New York City Ballet
'Interplay', 'Agon', 'Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3'
'Donizetti Variations', 'Russian Seasons', 'Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3'
'Agon', 'Stravinsky Violin Concerto', 'Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3'
by Jerry Hochman
February 17, 24 and 26, 2012-- David Koch Theater, New York, NY
George Balanchine reportedly once commented that the collaborative relationship that he had with Igor Stravinsky mirrored that between Petipa and Tchaikovsky. In terms of true artistic collaboration – working together with another, concurrently, toward an artistic goal – this is certainly true, and there is no question that Balanchine’s collaboration with Stravinsky yielded seminal works of huge significance in ballet history.
But in a broader sense, collaboration is a partnership, and from this audience member’s point of view, the collaboration between Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, even though not concurrent in time, is as memorable as that between Balanchine and Stravinsky. The first ballet that Balanchine choreographed after immigrating to the United States was to a Tchaikovsky score, “Serenade,” in 1934, and the online Balanchine Catalogue of the Balanchine Trust lists some 40 works that Balanchine created to music by (or inspired by) Tchaikovsky, including such masterworks as “Mozartiana” (originally choreographed in 1933), “Ballet Imperial” (1941; recently presented by Miami City Ballet); “Theme and Variations” (1947, for Ballet Theatre); “Allegro Brillante” (1956); “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” (1960); and “Diamonds” (1967; the concluding facet of “Jewels”).
To those accustomed to Balanchine/Stravinsky black-and-white collaborations, the grandly romantic Tchaikovsky music may seem antithetical to Balanchine’s vision of neo-classical ballet. To this viewer, however, the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaborations show not only that there is no incompatibility between the Balanchine aesthetic and Tchaikovsky’s grand romanticism, but also that the impact of Balanchine style on Tchaikovsky’s music was an even more stunning accomplishment. The masterpieces that Balanchine choreographed to later Stravinsky scores were independently groundbreaking, but ‘looking different’ was a natural consequence of the score ‘sounding different’. The Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaboration allowed the audience to see music with which they were already familiar and comfortable in a more contemporary visual way.
But that’s an academic discussion for another day. What makes Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaborations special, aside from whatever artistic motivations and expressions they reveal, is that they provide a choreographic vision of Tchaikovsky’s music that audiences love to watch.
Rather than being a cerebral and intellectual collaboration, Balanchine’s artistic relationship with Tchaikovsky is an emotional one to which Balanchine applied his own artistic sensibilities. Balanchine’s collaboration with Stravinsky (particularly later Stravinsky) appeals to an audience’s heads. Balanchine’s collaboration with Tchaikovsky appeals to an audience’s hearts. And while audience response is not the sole measure of the success of a work of art, it is not irrelevant either. With Balanchine/Tchaikovsky, your eyes open wide at the visual feast in front of you. It is not at all unusual to hear a collective ‘aahhhh,’ perhaps a sigh of relief from intellectual rigor, as the curtain rises on “Serenade” or “Ballet Imperial,” or the stage lighting ignites your first view of ‘Diamonds’ or “Theme and Variations.” Seeing theatergoers whistling a happy tune as they exit a theater into some enchanted evening is a fair measure of a Broadway musical’s success and a barometer of its likely transition from being a great artistic accomplishment to being memorable. And when one exits a theater with physical images of musical phrases implanted in one’s brain, as I find myself doing after seeing a Balanchine/Tchaikovsky performance, this is a fair barometer of the dance’s transcendence from being appreciated, to being loved.
Recent New York City Ballet performances that featured a masterpiece choreographed to Stravinsky: “Agon”; and a masterpiece choreographed to Tchaikovsky: “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3,” illustrate what I mean.
“Agon” is a plotless ballet, with no story and little hint of any emotional relationship between the dancers. Although the title of the piece is translated as “The Contest,” the ballet has nothing at all to do with a ‘contest’; and although the components of the ballet are modeled after examples of mid-17th Century French dances (found, according the program notes, in a French dance manual), for the average balletgoer the fact that what is on stage is modeled after Renaissance dances with exotic-sounding names (e.g., Sarabande; Gailliard) is of little significance. But “Agon” has everything to do with a renaissance of looking at movement (and of listening to music: the score is every bit as ‘grand’, in its own way, as are scores by Tchaikovsky).
The genius of “Agon,” to this viewer, is that even though there’s no emotional interaction in the usual sense, the dancers are not moving merely as bodies in space – there’s a relationship of some sort between them that tells a ‘story’ without any semblance of plot – just by the structure and balance of the ballet, and the tension created by the physical interaction of the dancers’ bodies. It is a sublimely circular piece, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, where the end harkens back visually to the ballet’s beginning.
When “Agon” is performed as well as it was last Saturday and again this afternoon, it is a stunning experience. Megan LeCrone has proven herself to be the stereotypical tall, lean and angular Balanchine/Stravinsky dancer, and her performance in “Agon” last Saturday, her debut in the role, provided another example of her growing facility. This afternoon, Teresa Reichlen danced the role with added majesty. Sean Suozzi on Saturday and Andrew Veyette this afternoon were first rate in all the sections in which they danced, with Mr. Suozzi showing a bit more crispness and passion. And the support provided by Amanda Hankes, Ashley Laracey, Rebecca Krohn, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Daniel Appelbaum was superlative. But Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar, at last Saturday’s performance, were off the critical chart. For a pas de deux without emotional content, they generated enough electricity to light the theater. Ms. Kowroski by now is a well-known quantity, and superlatives are expected at every performance. But Mr. Ramasar seems underappreciated. Over the past several seasons he has proved himself to be an exceptional partner and superb technician and stage presence. He deserves more attention, and acclaim, than he gets. Their performance, together with the others mentioned, made last Saturday’s performance of “Agon” one of the finest that this viewer has seen.
But notwithstanding the choreographic ingenuity and the brilliance of the performances, “Agon” remains, to this viewer, a cerebral work that is appreciated (thoroughly) rather than loved. Good for an evening’s conversation, but not a work I’d daydream about.
“Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3,” on the other hand, is more than just stimulating company. It is a ballet to take back home with you.
“Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” may appear, at first viewing, like two independent and somewhat contradictory ballets that were grafted together of incompatible parts to form an uncomfortable whole. But to this viewer, “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” is a triumphantly cohesive and coherent whole, and a piece that represents a synthesis of the romanticism and the grandeur of the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaboration.
The movements that together comprise the first of the ballet’s two apparently separate parts (‘Elegie’, ‘Valse Melancolique’, and ‘Scherzo’) can be seen as idealized representations of pure sensuality. Except for one male dancer in each section (each costumed like a stereotypical poet/dreamer), the movements are populated entirely by women wearing long, gossamer, chiffon-like dance skirts (with different muted pastel colors for each section). The action takes place behind a scrim, and the stage is lit as if by moonlight. The girls’ long hair, which is down in all three sections, responds to every body movement in tandem with the girls’ diaphanous skirts as they dance Balanchine’s lush, sweeping choreography to Tchaikovsky’s lush, sweeping score. These three movements together may be the most dreamily sensual in ballet. As if to wink at the audience, and at Tchaikovsky, Balanchine even has the lead poet in the ‘Elegie’ section gently drag one of his hands across each of the girls’ long tresses as he searches among them for the girl of his dreams.
But these three movements, although visually similar and different from the final movement, are more than just sensual. Balanchine has crafted a clear a progression from one to the other as they lead to ‘Tema Con Variazioni’ (‘Theme and Variations’) all in the context of the grand Romantic Russian ballet, updated. ‘Elegie,’ in which the poet/daydreamer searches for his idealized woman much as Prince Siegfried searches for Odette, has perhaps the most emotional content, and is representative of dream sequences common to Romantic ballets (distilled a la Balanchine, of course). ‘Valse Melancolique’, danced by the girls in ballet slippers (after having been barefoot in ‘Elegie’) is a more intricate, moody, and varied section choreographically (and musically): a little dream, a little drama. And ‘Scherzo’, while still danced by the girls with long hair and gossamer skirts, is danced in toe shoes and at top speed, with the most difficult-looking choreography and the least emotional gloss. ‘Theme and Variations’, though it stands on its own (and looks different from the other three sections), is the ‘final‘ progression – no more emotional content than is provided naturally in the pas de deux, and fully classical in appearance, from tutus to toe shoes. And the entire piece is tied together as a tribute to ‘Tchaikovskian’ Russian grandeur by the majestic illuminated chandeliers (nearly hidden in the Romantic cloud-haze of the first three movements; clear as a bell in “Theme”) that watch over the entire piece like inanimate imperial fairy godmothers.
In another sense, “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” is a progression and a synthesis of Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaborative style. The ‘Elegy’ section is a direct descendant of “Serenade.” The movement quality is the same; the style is the same, and the hands-outstretched, palms out posture stopping the dreamer from approaching, look like out-takes from “Serenade.” The ‘Theme and Variations’ movement is a direct descendant of “Ballet Imperial.” “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” brings both prongs of the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaboration together.
And then there’s the piece itself, particularly “Theme.” The score, obviously, is a magnificent development of variations on a musical theme. Balanchine choreographed his own ‘Theme and Variations’ to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Theme and Variations’, not merely mimicking the musical phrases, but developing them choreographically. Every movement phrasing is repeated, with different variations. Arabesques to the left, followed by arabesques to the right; partnered pirouettes where the ballerina turns by herself held by her partner, then her partner circles her as she stands in place. You see it once, you see it again, and then you see a variation, and then you see it again, and then another variation, and so on. It is an extraordinary piece of work that one doesn’t fully appreciate until one sees the interwoven tapestry that Balanchine created as a series of variations on a theme. The first time I realized the nature of what I was seeing (it took awhile; as I’ve written previously, I’m a little slow), it was an epiphany.
Each of the three performances I saw of “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” last week were of the highest caliber, and when distinctions are drawn, they are, with rare exception, personal preference. In ‘Elegie’, Sara Means was a possessed, driven, and somewhat distracted object of desire. Teresa Reichlen, in her debut in the role on Friday, was a more sympathetic image; a dream worth losing yourself in, or worth diving off a cliff for. In one performance, Ms. Reichlen’s portrayal became the standard by which I will measure other performances. Ask la Cour was the stalwart, if somewhat befuddled dreamer, at each performance. Both Janie Taylor and Rebecca Krohn were memorable as the lead in ‘Valse Melancolique’. But as much as I appreciated the stunning clarity of Ms. Taylor’s work, Ms. Krohn, in her debut in the role on Friday, was nothing short of spectacular. Not only was her execution clear as crystal, her natural, unforced sensuality added a measure of warmth to the segment as a whole. Jared Angle was the ardent suitor in all performances. In the ‘Scherzo’ section, Ana Sophia Scheller and Erica Pereira (in her debut in the role on Friday) were both superb. Ms. Scheller gave a more complete portrayal, but I found Ms. Pereira to be a bit more unexpectedly exciting to watch. Her performance appeared more of an effort, while Ms. Scheller showed no sign of such strain, but it was thrilling to watch Ms. Pereira dance as if she were shot out of a cannon. Antonio Carmena accompanied Ms. Scheller at both of her performances; Daniel Ulbricht added more fuel to the fire as Ms. Pereira’s partner at Friday’s performance. As you may have gathered, Friday’s performance, with three superlative debuts, was quite remarkable.
I hold ‘Theme and Variations’ to very high standards. Between ABT and NYCB, I have seen it performed by extraordinary dancers. [The two versions are essentially identical, except NYCB’s is performed at a much faster pace.] The three NYCB performances I saw in the past week were all commendable. Tiler Peck nails everything she does, and her “Theme” this afternoon was no exception; her performance was the most confidant of the three I saw (the other two being Megan Fairchild last Saturday and Ashley Bouder on Friday – both of whom were as competent, just not quite as securely comfortable looking as Ms. Peck). But in “Theme,” the lead danseur is as critical, if not more so, than the lead ballerina, and he must be completely on the mark with every step, as well as partner superbly, in order for the piece to look its best. Unfortunately, Ms. Peck’s partner, Gonzalo Garcia, was not up to her standard, struggling to keep pace, and being slightly, but frequently and noticeably, behind the beat. Joaquin De Luz also struggled to keep pace, but, as he used to do as the Golden Idol in “La Bayadere” with ABT, he met the challenge. On the other hand, Andrew Veyette, partnering Ms. Bouder, was superb. He hit every mark effortlessly, partnered unobtrusively, and looked in complete command. And I must acknowledge the contribution of Clotilde Otranto at the latter two performances: in her hands, the NYCB orchestra was energized, set a blistering pace, and sounded as magnificent as the dancers looked.
As the piece ended and the NYCB audience delivered its usual appreciative and celebratory sitting ovation, I could hear audience members humming phrases from ‘Theme’ as they exited the theater.
“Agon” and “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” were not the only ballets on the three programs discussed, but I have already commented on the others in prior reviews, or will do so in a subsequent review. However, I must briefly reference the cast change in “Russian Seasons” at Friday’s performance (debuts were the previous night). As good as was the performance of “Russian Seasons” that I saw previously this season, to this viewer Friday’s cast looked superior. The credit goes to Robert Fairchild, Abi Stafford (dancing a different role in the piece than she did previously), Lauren Lovette, and particularly Rebecca Krohn and Georgina Pazcoquin. Together they made an already brilliant piece look even better, with more technical clarity and less apparent effort and embellishment..
Sunday’s performance marked the end of NYCB’s winter season. In the spring, NYCB plans to present both “Serenade” and “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3,” as well as the “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.” Be still my heart.
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