writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Pretty in Pink

Raymonda Variations/Orpheus/Symphony in Three Movements
New York City Ballet
New York States Theater
New York, NY
June 12, 2004 matinee

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter
published June 14, 2004

It's almost a guilty pleasure, the sheer delight offered by those "pretty" Balanchine ballets, set to tuneful 19th-century scores, which tend to open a program. Ballo della Regina, La Source, Donizetti Variations are among these, as is Raymonda Variations, which made a joyful return to the repertory this week. These ballets tend to feature lots of pink in the costuming, but their multiple charms transcend sheer prettiness. They illustrate perfectly the idea of how to "entertain with steps." The naturalness and inevitability of the choreography's give-and-take with the music provide an infectious thrill. It is as if Balanchine is confirming that this is ideal music for ballet, but also adding a layer of 20th-century sophistication—a blend of wit, brio and intricacy.

Balanchine's musical choices in these ballets are selections drawn from the scores of narrative works (operas or ballets) that he selects and shapes for his own purposes. Often, you can sense that he must have been smiling as he crafted his delicious choreography, alluding to or commenting on the older material. When the pushy corps dancer comes down stage to strut her stuff to the trumpet solo in Donizetti Variations, Balanchine is delightfully mocking the silliness of the extended bravura detour in the music. When the ensemble of La Source bourrées dreamily downstage in the adagio that leads into the lilting "Naila" waltz that concludes the ballet, we get a vision of utter feminine prettiness that was presumably the raison d'être of the ballet in mid-nineteenth century Paris, when the wealthy patrons came to check out the pretty girls.

With ABT's new staging of Raymonda fresh in the memory, the timing was ideal for the return of Raymonda Variations, one of Balanchine's glosses on this less-familiar Petipa work. (Another of them, the 1973 Cortege Hongrois, returns next week.) I wondered to what degree a new familiarity of the narrative framework for which the luxuriant, wonderfully danceable Glazunov score was shaped would impact my view of Balanchine's glorious choreography to its excerpts. Knowing that most of the music in this 1961 ballet is taken from the dream sequence, which ABT set as a gauzy woodland fantasy with some of the ensemble wearing quasi-Grecian tunics, is not really useful or necessary, but adds an intriguing aspect. Set in an airy outdoor setting, perhaps a park, this work certainly has a softer glow and more lyrical tone than the harder-edged Cortege Hongrois, which echoes the stately sequences of the grand betrothal scene later in the full ballet. Also, having seen how, in ABT's production, the character of Raymonda shares traits with Aurora—her eager entrance down a staircase, dewily and eagerly arriving to mark her birthday; her being led into a vision by a gracious, imposing female figure are just two examples—makes Balanchine's string of five female variations here, each with a distinct quality, seem to resonate even more strongly with the five fairy variations of the Sleeping Beauty's prologue.

But Raymonda Variations requires no context to be enjoyed; it is simply a feast of glorious, enchantingly musical dancing. Jenifer Ringer, who has cultivated a gracious authority in this kind of Balanchine tutu role, was the luminous ballerina, exuding a calm glow as though bathing in Glazunov's richly melodious support. Nothing felt rushed or abrupt, and each phrase was given its full due, with several balances in arabesque held for an extra moment to register clearly (shades of Aurora?). Ringer's strengths are many, including an amplitude and poise that suits this choreography, but she does not possess the snap and crispness in allegro that one finds in a dancer like Miranda Weese, who will also perform the role this season. Ringer has added a great deal of strength and precision to the warmth and intelligent presence that made her an ideal Robbins dancer from her earliest years in the company.

In the pas de deux she and Benjamin Millepied created a smooth, eloquent dialogue as intriguing, unexpected balance positions were initiated and resolved. Both dancers know how to project toward the audience while also holding each other's gaze, communicating fully with each other. Millepied, new to the role, was very much the elegant cavalier, exuding nobility as well as sprightliness, and taking to the air with fluid ease in his bounding first variation, which bears a kinship to Beauty's Bluebird solo.

Among the five soloist variations, Megan Fairchild's pert persona and allegro vivacity were well showcased in the second variation. Faye Arthurs was gracious but phrased rather stiffly in the first variation. Gwyneth Muller, in the normally imposing third variation, exhibited the kind of spiky emphasis on the extremities that one sees a lot among the younger NYCB corps dancers. The luxuriant, quietly sensual aspect of this solo, set to music in which the harp dominates, was missing in action. Carrie Lee Riggins delivered the fourth variation with bracing clarity, and Ashley Bouder navigated the sometimes awkward-seeming turns of the final variation with bracing confidence. In all these variations, Balanchine delights in demonstrating the harmonious beauties of pristine classical steps, drawing attention to elegantly turns-out legs and crisp pointework.

Just like Raymonda (in its ABT incarnation) itself, Raymonda Variations has more than one finale. Balanchine generously gave the 12-member female ensemble its own brisk summation, in which they canter like high-spirited fillies. Ringer and Millepied than launched the actual finale in what amounts to the delayed coda of their pas de deux, and are then joined by the ensemble which engages in some Rockettes-like high-kicking and formations. When the final chord was punctuated by Ringer taking a no-holds-barred, face-to-the-audience plunge into to Millepied's capable waiting grasp, it was as though Balanchine was giving us delayed gratification. During their pas de deux, Ringer had three times leaned forward into an angled semi-fish dive, providing some of the momentum but not all the thrills of the real thing. At the last possible moment, Balanchine lets the audience have it all.

Orpheus and Symphony in Three Movements, already reviewed, completed the program.
Volume 2, Number 22
June 14, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter



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last updated on June 14, 2004