DanceView Times, New York edition
Some thoughts on Balanchine, with references to Arlene Croce
Balanchine has been so deified since his death twenty years ago that it is difficult to imagine a time when he wasn’t treated as a god. Writers, led by the New York Times, now seem more intent on perpetuating the myth than actively engaging with the work they are seeing. It is instructive, then, to look back at reviews during Balanchine’s lifetime by Arlene Croce, one of those critics most likely to be cited in praise of him. As much as Croce supported Balanchine, she was no pushover for every ballet that emerged from his ever prolific mind. She argued at length for what she thought succeeded and what she thought did not. The ballets offered in two performances this past week as part of the Balanchine centennial celebration might serve as case studies: Apollo (1928), Scotch Symphony (1952) and Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 (1941, 1973) on Wednesday and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962) on Saturday evening.
Croce speaks very little about Scotch Symphony, and with good reason. It has to be one of the silliest ballets Balanchine made for New York City Ballet. It is marketed as an homage to the Highlands and to the Romantic ballet, but that is a dubious claim. Scotch Symphony is not a work that pays tribute to the evanescent mystery and delicate, sinister mood of the Romantic ballet. Nor does it place everyday life in opposition to an unattainable ideal, another common Romantic device. Rather, it is a soup whose clashing ingredients include a portion of the all out bravura of Stars and Stripes mixed with a dollop of classical divertissement and a bushel of Romantic pantomime gestures. The ballet starts with a celebratory flourish as a female soloist leads a massed array of male Highlanders through a virtuosic display of dance. The exciting petite allegro of the solo recalls Bournonville (although the style is larger and more open), and the program notes remind us that Balanchine briefly worked with the Royal Danish Ballet in the early 1930s. The next section introduces the Sylph, which is where things start to go wrong. The Highlanders keep the Sylph and the Romantic hero apart, but she dances with him anyway. This is repeated several times through the course of the ballet. At another time she whispers to him in a gesture made famous in Les Sylphides. From time to time the Hero gazes off in the distance which, in Romantic ballet is a sign of yearning for something bourgeois life cannot fulfill, and which generally isn’t good for you. It presages loss and tragedy. But this hero is distracted when the Sylph, that is the ideal, is there. Not only that, he gets his ideal in the end when the ballet closes with a grand, classical finale, Sylph and hero downstage center. Presumably everyone lives happily ever after.
But doesn’t this just prove, as formalists so often say, that the narrative line is unimportant in ballet and we should disregard it? I would argue that this idea works if the narrative is broken up enough, as Fokine did in Les Sylphides, so that only a perfume, a scent from the past remains. Scotch Symphony is more like a half-finished meal. There’s enough there to make you wonder what the whole repast might have been, but not enough to actually identify it. At the same time the dances themselves, while pleasant enough, are not unusually inventive, so that the pressure of the pantomime is made even greater. There is only one way to treat the ballet so it makes sense, and that is to assume the pantomime is purely abstract and has no more specific meaning than a grand battement. For instance, when the Highlanders gather around the Sylph, they aren’t protecting her, they are forming a circle which relates to other patterns in the dance. But ultimately the pantomime is too specific. There is too much of it and it intrudes too forcefully, demanding attention at every turn. Perhaps it was simply a matter of Balanchine overplaying the Romantic references in the ballet, or perhaps he was focused elsewhere. When he choreographed Scotch Symphony in 1952 New York City Ballet was barely four years old and was trying to fill the more than 3,000 seats of City Center. The company had recently leaped (as Ballet Society) from a small subscription series dedicated to creating vanguard works, to an establishment enterprise. Balanchine refused to do the nineteenth century classics but he had to do something to attract customers. In 1949 he added Firebird to the repertory, in 1951 Swan Lake (a genuine meditation on a story ballet), and in 1954 he staged The Nutcracker. Scotch Symphony gave the company a ballet to fill the gap in Romantic works. It still seems to serve the same purpose and audiences appear grateful for its costumes and references to the past, however confusing. It is hard, though, to imagine how a ballerina and her partner are supposed to dance the ballet in any way that’s convincing. Kyra Nichols has a better chance than most, being a ballerina of intelligence and charm, but she was having technical difficulties Wednesday which kept her from doing much more than getting through the rigors of the dance. One hopes this was only a unique instance and that it doesn’t presage the end of Nichols’ long career. Nilas Martins, as her partner, looked more vague than anything else. However, Carrie Lee Riggins as the Highlander soloist tore into her role like it was the chance of a lifetime (it was a first for the corps member) and looked happy in the one dance in the ballet that didn’t need anything but pure dancing to make it succeed.
Tschaikovsky Piano concerto No. 2 used to be Ballet Imperial before Balanchine changed the title and a number of other elements in 1973. Croce recognized it as an important ballet but lamented the changes, especially in the costumes. I couldn’t agree more. Originally the work was danced in tutus before a backdrop of classical columns along the Neva embankment. This fit perfectly with the Tchaikovsky score and explained the pantomime that still survives with its royal bows and acknowledgements. Croce also didn’t like the change of title, which renders the work nearly anonymous. The lack of backdrop adds to this effect as do the costumes, which make the women look as if they are wearing nightgowns and tiaras. To my mind, what all these changes have done is blur the original intent without compensating for the loss in any way. The choreography is frankly classical, virtuosic and grand; to disguise it is to somehow make it appear smaller and less significant.
Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto may not be the very greatest of Balanchine’s ballets, but it is historically important (it was created in 1941) and has many impressive moments, particularly the cadenza for the ballerina, which is so long and difficult it is terrifying to watch. The audience explodes into applause at the end, probably more from relief than anything. The work did not get a particularly inspired performance Wednesday. Miranda Weese is a technician rather than a ballerina. She does the steps pleasantly enough, but ballerinas are supposed to command the stage and create dance images that are surprising and brilliant. None of this happens with Weese or her partner Philip Neal (who doesn’t actually have much to do). Ashley Bouder, who is often an interesting dancer, looked strangely inflexible in the soloist role.
And now for Apollo. Croce certainly had no arguments with its masterpiece status, although she argued with certain of New York City Ballet’s casting and performance. Certainly the ballet is worth every accolade ever bestowed upon it and alone would be enough to ensure Balanchine’s fame. A man behind me in the theatre said to his neighbor, “Can you believe that was done seventy-five years ago?” It is, indeed, hard to believe. Balanchine himself said that Apollo gave him the courage not to use everything, but in a way, he did. He didn’t eschew any of his cleverness, there’s plenty that’s clever in Apollo, but he went much further. It’s a radical work that came so early in his career and yet pointed the way, years away in fact, to a kind of choreography Balanchine did not take up again until The Four Temperaments. From there he developed his choreography into what we think of as his signature style—cool, limpid and jazzy. The ingredients of that style are already there in Apollo. The dignity, restraint, and the hot licks brought under ballet’s control. The rest was a matter of enlarging upon the fundamental ingredients. It should, however, be added that contrary to the program notes, Apollo was not the first original classical ballet created for Diaghilev. The writer apparently forgot about Nijinska, Balanchine’s immediate predecessor at the Ballets Russes. Balanchine even took one of the poses for Apollo from her Le Train Bleu. However, that doesn’t diminish Balanchine’s accomplishment. Apollo is, in that much overused word, a masterpiece. It also had a great leading performance Wednesday in the person of Nikolaj Hübbe. In the past, Hübbe, like Peter Martins in his early days with the company, used to exude arrogance on stage, but he has gained leagues in maturity while still maintaining a high level of technical skill. He dances Apollo like the young god he is supposed to be, beautiful, curious, joyous yet with a developing dignity and command. When the call from Olympus comes, he is ready. His muses, though, did not give him much in the way of inspired help. Yvonne Borree in the central role of Terpsichore was kittenish, if that is what you want in the muse of dance, while Rachel Rutherford was little more than solid as Calliope. Only Jennie Somogyi as Polyhymnia added a welcome note of wit to the solos.
Croce said of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that it “demanded almost as much intent looking and listening from the audience as we give to Balanchine’s more concentrated essays in choreography.” Then she asked if that made it a masterpiece or “a piece in which one recognizes the hand of a master?” She doesn’t answer that question, but I would say the latter. There are many wonderful moments in the ballet and Balanchine’s encapsulation of the story in Act One is ingenious. The work is also full of beautiful dances, but they do not, for the most part, advance or enlarge Balanchine’s choreographic ideas. The ballet’s most innovative element is the way in which he melded drama and dancing in such a seamless fashion.
Saturday’s performance was notable for Kyra Nichols’ authoritative and nuanced rendering of Titania and an exciting debut by Sofiane Sylve as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Sylve, who has just joined the company this season as a principal, is a powerful and intelligent dancer who is a welcome addition to City Ballet. Tom Gold, a soloist, acted the part of Oberon with dignity and humor and danced his difficult solo with ease. Adam Hendrickson, a corps member, was a humorous and endearing Puck. Others in the cast included Carla Körbes as Helena, Pascale van Kipnis as Hermia, Jonathan Stafford as Lysander, Arch Higgins as Demetrius, Carrie Lee Riggins as the Butterfly, and Jenifer Ringer and Philip Neal in the Divertissement.
Photo: Kyra Nichols and Nilas Martins in Scotch Symphony. Photo: Paul Kolnik.