“Concerto Barocco,” “Duo Concertant,” “Square Dance” and “Symphony in Three Movements”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2007 by Michael Popkin

Given the way New York City Ballet ended its winter season in an evident state of collective exhaustion, with key dancers injured or leaving the company, the big question for the opening nights of the spring season was a basic one — how would the company look? Wednesday night’s program — the second of five all-Balanchine evenings this week dedicated to Lincoln Kirstein in a tribute to the hundredth anniversary of his birth — was a challenging one: “Concerto Barocco,” “Duo Concertant,” “Square Dance,” and “Symphony in Three Movements” are all major ballets that require a high level of principal dancing and of performance throughout to succeed, and also a good deal of precision and rehearsal.

In the event, the company looked rested and well rehearsed and the dancing was for the most part superb. As was the case the prior night, the mood in the theater was warm: the house was nearly full and the audience vocal. The company seemed both to trigger the energy and respond to it.  While “Barocco” received at most a dutiful and decorous performance with Wendy Whalen and Rachel Rutherford in the principal roles, the evening improved dramatically from there with, first, a surprisingly moving and interesting performance of “Duo Concertant” by Darci Kistler and Nilas Martins, and then with extraordinarily successful renditions of both “Square Dance” and “Symphony in Three Movements.”

“Concerto Barocco” is one of the company’s touchstone ballets. Made in 1941 for the South American tour of American Ballet Caravan, an enterprise put together by Kirstein with United States Government Inter-American Affairs money secured for him by Nelson Rockefeller in the early years of the second world war (when the U.S. was not yet a combatant but looking after its interests in what it deemed its geographical “back yard”), the ballet was also on the opening night program of the company’s first official performance as the New York City Ballet on October 11, 1948.  Set to a Bach concerto for two violins heavy with counterpoint, when performed at its best it’s a masterpiece, but it’s also very sensitive to casting and style. The dangers to be avoided are twofold: on the one hand, the ballet is so understated that a performance can be dull if the material is not sufficiently attacked, particularly the opening and closing allegro sections. By the same token, the musical syncopation of the counterpoint is so complex between the two principal women that, if the attack is too crude and the women do not appear sufficiently relaxed and at their ease, the ballet can appear frantic and deteriorate into the prototype of the choreographic renderings of squeaky Baroque scores that we’ve seen more than a few times in recent years (Jorma Elo’s “Slice to Sharp” of a year ago is one example).

Wednesday’s performance fell into both pitfalls. Whelan has danced the first violin in “Barocco” on and off for years but she has never been ideal for it — she tends to make its discordance even more discordant. And Rutherford, for her part, is an effortful dancer in grand allegro (she shines in more lyrical material). Their first and final allegros looked rushed and forced. Albert Evans was miscast as their partner. Though he supported Whelan very well from the purely physical point of view during the central adagio, his partnering movements considered from their own point of view were often awkward and at this point in his career he simply does not look good in the costume — he’s too round and soft for the role.

“Duo Concertant,” on the other hand, — one of two ballets from the 1972 Stravinsky festival on the program (the other was “Symphony in Three”) — got the best performance it has received in years and the reason was Darci Kistler. Though she did not dance much this past winter, and is at a point in her career when she has to choose her roles, she is one of the great ballerinas of her generation — a continuing bridge between the present regime at City Ballet and the Balanchine/Kirstein years — and Wednesday she showed that when properly cast she is still a glorious dancer. The role is a perfect one for her right now. There is little call for flexibility (her bane at the moment) but plenty of scope for the turns and lightning footwork she is best at, and for her powers of interpretation which have only grown with the years. She and Martins made this small ballet, in which two dancers listen to the two musicians on the stage and then take turns seemingly improvising choreographic responses to the Stravinsky score, seem fresh and spontaneous.

They played the programmatic aspect of the ballet very straight. We’ve seen some other casts make “Duo Concertant” schmaltzy in the past two years, mugging and smiling their way through the performance and looking at the musicians with soulful expressions instead of listening to the music. Kistler and Martins’ performances had none of this. They kept their demeanors very neutral and businesslike and when there was joy or humor it came out of the dance and was not something imposed upon it. Nothing was forced and the final tableau in the spotlight — which is a slightly sentimental moment — when the entire mood changes, the lights come down, the music becomes quiet and lyrical and you twice see the woman’s hand in a narrow beam of light and then her partner kissing the hand — was particularly vivid and successful. Martins is a dancer who genuinely appears to love women and to relate to them, it’s one of the reasons he’s such a fine partner, and his affection for Kistler in the final moments seemed unforced and sincere and therefore moving. 
“Square Dance” is not a ballet you will often see on the same bill as “Barocco.” Superficially they resemble each other. Both have Baroque scores — in “Square Dance” it’s Vivaldi and Corelli instead of Bach — and similar costumes, but the resemblance is not a fundamental one because “Square Dance,” like “Duo Concertant,” has a program that goes far beyond the formal classicism of “Barocco.” Dating from 1957, “Square Dance” originally had a group of fiddlers and an American square dance caller (Elisha C. Keeler) on the stage, fiddling and calling out dance figures (“swing your partner — doe see doe,” etc.) to the principal couple and six supporting couples from the corps de ballet who make up the cast. By the 1976 revival of the ballet the caller and fiddlers were eliminated and the ballet streamlined (in the same fashion that Balanchine stripped “Apollo” down), but the whole remains a celebration of social dance and of the common roots of the classical ballet and social dance vocabularies.  

Wednesday night’s cast was a curious one on paper that proved sublime on the stage. Seeing the petite and precise Megan Fairchild cast as the leading woman, you had to wonder whether the scale of the ballet would be too much reduced, since the principal role was originally made on the taller Paticia Wilde and later rechoreographed for Merrill Ashley — a leggy dancer of great amplitude and facility. But Fairchild proved more than equal to the challenge, discovering within the compass of her small frame at once a lyrical, warm, introspective and poetical reading of the role, and at the same time a paradoxically outgoing and exuberant one. She used her eyes and projected her personality to great effect; in the call and response sections with the women’s corps, she commanded appropriate respect and attention. Her footwork in the passages of difficult echappees to pointe, followed by hops on point with the dancer presenting first one leg and then the other to the audience in an extended display of facility and technique, was effortless and brilliant.  I did not know she had the two large circles of the stage in turns — sautes de Basques, and in the first circle grandes jetés mixed in at the entrance to each turn — in her, so spacious and big was her dancing there. In the supported deep arabesques you forgot her size, the lines projected to the back of the house.

Hübbe was superb as her partner in what was also his first time on stage since the announcement of his prospective appointment as director of the Royal Danish Ballet. Although he lacks the flexibility at this point in his career to make the most out of leading man’s adagio in “Square Dance” with its deep back bends, he was nonetheless an extraordinarily animated and genial leader for the cohort of men, and an attentive, affectionate and responsive partner for Fairchild. The six couples in the corps de ballet also caught the mood and the ensemble dances were spirited and animated and gave the ballet a visceral feeling of joy: you could not help smiling and shifting to the front of your seat.

“Symphony in Three” had a new cast and one that finally, after several seasons of casting flux (if not chaos) in this ballet, may even bring some stability to performances. Ashley Bouder, who took over the second ballerina role last winter to great effect, partnered by Tom Gold, was back, as she should have been. She looks wonderful in the costume and the role, with its explosive jumps into high attitude, is a natural one for her. On Wednesday, though, she was joined by Abi Stafford, who successfully took over the second movement pas de deux that Whelan has now surrendered, partnered by Jared Angle (in succession to Jock Soto in the prior Whelan casts); while Megan LeCrone, a slightly younger dancer of immense talent, took over the third ballerina role that has been danced by everyone from Sofiane Sylve to Carrie Lee Riggins over the past two years, partnered by Adrian Danchig-Waring.

The ballet got a rousing performance and, like “Duo Concertant,” has not looked as good in years. The attack of the young dancers — particularly Bouder and LeCrone — may have been seven a little too over the top, but that is really not a problem in this ballet. Stravinsky’s score is dramatic and theatrical: fanfares of horns trade riffs with booming percussion. The opening and closing tableaux of the first movement with the entire women’s corps de ballet on a diagonal with their hair down, slowly unfolding from contra’aposto on one side to that on the other is one of the most arresting in all of the repertory — Balanchine, who eliminated external production values in “Barocco,” has here come full circle and created all of the theatrical impact of the biggest moment in modern ballet merely by deploying the forces of his corps de ballet; while the concluding tableau of the third movement, with the corps rearranging itself into three posed lines and the curtain falling “in media res” while the music continues is just as strong. This is a ballet that can stand overstatement.

While Stafford had a little trouble with some of the physical execution in her debut — the role is a difficult one and is usually danced by a taller, lankier woman — her performance was brilliantly interpretive. Haunting and distant, but at the same time coolly suggestive with a hint of impersonal sexuality in the adagio, she perfectly caught the other-worldliness, the dissociative quality of the role. The fleeting moments when the ballerina pliees in front of her partner with her arms outstretched and he strikes the same pose above her could not have looked better. As was said above of Fairchild’s performance in “Square Dance,” given the casting problems the company has had of late, Stafford’s debut in this role was immensely promising not just for her, but for the company as a whole. 

The same can also be said of LeCrone. Originally trained (before SAB) by the late Melissa Hayden, and only a year or two younger than Bouder and Stafford, LeCrone lost several years to a series of foot injuries and is only now rounding into mature form. She’s a major talent all the same: a physical dancer (as you might expect from the Hayden connection), tall, strong and fast, expansive in the upper body and musically sensitive as well.  She held her own very well in the role danced last year by Sylve.

Volume 5, No. 17
April 30, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

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