writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Guest Performance: Ballo della Regina

Ballo della Regina, Episodes, Union Jack
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
12 May 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published 17 May 2004

Ballo della Regina, to music from Verdi’s Don Carlo, is George Balanchine’s supreme essay in allegro dancing—probably the most sparkling and highly oxygenated dance poem he ever made on that aspect of the classical lexicon. The work is cast for a ballerina, a male virtuoso, four female demi-soloists, and a corps of 12 women. When it was first performed, in 1978, its ballerina, Merrill Ashley, proved so bewitching in her apparently effortless navigation of its technical, stylistic, and musical challenges that many people thought the ballet no more or less than a portrait of her prowess as a dancer, an interpretation underscored by the fact that Balanchine left Ashley the rights to the ballet in his will. In fact, Ballo has proved to be a much hardier work than originally supposed; it has not only remained in the repertory of NYCB—where others besides Ashley have danced the leading role—but has also entered the repertories of other companies.

For two performances this spring, NYCB acknowledged and honored Ballo’s enduring life nationwide by inviting two guests (both, Anna Kisselgoff has reported, chosen by Ashley) to take on the star parts. Lorna Feijóo, now a dancer with Boston Ballet, is, like her equally brilliant sister Lorena, an exemplar of Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which she joined in 1992, after training at the National Ballet School in Havana, and where she became a principal dancer. For Ballo’s male lead, originally danced by the virtuoso Robert Weiss, Ashley picked Gonzalo Garcia, now a principal at San Francisco Ballet (where, as it happens, Lorena Feijóo also dances). Garcia was trained in his native Spain at Estudio de Danza de Maria Avila and also at the San Francisco Ballet School. They were both wonderful choices, strong, full of temperament, capable of rendering all the steps fully; Garcia, in particular, seemed very happy in his dancing. It was a pleasure to see these most demanding roles embodied with such brio, and I join in the chorus of critics who have already expressed admiration for these dancers. The conductor was NYCB’s principal conductor Hugo Fiorato, approaching 90, who will be honored for his half century of service to NYCB and the ballets of George Balanchine at the May 18th performance and who, on May 19th, takes on emeritus status.

And yet. In watching Ballo succeed so well with its guests, I also thought that the ballet, as a ballet, got lost. For example, it seemed that some of the choreography at the beginning, including an entrance, had been changed. And I hadn’t recalled that there were so many pauses between sections to accommodate applause. With respect to the guests, the partnering work looked very thin in comparison to what I’d remembered, and only the variations seemed reasonably familiar. Even in those, however, although the steps were sharply executed, they didn’t produce the scintillating dance effects that Ashley and others have produced. Feijóo, in particular, seemed to have too much idle time in certain passages, as if she didn’t have enough choreography. One saw the registration of upright poses with time to spare, rather than the incredible, twinkling look of the ballerina’s passing through poses in the course of extreme speed. I also hadn’t remembered the ballerina’s dancing as being so perpendicular. Indeed, if one peered behind the guests, there were the demis and the corps in a completely different mode—off balance (though not as off balance as they could be), limpid, constantly running: elastic. They appeared to be dancing in a different ballet; it was as if we were watching Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky in what Ballo might have been, if Balanchine had thought to make it 20 years before he did, set down in the midst of the ballet he actually made. Finally, the four NYCB demis—Ashley Bouder, Amanda Edge, Amanda Hankes, and Carla Körbes (in Stephanie Saland’s lyrical “interrupted” variation)—provided a check on dance style in the point work that wasn’t entirely to Feijóo’s advantage. Bouder, in particular, offered the buoyancy, the streaming transitions, and the photographic effects that were once characteristic of the ballerina role, too. And there’s one more thing. Both Feijóo and Garcia are handsome artists, lean and beautifully proportioned; still, their musculatures—perhaps from their virtuosic early training—have a hard definition that is different from the look that, from at least the 1970’s, Balanchine, Stanley Williams, and the other teachers at the School of American Ballet nurtured in NYCB’s dancers. Balanchine’s dancers from his later years have often spoken about how he liked the legs of the women, especially, to have long, sleek muscles, or to appear to have them in the course of their dancing—the way Alexandra Danilova and Felia Doubrovska and Allegra Kent and Suzanne Farrell and Ashley, herself, looked. It is not that Feijóo’s and Garcia’s dancing was more muscular, but rather that their bodies are more muscular than NYCB’s dancers, that was jarring.

Why does any of this matter, especially in Ballo, which, for all its beauties, I doubt that most critics and historians would put on the short list of Balanchine’s greatest works? Well, as outlandish as this is going to sound, I think that, despite the substitution of soft, body-clinging dresses for formal tutus, Ballo della Regina is Balanchine’s version of the wedding pas de deux for Aurora and Désiré, which he never got to make in the context of an actual production of The Sleeping Beauty, for whatever reason that escaped him. It has the exhilaration he would surely have put in to replace the pomp and ceremony of Petipa (which I also love; it’s just different). It has the exacting demonstration, in dance action, of what makes Aurora the heroine of the court: not a demonstration of her social and political status but rather of her gifts for dancing, which are shared by the women around her, or perhaps, which have been given to her by the demi-soloists. That last, interrupted solo: isn’t that the Lilac Fairy, interrupted from and finally presenting her gift? It’s worth mentioning, I think, that Balanchine had already had the experience of collapsing the four acts of Swan Lake into a half hour, and that he didn’t often resort to danced representations of Evil, such as Carabosse. (The magician in his Swan Lake doesn’t dance; indeed, he hardly moves. And the hectoring Critics of Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbüdlertänze” are similarly static; in fact, they’re giant, inky silhouettes carried in momentarily from the wingline.) Ballo also has a Beauty’s requisite concluding hymn, with its accompanying ritual procession, that says, “Here is our Sovereign.” Good Lord, it even encapsulates (quite unintentionally, I’m sure, yet with absolute clarity) the intellectual life of the West during the 1970’s, so intoxicated with post-Structuralism: in the last few seconds of the work, the ballerina quite literally deconstructs the descent of her leg from a grand battement by breaking the action three times, as if to show us her microcontrol of her dancing. A four-hour spectacle, economically packed into less than 30 minutes, with classical dancing of wit, excitement, and summits of technical prowess: what more do you want from The Sleeping Beauty? Some mime? Look, there’s mime: little handrolling gestures for two of the women. What else? Well, how about Tchaikovsky? Adagios with the tears crystallized in them? Okay, yet Verdi is hardly a hack replacement. The music sings. I suppose that all of this is just fanciful; however, I do believe that there is more to the ballet than anyone thought at its première, and I was disappointed that, in order to present it with principals who had the strength to bring off the most difficult steps, the whole had to be transformed from an independent poem for the entire cast into a vehicle for two stars.

Episodes, Balanchine’s 1959 leotard ballet to the Serialist orchestral music of Anton Webern—with its evergreen surprises of rhythmic verve, dry humor, tonal range, and, as Lincoln Kirstein’s unsigned program note puts it, “gestural secrets”—looks bandbox fresh this season. When the work was first performed, of course, this was only half of a longer effort; the first half was a ballet with costumes and sets by Martha Graham, the Modern Dance Other of the aesthetic represented by NYCB’s repertory. No slouch at subtext, either, Graham took as her subject the power plays between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Each choreographer famously used one dancer from the opposite company: Graham called on Sallie Wilson, dancing with NYCB at that time, to play Elizabeth, while Graham, herself, danced Mary, right up to the scaffold. (If you think of the Wilson-Elizabeth figure as a surrogate for Balanchine, Graham was staging the most spectacular ballet about stage fright on record.) As it turned out, once the two halves were separated, and Graham’s didn’t have to bear comparison with Balanchine’s, it was possible to see that Graham did a pretty good job with the Webern assignment. (Some years ago, the Graham company revived her version of Episodes, and, while highly melodramatic, it was also quite theatrically engaging.) Yet Balanchine turned in a masterpiece, making Webern sound like J.S. Bach being played on the head of a pin in the first three sections, then, in the Webern orchestration of Bach’s unorchestrated Ricercata from his Musical Offering, opening up the universe so that one could see—embodied in a majestically choreographed dance choir of a ballerina, her male partner, and a female corps of 14—the tacit splendor and stunningly edited attention to detail that underlies Webern’s music. At this performance, every dancer was marvelous, and in mentioning the names of the leads in each section, I mean to honor the entire cast: Jennifer Tinsley and Edwaard Liang (Symphony, Op. 21), Teresa Reichlen and James Fayette (as the metaphysical acrobats of Five Pieces, Opus 10), Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans (Concerto, Opus 24), and Maria Kowroski and Jock Soto (Ricercata).

Finally, Union Jack—thanks to a cast of thousands who seemed to have been carefully rehearsed and who looked thrilled to be in it, and to an orchestra, conducted by Maurice Kaplow, that kept Hershy Kay’s joyous orchestrations of traditional British music electric—was amazing to see and to hear. If, outside the Balanchine repertory and, possibly, the Défilé at the Paris Opéra Ballet, there is greater choreography currently in rep somewhere for a group of 50 or so dancers than Union Jack’s first, ceremonial section, based loosely on the marches of various regiments in Her Majesty’s Army, I haven’t seen it. With all the Scottish plaids, used for kilts made to regulation (not by a costume designer but a tailor), Union Jack has a strong affiliation with Scotland; and although its succeeding sections (the Costermonger Pas de Deux, a tribute to British music hall performers, and the Royal Navy, with its gobs and Wrens) are more reminiscent of England,

Union Jack feels as if it sprang from Scotland, then traveled south. There were many wonderful performances within this hour-long ballet, but I’d like to single out Damian Woetzel, who was absolutely brilliant as the leader of “Dress MacLeod,” and Jock Soto and Miranda Weese, in the contradancing of the “Menzies” and “Dress MacDonald.”

Some audience members, sensitive to daily events resulting from our invasion of Iraq, were unnerved by the sound of a cannon at the end of the ballet. I didn’t mind it, once I’d read Kirstein’s (again unsigned) program note, which, reminded us that Union Jack was not only made to commemorate the country’s bicentennial in 1976 but also was made in the middle of the Watergate era, with its “exhausted peace and clownish public scandal.” Good to remember these things.

First:  Lorna Feijóo and Gonzalo Garcia in Ballo della Regina. Photo:  Paul Kolnik.
Second:  The company in Union Jack. Photo:  Paul Kolnik.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 18
May 17, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mindy Aloff



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Mindy Aloff
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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on May 17, 2004