writers on dancing


Wasn't It a Time?
New York City Ballet's Forties Night

"Theme and Variations," "The Four Temperaments," "I'm Old Fashioned"
New York City Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
March 2, 2005

By Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright ©2005 by Alexandra Tomalonis

Every time I see Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” I’m astonished at how modern it looks and wonder what it looked like to an audience when it was new (aside from the quickly discarded elaborate costumes; I mean the bones of it). Its spare construction and poetic imagery must have been a shock in 1946, when the Ballets Russes’ character and demi-caractere ballets were the standard fare.

“The Four Ts” was the centerpiece of New York City ballet’s opening night program in every way. It was Forties Night, in concert with the Kennedy Center’s theme this year: “Theme and Variations” (1948, made for American Ballet Theatre), “The Four Temperaments” (1946), and Jerome Robbins’ tribute to Fred Astaire, “I’m Old Fashioned” (1983, but based on the 1942 “You Were Never Lovelier,” starring Astaire and Rita Hayworth). This program, and the week of 1940s Graham ballets the Martha Graham Company danced a couple of weeks ago, are more than adequate testament to the fact that the Forties were an exciting decade in American dance.

Balanchine devised dances for the four Temperaments, or Humours, of the blood that once were thought to determine human behavior—Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric—that combined movements from a variety of other dance forms with academic classicism, but no matter how far flung a particular influence, in Balanchine’s hands the result was ballet, neo-classical ballet, ballet rejuvenated. Sixty years after its creation, despite some disappointingly small-scaled dancing in the opening pas de deux that state the ballet’s Themes, “Four Ts” looked fresh and alive.

Peter Boal’s “Melancholic” was particularly poignant because Boal, seen here frequently with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet the past few seasons and a Washington favorite, was probably making a farewell; he takes over Pacific Northwest Ballet in the fall. Boal doesn’t have the flexibility he had even a few seasons ago, but the artistry is undiminished, and he captures the Romantic man —so in love with idea of love that his yearning is unquenchable—beautifully, especially in the final segment, when he continually reaches for something unseen that eludes him, and hugs himself with his empty arms. Who but Balanchine could create a solo about solipsism?

Albert Evans danced Phlegmatic with a boneless plastique that became a physical metaphor for lack of spine. This man is too lacking in energy even to dream.

Sanguinic did not fare quite so well. Alexandra Ansanelli, a substitute for the injured Sofiane Sylve, was paired with Charles Askegard, who’s about twice her size, so the idea of an equally matched couple was lost. Ansanelli’s dancing was sharp—she’s a small girl who dances on grand scale—and Askegard’s was loose; this was a couple where things just were not going to work out.

Teresa Reichlen’s bold Choleric made up for shortcomings elsewhere. A true Balanchine Big Girl, she has a chorus girl’s high kick and a classical ballerina’s pure arabesque. She unfolds her long body like a cat stretching. Her Choleric was an old-fashioned one—the independent, unmatable woman—rather than the new-fashioned Bitch on Steroids we so often see elsewhere.

Jerome Robbins’ “I’m Old Fashioned,” his deconstruction of one of Fred Astaire’s great duets, was led by three of the company’s three most glamorous ballerinas: Carla Körbes, Jenifer Ringer and Rachel Rutherford. There's really not much for the dancers to work with here. Ringer (in the bumper cars duet that Robbins made out of Astaire's "after you?" gesture as he and Hayworth exit) and Rutherford made their roles as interesting as possible. Körbes, as the woman in orange who dances the first pas de deux, wrung every ounce of dancing, gesture and perfume from her role. Körbes is still a young dancer and has not often been cast (in anything), yet she danced with the experience of a seasoned ballerina. That's magic for you.

No one is Fred Astaire, and it's not fair to expect ballet dancers to capture Astaire's light, fastidious elegance and insouciant charm, but the three men (Philip Neal, Stephen Hanna and Arch Higgins) were rather palid, and the finale was dutiful, but not inspired. (Don't they teach ballroom dancing at the school anymore?) It was daring to show the whole Hayworth-Astaire duet at the beginning, and a coup de theatre to put it on the screen again at the end, but it's a dare Robbins lost.

The program had opened with a dispiriting “Theme and Variations,” even making allowances for the fact that the company is coming off a long New York season. "Theme" needs power and sophistication from the principals to the corps, and this corps, especially the women, looked like apprentices. The dancing was ragged and lacking in grandeur; even the tutus looked faded and dingy. Unfortunately, Miranda Weese, who can be wonderful in the right role and danced a sizzling “Rubies” here last year, performed some beautiful turns, but otherwise her dancing was disappointingly small and she didn’t command the stage. Her partner, Benjamin Millepied, brought elegance to the ballet, but not strength, and didn’t finish the famous sequence of six double tours en l’air. The two did not seem comfortable as partners; the pas de deux was more of a tussle than a conversation. A little Back to the Forties is in order.

The company will be here for a week, dancing three different programs, through Sunday afternoon.

Photo on front page: Peter Boal in "The Four Temperaments" by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 3, No. 9
March 3, 2005

copyright ©2005 Alexandra Tomalonis


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