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New York City Ballet

'Western Symphony', 'Symphony in Three Movements', 'Symphony in C'

by Jerry Hochman

February 9 (m), 2013 -- Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

With its Tchaikovsky Celebration on temporary hiatus (pending its resumption with two weeks of The Sleeping Beauty), New York City Ballet has offered several performances representative of one or another general theme. Last week, NYCB presented a “New Combinations” evening, which I previously reviewed, devoted to pieces that purportedly illustrate innovative ways to choreograph the same essential ballet vocabulary. On Saturday (and on previous days this past week), NYCB presented a program representative of “Symphonic Balanchine”: Western Symphony, Symphony in Three Movements, and Symphony in C.

Well – not quite ‘symphonic’ Balanchine. Western Symphony is not choreographed to a symphony – it just has ‘symphony’ in its title. The piece was choreographed to a collection of western-themed ‘folk’ songs orchestrated by Hershy Kaye (who also orchestrated Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, to marches by John Philip Sousa). But why quibble – Western Symphony, which to my recollection NYCB hadn’t performed in several years, is a delightful, if not exactly innovative, example of Balanchine at his most accessible.

But before getting to Western Symphony, I must briefly reference Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C, both of which have been the subject of previous reviews, because the pieces are so fabulous, and because each received stellar performances.
Stravinsky’s composition, his first in the United States (it was composed from 1942-1945, on commission from the precursor of the New York Philharmonic, and premiered in 1946), reportedly was inspired by various images of World War II. [It has been called Stravinsky’s ‘War Symphony’.] While it is comprised, at least in part, of unused music that Stravinsky reportedly had intended to be used as Hollywood film scores, it sounds to my uneducated ear to have been derived from a number of different musical roots: classical (the piece has been described as ‘neo-classical’), romantic, rhythm-driven (like ‘Sacre’, which part of it resembles), and jazz. It is as mechanical, in part, and as violent, in part, as the mechanical and violent period in which it was composed.

The ballet can be seen, at least in parts of it, as similarly mechanical and violent, but in a more subtle, controlled, and refined way. It pays homage to classical and romantic roots, but its images also presage post-modern angst. It has curvilinear images, but it is also angular and stoic, without being orthodox about any of it. To this viewer, it is an art deco ballet; a moving, horizontal Chrysler Building of a ballet. And the piece is also more representative of ‘new combinations’ than anything on this year’s ‘New Combinations’ program.

Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements premiered on the opening night of NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival. The previous year, a popular music group named The Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up and Away"; "Stoned Soul Picnic"; "Wedding Bell Blues"; "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In") released a song (and album) titled “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes.” I doubt very much that Balanchine was even aware of the song, much less inspired by it in any way (he didn’t need it; he had the Stravinsky score), but I kept thinking of that song title throughout Symphony in Three Movements because to me the ballet is representative of choreographed lines, angles and rhymes (‘rhyming’ patterning and images), as well as a whole lotta love. [Sorry…but where else in a ballet review would you find references to both The Fifth Dimension and Led Zeppelin. In the same paragraph.]

What one remembers most about Symphony in Three Movements – or at least what I remember most about it – are Balanchine’s dramatic opening diagonal line of ballerinas in white; his closing image for the first movement of these ballerinas, in another diagonal line, gently and gracefully, but also dramatically and Romantically, changing body position and alignment the way that the Willis in Giselle change their body positions as they usher Hilarion to his death; the mechanically intense pas de deux that comprises the ballet’s central section; and the angled arms of the corps in the final movement that make each dancer look both robotic and electrically charged. Indeed, it is the angled position of the dancers’ arms that is the ballet’s final, revolutionary image.

Any performance of Symphony in Three Movements is startling and revelatory. But when the performances match, it is cause for celebration. Saturday’s performances were worth a celebration by themselves.

I’ve written previously at length about NYCB principals Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, who danced the central pas de deux at Saturday’s performance. Each is a remarkably able and engaging dancer, with unique personal qualities that distinguish them from NYCB's other remarkable and engaging company dancers. I’ve seen both perform these roles previously – but it is a mark of a superb dancer to make a performance that could not possibly be any better somehow better, each time, than it was before. Both Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar consistently do so. Although he is memorable in anything he does, Mr. Ramasar is particularly masterful in roles that require powerfully detached, and effortless partnering. His performance Saturday appeared to surpass even his own previous efforts. Ms. Hyltin’s performance, however, not only surpassed her previous efforts; it took her performance to a different dimension of achievement. Although equally powerful as Mr. Ramasar, and equally detached, Ms. Hyltin (a tiny dancer who I have previously described as consistently dancing larger than life) came across to me more like an undetonated bomb -- under control but potentially explosive. Simply put, she was magnificent. Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar (who was replacing Sebastien Marcovici) were ably complemented by Savannah Lowery and Andrew Scordato (replacing Adrian Danchig-Waring), and Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
Symphony in C, choreographed by Balanchine to Bizet’s composition, premiered (as ‘Palais de Crystal’) in Paris, with the Paris Opera Ballet, in 1947, and was a component of NYCB’s first performance in 1948. The piece is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but no less memorable than Symphony in Three Movements. Since Symphony in C is now as much of a staple for other companies as it is for NYCB (it is on American Ballet Theatre’s performance schedule this spring), familiarity is assumed. In Saturday’s performance, Ana Maria Scheller (replacing Abi Stafford) was a dynamically inspired lead for the first movement (allegro vivo), although her partner, Chase Finlay, was relatively leaden. The second movement (adagio) was superbly performed by Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, as was the ebullient third movement (allegro vivace), by Erica Pereira and Anthony Huxley. Lauren King and Taylor Stanley anchored the fourth movement (allegro vivace) with vigor.

Western Symphony, which opened the evening, suffers by comparison to the other two pieces on the program. Choreographed in 1954 to Kaye’s orchestration of such folksy tunes as ‘Red River Valley,’ ‘Good Night Ladies,’ and ‘The Girl I left Behind Me’, the piece is neither innovative nor particularly extraordinary, but it isn’t meant to be. What it is meant to be, and what it is, is a well-crafted ballet that’s a lot of fun to watch.

Divided into three sections (allegro, adagio, and rondo), the piece looks like what Susan Stroman might have done if she had been asked to graft a Western theme onto standard ballet vocabulary – but it lacks Ms. Stroman’s human characterizations, and has little of her irreverent sense of humor. [An aside – why is there no Stroman piece in NYCB’s spring 2013 season ‘American Music’ festival?] Each section focuses on the relationship between the two section leads. Although these relationships are essentially the same (cowboy and dance hall girl/coquette), and although the characters are each one-dimensional cardboard, they are treated somewhat differently musically and choreographically, and allow for different character nuances. In this viewer’s opinion, it is these character portrayals that make the piece as fun to watch as it is – and as fun to dance as it seems to be. But there’s nothing funny about the choreography, which at times (particularly in the rondo section) appears to be particularly challenging.

Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle led the second (adagio) section, which for this viewer was the best of the piece. Ms. Fairchild was delightfully playful, and the choreography had tongue-in-cheek comic components that the other sections lacked. [For example, Mr. Angle ‘searches’ for Ms. Fairchild among the section’s corps dancers, with similar imagery to Siegfried’s search for Odette; Ms. Fairchild does a fairly standard leaping fish-dive into Mr. Angle’s arms, followed shortly thereafter by the same fish-dive, but she is swimming upstage, her tail facing the audience. From my vantage point, the audience got the joke.] Ashley Bouder and Robert Fairchild were each extraordinary in the third (rondo) section, taking advantage of the opportunities for bravura performances that Balanchine’s choreography encourages. The only unsatisfying section was the opening (allegro) section. Taylor Stanley’s cowboy was focused and determined and more cowboy than any cowboy could be. A little too intense, perhaps, but it was a very fine performance by this promising member of the corps. [As a replacement for Jonathan Stafford, Mr. Stanley debuted in the role earlier in the week.] But Rebecca Krohn seemed to downplay her role more than the role itself called for. As a result, and unlike the other two sections where the partners were equally matched, Ms. Krohn faded into the background.
All in all, however, this was a wonderful repertory performance, worth having to clear my car of a foot of snow first thing in the morning to get to. And it is one to remember in the spring, when the repertory as presently scheduled may not be nearly as memorable.

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