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New York City Ballet - American Festival

'Western Symphony,' 'Ivesiana,' 'Who Cares'

Balanchine's America from the frontier to the city

by Jeff Kuo

May 29, 2004 matinee -- New York State Theater, New York

Balanchine always thought it was important to be an American. He prided himself as the creator of a uniquely American ballet -- dance that he created on an American company of American dancers to American themes and to American music. If his ballets sometimes conjured the mirrored halls of Versailles, they also vibrated with the unique rhythms of his adopted country. If his dancers danced to Berlioz, Glinka, and Strauss, they also danced to Charles Ives, “Red River Valley,” and George Gershwin music which in fact exactly constituted this Saturday matinee offering of NYCB’s American Festival.

“Western Symphony”

The idea that the frontier experience defines Americanness, aka The Frontier Myth, theorized by Frederick Jackson Turner, Lionel Trilling, and others, has taken such a thorough thrashing in recent decades by academics and cultural critics that it is only with a sense of innocence lost that we may regard the cowboy figure: behind every Kit Carson, Marlboro Man, and gunslinger, there is a “Trail of Tears” and a Battle of Wounded Knee. But “Western Symphony” is not about the way the West was won but about the way only an immigrant could love America -- less Horace Greeley (“Go West, young man”) and more Florenz Ziegfeld (“Hello Frisco”).   Not the brutal landscapes of Sergio Leone, “Rio Bravo” or “The Virginian,” but “The Cheyenne Social Club,” Rooster Cogburn, and “The Three Amigos.”

Balanchine’s cowboys are always good natured and pose no more of an ethno-genocidal threat than “The Apple Dumpling Gang.” His dance hall girls are so can-can they should be in “Moulin Rouge” or on the stage of the Folies Bergere. The “Allegro” movement girl, Jenifer Ringer, who appeared as if she just learned a new limerick about a cowboy from Nantucket, looked so darned smart, she could out-sass James Garner’s Maverick from “Support Your Local Sheriff.”

Alexandra Ansanelli and Robert Tewsley were audience favorites in the “Adagio.” This movement is one of my favorite pieces not just because of its choreographer’s jokes (i.e. “Swan Lake” by Dodge City) but because when performed with the right degree of comic control, it’s genuinely sort of touching. Has Ansanelli done other comedienne roles? In the “Rondo,” Sofiane Sylve replaced Maria Kowroski but seemed entirely too nice in a role that requires projection of more than a little sheer ballerina attitude (it had been originally Tanaquil Leclerq’s). I have always loved the big finale as the curtain drops on the entire ensemble spinning in a flurry of Karinska colors.  Andrea Quinn conducted.


The first intermission took us from the frontier to the big city with “Ivesiana” set by Balanchine to 4 compositions by Charles Ives (originally 6 but reduced later). If  the unapologetically neo-classical structure of “Western Symphony” makes Balanchine open to accusations of a choreographic “bait and switch” -- advertising American themes in the same old world steps, then “Ivesiana” is his rebuttal. Urban life wasn’t new to dance makers. Fokine (“Shrovetide Fair” from “Petrouchka”), Massine (“Parade”), and Jean Borlin (“Within the Quota” toured in recent years by the Royal Swedish Ballet) all had sensed the pulse of the city. But, “Ivesiana” made urban alienation uniquely American.

“Central Park in the Dark” is a departure from the Old World in its modernist insight that one is never so alone than in a crowd. A girl, Jennifer Tinsley, blindly gropes her way through a forbiddingly alien forest made up of the girls of the corps. She momentarily touches a young man, James Fayette, but loses him. Dimly visible, Balanchine’s handling of the corps is atmospheric -- their near motionlessness and their casual obstruction of the ballerina’s way constitute for Balanchine a deliberate contrast to his usual display of attention getting, intricate ensemble choreography.

Tuned to the fine line between banality and sublimity is “The Unanswered Question,” where a pale, feminine form (Janie Taylor) floats just beyond a young man’s (Tom Gold) reach. It is that staple of the classical ballet, the Dream Scene, reimagined with the dark psychology of high modernism. The work is unquestionably atmospheric and creepy, but perhaps no less by asking the audience to take seriously a poetic of gender and power which reduces the feminine figure to almost catatonic passivity while heaping upon it the unsustainable “Question of Existence.” Taylor’s pale poetic palimpsest floated on the arms of Jared Angle, Stephen Hanna, Seth Orza, and Henry Seth. Tom Gold was fine as the poet caught up in his own solipsistic fantasy.

In “In the Inn,” a saucy ballerina gal (Sofiane Sylve replacing Maria Kowroski) prances about with a let’s-just-be-friends young man (Albert Evans). If “Central Park” was ensemble anti-choreography, “In the Inn” is its anti-pas de deux counterpart. Of course this is Balanchine, so his idea of going against the grain is nothing close to what the post-modern choreographers would do with partnering, but when against pas de deux convention, the two skip off the stage separately and in opposite directions, it’s enough. The final movement, “In the Night,” returns to the world of alienation of “Central Park” -- the Shades in Gotham.  Carolyn Kuan conducted.

“Who Cares?”

The concluding ballet, “Who Cares?” brought us the final way on the afternoon’s journey from a mythic, musical comedy frontierland though the darker undercurrents of the metropole, and finally to an elegant and beautiful crafted F. Scott Fitzgerald heaven. This ballet is many things -- tribute to Gershwin, homage to Astaire, ballet neo-classicism Americanized, a showcase for fine dancing, and box office money.  It is, I believe, by now so widely taught as to not require repetition, that Balanchine was not only a creator of cerebral and aesthetized works but a highly regarded and sought after Broadway and Hollywood musical choreographer.

“Who Cares?” has an unusually robust structure.  The ballet starts with a danced overture consisting of “Strike Up the Band” and “Sweet and Low Down” in order to acclimate the audience to the initially curious sensation of ballet steps and Gershwin melodies.  The next five songs from “Somebody Loves Me” to “Lady Be Good” form a suite of five songs for five couples.  The final section of “Who Cares?” is from “The Man I Love” to the end and is in many ways a recapitulation of Apollo’s dances with the Muses (a central male dancer dancing with three female dancers, each in turn). The Apollo section can be staged alone or with a shortened version of the five song suite (as was the case for San Francisco Ballet this past season).

If the five song suite sometimes seems less than completely serious (for instance, there is a section where one boy tries to cut in but is snapped up by a different girl), that is because this section is for Manhattanite debs and their swains.  Everyone is young and earnest, bathed in a carefree glow of money -- Thorsten Veblen never theorized this leisure class, I’ll bet.  The Apollo dances are altogether something else.  All silk and long legs, city lights and skylines, the Apollo section anchors the ballet but sans the tiresome Burden of Civilization responsibility that weighs down “Apollo.”  For Balanchine to give the audience, many of whom Gershwin is little more than a name from the pages of history books and old movies, a genuine pleasure in his tunes is perhaps the ballet’s greatest accomplishment.

With great dancers in the debs and swains suite, like corps girls Faye Arthurs, Saskia Beskow, Pauline Golbin, and Amanda Hankes led by a plucky Amanda Edge, who wouldn’t want to cut in?  Darius Crenshaw led the corps boys, Kyle Froman, Henry Seth, Jonathan Stafford, and Andrew Veyette.  Nilas Martins was Apollo, and the Muses were Miranda Weese in a pink tutu, Ashley Bouder in dark red and a ponytail, and Carrie Lee Riggins in sky blue.  Costumes were by Ben Benson, scenery by Jo Mielziner, and lighting by Mark Stanley.  Richard Fletcher conducted with Nancy McDill on the piano.


Edited by Lori Ibay

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