note. The complexity of the score seemed to propel Balanchine, as much as in “Agon”, to show us the music.
For good and for ill, certain dancers at New York City Ballet have been delegated as surrogates for former dancers. We got several surrogates in this cast; if Kay Mazzo danced a role, chances are Yvonne Borree has danced it as well. Nilas Martins probably has the toughest row to hoe; he and his father are not at all similar as dancers and his father’s roles usually fit him about as well as his father’s clothes. Borree and Martins are not demonstrative dancers. Martins can look at his partners but he can’t look at us; when he looks en face, he goes wide-eyed and blank as if he really is looking at a “fourth wall.” But the second Aria is demonstrative, especially the discordant wail of the violin in the “passport” chord Stravinsky used as a motif throughout the Concerto. The music helps both dancers along greatly.
Sofiane Sylve is finding her way into several of Karin von Aroldingen’s roles. They are completely different body types, but Sylve has von Aroldingen’s sanguine attack and physical size. Albert Evans was a restrained but solicitous foil for Sylve in the first Aria where they faced each other like cats pawing the floor, but she really came into her own in the Capriccio. Sylve is animated in character-flavored steps; she gets their zest and delicate wit.
Jerome Robbins is as temporal as Balanchine is timeless. From “Alma Mater” through “Electronics” and “PAMTGG”, Balanchine’s topical novelties tended to quickly drop from repertory. Robbins had more fascination with the manners and mores of the moment. “Fancy Free” shows us sailors from 1944, “Interplay” gives us teenagers from the same era. The recently revived “NY Export: Op. Jazz” shows us teens again, only from a disaffected time a decade and a half later. Even when he’s being timeless, Robbins can seem pinned to a specific period. “Afternoon of a Faun” may be a girl and a boy in a featureless studio in no specific time, but their relationship is built into the choreography and that fixes the piece to a certain era.
In “Glass Pieces” Robbins used Philip Glass’ minimalist music. It was completely of the moment in 1983, just as “Fancy Free” took the swing and jazz in popular music in the mid forties and put it into a ballet. “Fancy Free” is a time capsule of an era; it will probably take another few decades before we see whether “Glass Pieces” becomes a period piece, or merely dated.
The first section “Rubric” is influenced by post-modernism, using pedestrian movement to portray the faceless crowd. Into this are dropped three couples in sleek milliskin unitards. The women’s headbands make them look like aerobics instructors from Outer Space. The soloist parts here are relatively thankless, but it’s good to see Abi Stafford back on stage, though not completely on form yet.
“Facades” is the hypnotic center section where Robbins takes the idea of a faceless crowd and takes it exactly where you hoped he would. Behind a long slinky pas de deux spun out at the front of the stage, a shadowy line of women inches across the back in darkness. Their minimal repetitions are endlessly fascinating. Try as I might, I’ve never really watched the dancers in front. I don’t know anyone who does, even when the company’s current Stretch Queen, Maria Kowroski, dances the role.
The finale, set to an excerpt from the opera Akhnaten is the least successful section. Robbins connects to the driving pulse of the music, but also unfortunately to its unga-bunga drumbeats and we end up with something campy in the manner of “West Side Story” meets “The Jungle Book”. The men lope in with clenched fists or stalk about flat-footed, the women hula in after. All we need is a volcano virgin at the end, but all we get is a blackout. Joking aside, Robbins was the first major ballet choreographers to deal with minimalism. It isn’t an easy marriage for ballet, but as in “Watermill”, Robbins was courageously tackling a current artistic trend.
By 2001, Modernism was an historical movement. It’s ironic that Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia”, which looks so contemporary to the audience, is in some ways as much an historical pastiche as “Mercurial Manouevres”. Wheeldon is looking at “Agon” and “Episodes” and seeing what he can learn. It’s an honorable path; imitation is the first step to the synthesis of one’s own voice. “Polyphonia” is the first of three pieces Christopher Wheeldon made to music by György Ligeti and it’s the best of them. It is better in individual parts than as a whole, but the dancers have gone a long way towards making the whole thing hang together. In their original parts, Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto make incredible sense out of the thorniest partnering. That kind of ability can be intoxicating for the choreographer; some of Whelan and Soto’s dances seem to be about nothing but seeing what impossible contortion he could put her in next. It took Wheeldon until this year to really dig into the emotional implications of their partnership, alas, just as Soto is retiring.
“Polyphonia” has four couples but of uneven importance. Soto and Whelan get much of the focus. Both Alexandra Ansanelli’s and Miranda Weese’s roles (originally Jennie Somogyi’s) feel too small for them even though they both do them well. It’s just odd at this point to see either of them out of center. Jennifer Tinsley’s role is also small, but it enlarges Tinsley. Exuberant, fleet and funny, Tinsley needs more roles like this one. Wheeldon has always had a gift, like Robbins, for bringing out the best in dancers other people might not notice. This ballet was a breakthrough for Ansanelli. Let’s hope there are parts like that for Tinsley and others in their futures.