DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition
What We See is What We See
Judged by the Washington ballet audience’s response to last week’s visit of the New York City Ballet, the one act ballet isn’t dead yet. Nor is it necessary to do pop ballet to sell out the house; I saw only a handful of empty seats in the orchestra back. After a season where several companies played to less than full houses and tickets were released to the half-price booths to fill seats, this must have been welcome news to the Kennedy Center and ballet lovers here alike. And what a nice 100th birthday present: Balanchine sells!
I’m grateful to both the Center and NYCB for bringing three programs. We haven’t had any three-program weeks in a long time here (the usual fare is three nights of mixed bill and a weekend of a story ballet), and it makes a huge difference in familiarizing the audience with the dancers and the repertory. Those new to Balanchine got to see a good sampling of his ballets, if not a representative slice of the company's current repertory. In a non-centennial season, there are few all-Balanchine evenings. When I’ve seen NYCB in New York, there has been, at most, one Balanchine or Robbins work on the program; the rest were post-1980 ballets. So seeing City Ballet dance only Balanchine again was a trip back in a time machine. Sort of.
There’s been a debate for some years among both critics and fans about the state of the company. Is NYCB dancing Balanchine ballets better than ever before, or have the ballets had their hearts ripped out of them? Maybe it depends on what night you go. Maybe it depends on what you read. The New York dailies are consistently favorable; weekly or occasional reviewers are often, though not always, more critical—sometimes harshly critical, and it’s those criticisms that seem to have floated to the top of cultural consciousness. In an interview with Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins talked about his press: "‘Scaaathing,’ he termed it, drawing out the word for effect. 'They are always scathing. It's exactly to be expected. It's actually totally predictable.’” Well, perhaps Mr. Martins sees only the negative reviews.
The questions began to be raised long ago. I remember when the company was last here in 1987, four years after Balanchine died, I’d been hearing from New York friends that Martins (or perhaps the late Stanley Williams) was changing the company’s style, making it softer, squarer. I didn’t see this at first. The accents were still there—the obvious Balanchinisms: off-center line, a jazziness, a hip thrust here and a high kick there. And then one night Patricia McBride came out in Raymonda Variations and looked like a guest star in her own company. Her dancing seemed extreme, almost a caricature of what everyone else was doing. Yet only four years ago, she would have been the older sister to the corps women and soloists, not a kookie visiting aunt.
In the years since, the edges have been further buffed. It’s difficult to sort out what are adjustments to accommodate this or that dancer (which, most would agree, is all right, unless it’s because the dancer doesn’t have the technique for the role), what are diminutions of style, and what is what Martins wants to see. One could argue that, as Martins is in charge now, if he has a different aesthetic, if a different line or approach pleases his eye, he has a right to reshape the company to his taste. One could argue, with equal vigor, that no, he does not! He can do whatever he wants in his own work, but he should keep the Balanchine ballets looking like Balanchine ballets. (I could happily debate either side of this argument.) Last week, the company looked Danish to me at times, not only in the occasional smallness of the dancing that was the style when Martins was growing up in the Royal Danish Ballet, and the smoothness of the turns, but in the way the men quietly took center stage and in the choice of female soloists. Martins seems to favor small girls in one of two flavors: merry or waiflike, Svanilda or the Sylph. There are exceptions, of course, as there were many exceptions to the supposed Balanchine prototype. Also, in the ballets I saw last week, the corps seemed more of a 19th century ballet corps, dancing in the background as an echo rather than an integrated, energetic part of the ballet’s fabric. I kept thinking of the sylphs, who never interfere with the drama going on around them. They aren’t happy to see James come, and they’re not sorry to see him go; nor the other way 'round. They're inscrutable. That’s how the corps seemed to me in Emeralds and in Barocco, and what adds mystery or power to a 19th century work takes the air out of a Balanchine ballet.
Although the ballets we saw here generally looked well-rehearsed—surprisingly well-rehearsed, considering the company had just come off a long winter season—Barocco was one ballet I did find in disrepair, and the problems could be fixed by a ballet master in a rehearsal or two. First, even when there are as many injuries as there were last week to contend with, a company of the size and stature of NYCB should be able to find eight women within an inch of each other in height, or if not, should be able to size them so that the unevenness isn’t noticeable. In addition, the individual dancers were weaker in projection and determination, and, for some at least, in technical prowess, than I remember. More important, they didn’t take their rightful place in the ballet, and in Barocco, the corps is as important as the soloists; it is, effectively, a character in its own right. Barocco was also the ballet where I could see the complaint of colleagues that steps weren’t being given their full measure. For example, one of the work’s signature movements is the ballerina's drawing her knee up, waist high. Yvonne Borree barely lifted her foot off the ground. The dancing was more dutiful than radiant throughout (Nikolaj Hübbe's beautifully modulated dancing excepted), as though rehearsed by a repetiteur but not directed—or conducted, to use a musical rather than a theatrical analogy. The goons in Prodigal, too, were stingy in their back-to-back sideways run across the stage. Once this required, and got, a deep plié; last week, some of the men barely bent their knees. These two examples may seem small or petty, but they're wrinkles on the ballet's canvas, and are a worthy cause of concern. Such flaws might not bother many people, but they'll drive you crazy if you have a clear mental picture of what a ballet you've seen over many seasons once looked like. Regular company watchers can do this. When they say that details are missing, or the dancing isn’t as sharp, I trust them. The lack of sharpness isn't as obvious in the contemporary works that are taking up more and more of the company’s repertory. But in Balanchine, there’s nowhere to hide, and slackness, lack of technical rigor, shows.
It’s often said, and I agree, that there were ballets that looked down at heel during Balanchine’s time. (Serenade was a musty mess when I first saw it; it looked not only under rehearsed but downright unloved.) Generally, however, the company's dancing was at a high standard, and comparing the best of the past to the best of today, there’s an energy gap. As I wrote last week and Sali Ann Kriegsman writes today, the difference may be that Balanchine isn’t in the wings watching; they're no longer "dancing for Mr. B". Perhaps that’s what people who cheer on the Suzanne Farrell Ballet are seeing: that her dancers believe in her and dance for her, and, rag-taggle though that corps may be on its frumpy nights, it’s still exciting and full of promise, and on its best nights, like a gifted, awkward teenager who suddenly turns into a princess on prom night, the promise is fulfilled.
So yes, those who find NYCB not quite what it was have many points. But looked at another way, compared to the rest of the ballet world, I’d argue that NYCB is in better shape than are other institutions that have a heritage to protect, specifically the Royal Danes and Britain’s Royal Ballet. I think that if Ashton came back and went to Covent Garden, he’d say, “What an interesting company, can anyone tell me where my company is dancing at the moment?” The style, the accent, the approach to the ballets, the intellectual and aesthetic world in which they are danced, the musicality, the phrasing—all of that has changed radically. Globalization has hit and hit hard. The Royal is dancing a Russian Sleeping Beauty rather than an English one now, and there are fewer British soloists and principals in that company than there are in some American companies—not a fine point to taxpayers who are paying to school dancers for which their home company can’t find a place.
One of the things I learned from looking at the Royal Danish Ballet is that, in a company with a long history, there are the good times, and there are the bad times; it’s not a continual downhill slide. In America, with our short history, we don’t have a long view yet. We’re terrified the first time there’s a dreadful miscasting or a ballet we love is missing everything we love about it, that it's over, that nothing will ever be the same again. People trusted Balanchine. If Serenade was a mess, it was, after all, his ballet, and there were enough great performances around to balance it. Besides, it was said, since Balanchine was down the hall churning out new masterpieces it was ok for him not to look in on the old masterpieces for a few years. But people knew that he would take the time eventually to go in and wave his magic wand. He was not only in the wings, he was in the studio.
Dancers say that Martins is very good in the studio, that he sees quite clearly (this should be a sine qua non of the job, but not all ballet masters have this ability) and can make very precise and helpful corrections. Are there management tweaks, as industry would put it, that could help? The size of the repertory has always been a problem. Does the company need to dance as many ballets as it does a season? Do there have to be so many new works in a season, particularly since most new works created for the company in the past 20 years have been disposable? Must it be a badge of honor for a dancer to make his or her debut in a role after a single rehearsal, as occasionally happens? If the repertory were pared back a bit, would some of the other problems solve themselves?
Does any of this matter, except, perhaps, to those Scathing Meanies who point out, from time to time, that all is not what it once was? I think it does, and it goes beyond the desire to preserve the Balanchine ballets, as noble a goal as that might be. It has to do with the future of ballet and the education of the audience. What we see is what we see: what our eyes take in when we watch ballet becomes what we expect, what we consider the standard of classical dancing to be. It's a compliment to the company to hold it to the highest standard. The ballets are so beautiful, and the dancers are so beautiful, it seems to me that it's natural, if one loves ballet, to want them both to look their best.
NYCB in DC reviews:
To read our coverage of the New York Season, click here; you'll be taken to the last review in the series, with links at the bottom of the page to the other reviews.
To read a series of articles by Leigh Witchel on the George Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters ArchiveProject sessions, in which the creators of many of Balanchine's leading roles coach young dancers in those roles, click here.
by Paul Kolnik:
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