Springing Into View
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “All Balanchine” Program
17 April 2010, McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington
by Dean Speer
The year was 1966. The month was July. The city was Saratoga. The choreographer was George Balanchine. The ballet was “Serenade.” The medium was Tchaikovsky. The message was “Restore.” The vow was “Put back every note.”
We now tend to assume that today’s versions of “Serenade” that permeate the atmosphere popped out of Balanchine’s genius whole cloth when first done in 1934. Not so. We also have the urban myth that choreography just flowed easily from him. Also, not necessarily so, according to Balanchine ballet stager and expert Francia Russell.
In a recent public talk on staging “Serenade” and “The Four Temperaments,” Russell gave context to these famous masterworks and related anecdotes. The best of these was how Balanchine reported “talking” to Tchaikovsky. [This seems to be a Russian phenomenon; artists communicating with deceased artists, usually during the night sometime – I had a Russian conductor once tell me the same at “Nutcracker” time when it came to setting tempi, “Tchaikovsky speak to me!”]
In addition to switching and third and fourth movements of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” Balanchine had also made some cuts. Now in the hot, summertime home of New York City Ballet, Saratoga, he was adding a rather large section. Russell observed all of this and says she remembers it markedly well as their first son, Christopher, had just been born and she was watching Balanchine work from the theatre house. She further reports you can see where this new insert begins, as it’s stylistically different than the earlier sections – after a large circle of women, I believe.
I also enjoyed hearing how Balanchine would often work choreography out on Russell, prior to setting it. She said had a feel for what he wanted and could replicate this and show him. I can appreciate this myself, often working with my own students, most of whom know me well enough to “get” what I have in mind or who are quite willing to experiment and try before finalizing.
Although he didn’t quite put back all of the music as first scored, we, 44 years later, are never-the-less the beneficiaries of this legacy – a “Serenade” that feels and looks just right. This is the version that Russell stages world wide and locally for our own Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Saturday night’s cast – led by Carla Körbes, Lindsi Dec, Chalnessa Eames, Olivier Wevers, and Batkhurel Bold, were more than up for the challenge. This company looks naturally bred for this repertory, each cast member bringing precision, nuance, and depth to every phrase. In this version, the girl who ends up on the floor does not undo her hair bun – a practice that I tend to find distracting; someone clawing at their hair amid making chainé turns and crumpling artistically into heap. I was told that apparently Mr. Balanchine himself liked the hair down version – reportedly tried first by Colleen Neary – “...is like Clairol commercial.”
Sunlight was in the sky and the dried bales of hay – metaphorically speaking – were on the stage as PNB pranced its way through one of the sunniest, if not the warmest, ballets on the planet, “Square Dance.” Staged in this instance by Artistic Director Peter Boal, the dancers were at once disciplined and free – as is the nature of a structured social dance; the American Square Dance.
We were treated to two of PNB’s top virtuosi – Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta. Nakamura essayed the multiple double gargouillades (similiar to a pas de chat but with rond de jambes) jumps neatly. Porretta was able to show us his adagio side during his solo turn of pivots, forced-arched relevés and port de bras – Balanchine showing us choreographic simplicity at its best.
Rightly or wrongly artistic entities – individuals and collective institutions – tend to have their own signature or showcase pieces – a work strongly identified, associated, or brought to mind when thinking of that artist. “The Four Temperaments” has long befitted that role for PNB – from its earlier days when introduced to the repertory and continuing through now.
One of the earliest iterations I enjoyed was when PNB played Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, and Portland – kind of as the backup company, framing performances by Mikhail Baryshnikov in two pas de deux.
This is one of my all-time favorite ballets. Like “Serenade,” it’s one that never bores, and in fact has so many goodies in it, it begs repeat viewings. Not a whole lot has changed between then and now except to note that, as a whole, the dancers are stronger than ever. Also staged by Russell, it’s the version that she’s familiar with and includes the original ending, rather than the one Balanchine made especially for a television broadcast and which later became “preferred.”
Working backward from the last variation – Choleric, it was a thrill to enjoy Principal Dancer Ariana Lallone’s run at this solo that attacks with verve and abandon. Fast pirouettes to the knee with arms folded across the face. Sharp, fun, and exciting.
While his primary interest may have been in how women could and did move, when he did make solos for men they were glorious. Two are embedded alone in 4-T’s: ‘Melancholic’ danced by the clean, clean Benjamin Griffiths; and ‘Phlegmatic’ danced by the lanky and experienced Jeffrey Stanton.
Notable too were Carrie Imler’s ‘Sanguinic’ solo turns – sharp on the petite allegro and turns with the impressive Batkhurel Bold at her side.
Several friends and acquaintances have commented to me how really good the PNB Orchestra is and any review should pass without recognizing and praising this important component of the whole artistic enterprise. We are so fortunate to be including acoustic music with our ballet performances – something that is key to making high art and to keeping it alive and thriving.
The year of completion for “Serenade” may have been 1966, but the year 2010 was the year for All-Balanchine programs in may places. One of the best was right here in our own backyard, Seattle and Pacific Northwest Ballet giving us their treasured best – major ballets authoritatively set by those who worked with the master himself.