“The Four Temperaments,” “Agon,” "Pavane" and “Symphony in C”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
April 24, 2007

by Gay Morris
copyright © 2007 by Gay Morris

“New York City Ballet was Lincoln Kirstein’s idea.” That sentence, which begins the company’s history on its website, states in the plainest terms the fundamental role Kirstein played in New York City Ballet. It was Kirstein who was determined to create an American ballet company devoted to advanced choreography. In 1933 he brought Balanchine to the U.S. to direct it; he poured his own money and his family’s money into it; he begged and borrowed to bring it into existence and to foster it in the early years. The task was daunting, with several false starts and failures, but on October 11, 1948, New York City Ballet was born. This year marks Kirstein’s hundredth birthday, and to help celebrate the event New York City Ballet dedicated the first week of its spring season to him. The six performances, all with choreography by Balanchine, were titled “For Lincoln: 10 Modern Classics.”

The opening night, on Tuesday, featured three iconic Balanchine ballets: “The Four Temperaments,” “Agon” and “Symphony in C,” along with the solo, “Pavane.” One wonders what Kirstein would have thought of the concert. Today’s company certainly bears little resemblance to the modest enterprise it was in the 1940s and ‘50s. Now long institutionalized at Lincoln Center, both its founders gone (Balanchine died in 1983, Kirstein in 1996), New York City Ballet sometimes appears complacent. Such was the case Tuesday, with a few notable exceptions. Foremost among these was Kyra Nichols’ performance of “Pavane,” a solo Balanchine created for the Ravel festival in 1975. Nancy Reynolds tells us in “Repertory in Review” that the dance was not well-received at its premiere. Some thought it was kitsch, that it resembled the fabricated exotica of Ruth St. Denis or the veil dances of Loie Fuller. The solo, set to Ravel’s “Pavane pour une Infante Défunte,“ was made for Patricia McBride, which may have been part of the problem. McBride, often associated with soubrette roles, was an odd choice for a dance of grief. But, also, the 1970s were a time when formalism ruled in criticism, and this dance, so blatantly dealing with emotion by a choreographer defined as quintessentially formalist, must have struck a jarring note. Times have changed, though, particularly in what we consider suitable ways of depicting emotion on stage. And Nichols, a ballerina noted for her ability to invest roles with intense feeling, was perfectly cast.  

The solo begins with the dancer standing, veiled, on the stage. She raises one arm upward and then begins to move out from this central position. Throughout the dance she uses the veil in many different ways, sometimes holding it so that it balloons, cloudlike, behind her, or floating it along the floor in serpentines, or shrouding herself in its gossamer folds. Some of her actions are indeed reminiscent of Fuller, but here they are used not so much to create effects in themselves, as to aid in the projection of emotion. Nichols, looking beautiful with her hair loose and flowing, gave the dance a sense of sadness stoked by memory of a past that contained joy as well as sorrow. The dance took on special meaning since we know that Nichols will retire at the end of this season.

“Pavane” was surely meant as a pièce d’occasion, and it remains a small addition to the Balanchine repertory. But it also points to Balanchine’s choreographic history in neo-romanticism and his interest in its forms throughout his career. It was as a neo-romantic that he came to America, and it may have been that aspect of his work that appealed to Kirstein. Kirstein was intensely interested in surrealism and neo-romanticism, which shared a concern for dreams, visions, memory, and the unconscious. Certainly Kirstein initially touted Balanchine as a neo-romantic rather than an abstract formalist. So “Pavane” was an appropriate dance for these memorial concerts in form and style as well as theme.

“The Four Temperaments” was on the first program of Ballet Society, New York City Ballet’s precursor, in 1946. Ballet Society was another Kirstein brainstorm, a subscription series that included not just ballet, but publications, vanguard productions of chamber opera, on two occasions modern dance (Iris Mabry and Merce Cunningham), and even an appearance by a group performing Javanese court and popular dances. “The Four Temperaments” heralded the direction of Balanchine’s future experimental works, often called black-and-white ballets because they were danced in leotards. In fact, “The Four Temperaments” originally had costumes by the surrealist Kurt Seligmann, but Balanchine abandoned them in the early 1950s because they were bulky and hard to move in. He substituted practice clothes and in the process created a genre.

On Tuesday, “The Four Temperaments” looked better than it has in recent seasons when it has often appeared under-rehearsed. Although the corps movement was still rushed and blurred, the three theme duets, (danced by Faye Arthurs, Adrian Danchig Waring, Amanda Hankes, Craig Hall, Megan LeCrone, and Seth Orza) were lucid, the movement uncluttered and the poses clearly etched. Only Arthurs, though, was able to convey the juxtaposition of balance against imbalance, which is a central movement theme in the ballet. Sofiane Sylve also grasped this crucial element in the Sanguinic Variation, ably supported by Charles Askegard. Their performance was one of the high points of the evening. Ask la Cour has made the Phlegmatic Variation his own, bringing to it the precise sense of cool wit that the dance calls for. Sean Suozzi  might have learned from la Cour. Like others in City Ballet today, he transforms the Melancholic Variation into the Melodramatic Variation. As Balanchine remarked in his “Complete Stories of the Great Ballets,” the temperaments are only a starting point for the ballet. They are not THE point. Ellen Bar managed to get through the Choleric Variation, now done at more break-neck speed than ever, and even stopped long enough to give impact to one of the ballet’s most beautiful gestures, in which the dancer, standing downstage, twice sweeps her arms outward as if to calm the activity around her.

Kirstein was not as directly involved with “Agon” as he was with “The Four Temperaments,” although he and Balanchine are credited with commissioning the Stravinsky score. Balanchine worked closely with Stravinsky, and the result was deemed a masterpiece at its premiere in 1957. Like “The Four Temperaments,” it was in Balanchine’s experimental, black-and-white mode. Tuesday’s performance was led by Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans. These two superb dancers are rarely disappointing, but on Tuesday they brought little sense of risk or of real engagement to their dancing. It was astringent to the point of desiccation.  Andrew Veyette was more interesting as the leader of the first trio, dancing with Savannah Lowery and Ashley Laracey. Rather like la Cour in “The Four Temperaments,” he found the wit in the choreography, although in “Agon” it is of a kind that is brighter and more dashing than in the earlier ballet. Teresa Reichlen, who led the second trio accompanied by Seth Orza and Amar Ramasar, is a technical wizard, and that security gives her dancing clarity. But as yet she does little with the steps she so easily conquers, giving them a minimum of color and shading.

“Symphony in C” (set to Bizet’s score) was not made for New York City Ballet, it was created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 with the title “Le Palais de Cristal.” However, it was on the program of the company’s first performance after it became a resident of City Center and changed its name from Ballet Society to New York City Ballet. As a part of that first program in October 1948, “Symphony in C” also marks an important moment in Kirstein’s career. Unfortunately the ballet was not seen at its best on Tuesday. Ana Sophia Scheller and Jonathan Stafford gave a competent enough rendering of the first movement, as did Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in the fourth. But Maria Kowroski, who danced the ballerina role in the second movement adagio, partnered by Philip Neal, had a number of problems.  Her legs are so over-extended, they hardly seem attached to her hips, which may account for the weakness of her lower body. She often rolled through the movement, her line mushy and soft, and at times she was behind the beat of the music. Of the cast, only Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz in the third movement, allegro vivace, gave the kind of performance one might expect of a great company. Bouder was fully engaged in the dance and at the same time connected to what was going on around her. She also gave her movement dynamic variation and texture. It was like watching a visual conversation with herself. De Luz, always a virtuosic technician, seemed to be inspired by her, and he danced with commitment as well as with technical brilliance.

As has often been remarked, City Ballet has now made speed the primary element of the dance, especially in the Balanchine repertory. The dancers cannot cope with it, and the result is a blurring of both movement and poses that makes strong dance images impossible. At the same time the dancing is mechanical, without dynamic shading or individuality. It’s as if the company no longer has faith in its choreographic heritage, of its great works’ ability to move and excite us. There is, then, a poignancy about the dedication of these performances to Kirstein, who gave so much of his life and career to New York City Ballet and who above all believed in passion in art.

Photo: Kyra Nichols in "Pavane," by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 5, No. 17
April 30, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Gay Morris

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