International Balanchine
“Serenade,” “Bugaku,” “Union Jack”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
June 5, 2007

by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2007 by Michael Popkin

 Tuesday night’s  program at City Ballet — “Serenade,” “Bugaku” and “Union Jack” — was labeled “International Balanchine” but could just as easily have been called “Balanchine the Showman.”  In recent years, and particularly in the context of his centennial celebration three years ago, it’s become common to hear him talked of as a purveyor of High Art — a kind of Shakespeare of the ballet — and certainly he has created more than his share of serious masterpieces; but a program like Tuesday’s shows with what facility he could also adapt his craft to low-brow, or at least middle-brow, entertainment.

“Bugaku” this season at City Ballet features Maria Kowroski as the leading woman. The ballet (made in 1963 on Allegra Kent) looks like Japanese-inspired eye candy. The set is the stylized interior of a Shinto temple, where the principal woman is first introduced to the audience with a group of four handmaidens, then presented to a fierce looking leading man who is accompanied by four retainers in Samurai garb, after which the couple engages in ritual coitus that resembles an erotic Japanese print. The score, by Toshiro Mayazumi, is cinematic with a squeaky, Asian mode opening scene followed by passages of ominous chords (dominated by the orchestra’s brass) for the mating and the opening motifs returning for the aftermath. The tempi are adagio throughout. In the introductory section, the women wear tutus and preen about, but for the central embrace the leading couple is very skimpily clad, with the woman in particular costumed in the barest of white bikinis with a gauze scarf at her shoulder.

The sex act is suggested, as the man hoists his partner in splayed crotch (pas de chat) poses but also twists her about and contorts her in ways that remind you of various other Balanchine duets (mostly from his Stravinsky repertory) until they achieve a sort of shuddering orgasm to a dissonant musical climax. In terms of Balanchine’s opus, you could call it “Agon pas de deux” meets the TV series “Shogun” — except that “Bugaku” anticipates “Shogun” by a good fifteen years.

As you might expect from this description, it’s a ballet that in theory hovers on the edge of being either crude, trite or both:  but in practice Balanchine, whether choreographing to Hungarian music (“Tzigane”),  American songs (“Who Cares”), or British music hall materials (the “Costermonger Pas de Deux” in “Union Jack” this same evening) succeeds in making such dance materials appear classical by expressing the steps and figures of the national or popular traditions in the vocabulary of academic ballet, changing the steps at times so as to fuse the two idioms.  All of the national dance styles just mentioned are, however, at least culturally Western and thus in principle able to be assimilated to ballet because they share a common origin.  Attempting a fusion of ballet forms with Asian material and movement patterns, as Balanchine did here, is a more difficult proposition; and this was apparent Tuesday night, when "Bugaku" succeeded very well dramatically with the audience because of its sex appeal but appeared somewhat tasteless and crass from a more critical point of view. 

As the ballet was said to have some refinement with its original cast, perhaps this is a matter of handling things with a lighter touch. Kowroski is a striking woman with long flexible limbs and casting her in the lead was well calculated.  If you’re going to expose someone this way in that costume, she’s the one; there’s nobody you’d like to look at more in this. Her stage demeanor is also a little distant and the role thus takes advantage of her personality too — her natural way of exposing and withdrawing into herself at the same time were perfect for expressing the simultaneously provocative and submissive aspects of her character.
On the other hand, from the physical-ballet point of view, Kowroski does not possess a pure classical technique and so she certainly wasn’t able to make the Asian movement forms credibly Western in their ballet realization — that is, if anyone can.  And while Albert Evans, as her leading man, had the Samurai fury of his character down pat, he also appeared awkward, stiff and restricted in his physical motions.  Those reservations mattered little to the audience, though, as the sheer sex appeal and excitement of the performance carried the day and I haven’t heard such tumultuous applause at the curtain for another ballet all spring.

“Union Jack” gives (as mentioned above) another example of Balanchine’s method of turning national dance material into ballet, and he did it here not only with the steps but with the structure of the ballet of a whole.  A couple of examples will do:  there's the central “Costermonger Pas” which follows the classical form — entrance for the couple, variation for each, recapitulation by both and conclusion — but with all of the steps a melding of broad vaudevillian humor and ballet moves.  Even more fundamentally classical is the structure of the opening section of the ballet with its entrances by a host of Scottish and Canadian Guard Regiments:  watching the various hierarchical groups of small, middle and tall women, and of men, deploy onto the stage in their various costumes to a series of tattoos and marches, I was inescapably struck by the analogy of the grand company defile at the Paris Opera, as well as by echoes of Eighteenth century “Ballet d’Entree” with its groupings of mythological or other figures for a series of divertissements. Tuesday night Tom Gold and Charles Askegaard lead the Lennox and Dress MacLeod contingents respectively and Askegaard also danced the hornpipe in the Royal Navy Section — he’s too tall for these roles, particularly the hornpipe so memorably danced in recent years by Damien Woetzel.  Nikolaj Hubbe, in high good form leading the Menzies, and Abi Stafford, most appealingly leading the Green Montgomeries, deserve special mention; as does Teresa Reichlen in the Suzanne Farrell roles:  Royal Canadian Air Force and Wrens.  Reichlen is having a break out season. Last week as the second principal in “Piano Concerto” and now in this, she suddenly appears in to be in full control of herself, strong in her upper body as well as her legs, confidently projecting herself and dancing with joy, and commanding the stage and the audience’s attention.  Nilas Martins and Jenifer Ringer continue to repeat their superb interpretation of the “Costermonger Pas.” 

“Serenade” (an odd ballet in this program — as it was Balanchine’s first work in the U.S., it hardly fits the “International Balanchine” theme) had the Kyra Nichols, Sara Mearns, Ashley Bouder cast, with Philip Neal as the leading man, and it’s a good one.  Nichols will retire with this ballet (among two others) on her farewell program for June 22nd  and you can see why she’s chosen it.  The moment at the end when she went to the floor abandoned, and was then lifted and carried toward the rear of the stage by the ensemble, as the lights came down and the women behind her lifted their arms, was strongly emotional.  You couldn’t help seeing her being carried away from us, from her art, and from herself as a dancer even, and into the obscurity of another life. 

Volume 5, No. 23
June 11, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

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