New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 19M, 22, 25
Tchaikovsky Celebration: Programs 2 and 3; ‘Saturday at the Ballet with George’
Swan Lake (Balanchine); Garland Dance (19M only); Allegro Brillante; Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3
Divertimento from ‘Baiser de la Fee’; Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Bal de Couture; Diamonds
-- by Jerry Hochman
Although this review will focus on the second and third programs in New York City Ballet’s Tchaikovsky Celebration, I prefer to begin with an aside.
As I reported last year, NYCB has established an annual program of sorts to celebrate the anniversary of George Balanchine’s birth – and to encourage ticket sales. This year’s incarnation of “Saturday at the Ballet with George” was bracketed by two of the Tchaikovsky Celebration programs.
The reason I’m mentioning it now is to emphasize how popular this concept has become (attendees filled the Koch Theater orchestra, and its first two rings), and how memorable the comments can be. In this case, the presentation provided clear recognition of a performance ingredient that should be obvious but is often overlooked: what a dancer inputs into a role can be transmitted to an audience, and can change the audience’s perception of that particular performance, the role, or the entire ballet.
This year, the highlight of the program was a presentation entitled ‘The Balanchine Ballerina,’ which featured seven principal ballerinas (Ashley Bouder, Megan Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, Maria Kowroski, Rebecca Krohn, Sara Mearns, and Tiler Peck), appearing onstage and seriatim, introducing sections from different Balanchine ballets they had, or would soon, dance this season, discussing what they considered to be significant aspects of the piece, and then dancing excerpts from them (accompanied by partners and corps dancers as appropriate).
It was a great free performance – but it also was a marvelous presentation, all the more significant for dispelling any lingering perception that ballerinas are bunheads (I overheard innumerable members of the audience commenting, with some measure of surprise, on how articulate and intelligent these ballerinas were), and for reemphasizing through the ballerinas’ repeated comments that Balanchine ‘allowed room for the ballerinas to create a world around them’. (Ms. Mearns) That is, contrary to common understanding, Balanchine dancers were not mannequins chained to the choreography and some preconceived image concept, but were given the opportunity to put their own stamp on a role.
Particularly noteworthy, to this viewer, were Ms. Hyltin’s comments about her approach to Mozartiana. Ms. Hyltin said that while others saw in the piece Balanchine’s anticipation of his own death, with accompanying sadness and resignation, she looked at the piece differently from others – she saw Balanchine’s gratitude for what had been a wonderful life. That is, instead of melancholy, she saw joy. And this is exactly what I saw in Ms. Hyltin’s performance, what I noted in my review, and what made her performance so different and enlightening to me. It was as if Ms. Hyltin had pitched a curve ball and I (and others in the audience who had responded to her performance enthusiastically) caught it. And ‘curve balls’ – a dancer’s approach to a role, idiosyncratic as that approach may be – can impact every performance.
Now to the performances – and particularly to Balanchine’s one-act Swan Lake (and any accompanying curve balls).
There are these black swans, and a white swan with a tiara, gliding on a lake in the woods. Hunters arrive, joined shortly thereafter by their leader, who we know from the program to be Prince Siegfried. Siegfried sees the white swan with a tiara, who we know from the program is Odette, Queen of the Swans, emerge from the woods after having shape-shifted into a ballerina, and is immediately smitten. But Odette is very sad. We’re not told why. The black swans, who also have morphed into ballerinas, then appear. They all dance. But there’s this bird-like beast, identified as Von Rotbart, a Sorcerer, who controls all the swans. Rotbart (there’s no ‘h’ in this version of his name) compels the ballerinas to go back to being swans. The swans swim away, and Prince Siegfried is left alone in the woods, sad and lonely and a little bewildered. The end.
If it sounds as if there’s a little something missing from this scenario, it’s because there is. What’s missing is Swan Lake the ballet, as we have come to know it.
As he did so frequently, Balanchine distilled Swan Lake to its essence, creating a one-act mixture of the white acts in the ‘standard’ productions (those based on the Petipa/Ivanov version of 1895, which was a revival of the original production of 1877). In the process, Balanchine deleted such thesis-provoking plotlines as the Prince’s relationship with his mother (who, after all, orders him to pick a bride and at the same time gives him the cross-bow by which he would hunt for her) and anything relating to Odile [e.g., the deep psychological meaning behind Siegfried’s succumbing to Odile’s temptations; the symbolism behind pure white Odette vs seductive black Odile; whether Odile was Rothbart’s daughter or Rothbart’s created puppet (not really mutually exclusive); whether Odette and Odile were really different sides of Siegfried’s (or any man’s) ideal woman (I could get into more detail, but this is a family review), and whether “Swan Lake” should end in suicide, triumph over evil, rebirth, or some combination of all of them.] The result is your standard operating ‘boy-meets-girl-he-can’t-have’ story, but instead of the girl coming from another world (La Sylphide), or another class (Giselle), or who’s already dead (Giselle; La Bayadere), or a dream (La Bayadere; Don Quixote), she’s a folk-tale inspired bird.
Sort of takes the fun out of it.
It’s tempting to try to go back to the origins of Swan Lake to see if Balanchine was trying to eliminate all of the bells and whistles as defined by Petipa/Ivanov and return to some original folk story. But Swan Lake's folk origins aren’t all that clear – and are probably irrelevant. It is much more likely that Balanchine went back to the version with which he was familiar and distilled it, eliminating those nifty, nasty plot diversions.
I know no one who likes this one act version. To many viewers, it’s a betrayal. They come expecting Swan Lake; they get a version that’s both condensed and cut-and-paste and nothing at all like what they paid to see. The usual reason given by more knowledgeable members of the audience is that it is both emotionally and visually monochromatic (even with the black swans), and inherently less interesting to watch.
But this version deserves to be viewed on its own terms, not just as a distillation, but also as a complete production, limited as it is to a consolidation of Acts II and IV of the full-length. Evaluated on its own merits, I’m left with a decidedly mixed opinion. The white act choreography for the corps, based on Lev Ivanov’s choreography for the white acts in the 1895 St. Petersburg production, is stunning (which is at least in part a tribute to the quality of NYCB’s corps dancers). I don’t miss the Big Swans or the Cygnets – the additional choreography, including the Pas de Neuf and the Valse Bluette, more than compensates. And while the choreography for Odette and Siegfried is not as extraordinary as it is in the ‘standard’ version, it is sufficient – even without mime – to convey the hopelessness of the situation they’re in.
But even limited to the white acts, this one-act Swan Lake is disappointing in many respects. The elimination of plot add-ons, if that’s what they were, also eliminates much of what makes Swan Lake as we know it as compelling as it is – without the battling sub-plots and contrasting forces of energy, it’s just another set of pretty patterns. Moreover, together with eliminating these ‘extraneous’ ingredients, Balanchine also eliminated all mime. So not only do we not have Odile and Siegfried’s mother, we also don’t have a pledge of love, or the story of Odette’s predicament.
I also miss the opportunity for individual virtuosity built into the Petipa/Ivanov version. Displays of ‘swan arms,’ which can look beautiful if done well, have been limited; Odette’s entrance is a walk-on, and her ‘Act II exit’ under Rotbart’s command is more sad than dramatic. The absence of pyrotechnics (the extraordinary lifts that are usually present in Act II, for example) is disappointing. And the character of ‘Rotbart’ is a non-entity. In a production that cries out for some change of tempo, some drama, all that this Rotbart is allowed to do is to swing his arms back and forth a few times, stomp around like The Incredible Hulk, and wear this ridiculous bird suit. Surely the costume can be imagined better than that – he’s a Sorcerer after all, not an oversized black-feathered parrot. [Yes, I’m aware that Rothbart’s costume for the original production has been described as bird-like.]
And then there are the hunters. They enter the stage at the beginning of the piece (following the overture/parade of the swans) in large numbers, an advance brigade rather than the small entourage that usually accompanies Siegfried in other versions, and then they disappear. They reappear later in the act when the black swan/ballerinas frame the pas de deux between Siegfried and Odette. Although dressed as hunters, they neither hunt nor partner the black swans. Rather, they’re human pillars on which the black swan/ballerinas in the corps rest – one on one side; one the other – while each hunter/pillar grips the waist of the swan/ballerina on each side. Why are they there? If this is some vestige from the original staging (1877, 1895, or any other year), it’s a silly choice to have made, given the paring down in other respects. If their presence is only to assist in the creation of a preferred choreographic picture, it undermines the apparent effort to eliminate superfluous bloat. And if there is some plot-related purpose for their presence, what is it? Aren’t the swans afraid of the hunters? Was there some sort of temporary rapprochement (as there was between Siegried and Odette)? Was there some lakeside getting-to-know-you soiree?
But all can be forgiven, almost, when the lead dancers are Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle (on the 19th), and Sara Mearns and Jared Angle (on the 22nd). In this role in particular, Ms. Mearns’s natural tendency toward overstated emotionalism is not only appropriate, but essential – in light of the absence of mime – to convey the requisite desperation. Although I saw more pathos than regality in her portrayal, it was a super performance.
This second program in NYCB’s Tchaikovsky Celebration also included the masterpieces Allegro Brillante and Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, both of which were recently reviewed, and both of which I consider to be the finest examples of the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaboration. Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar gave a scintillating performance on the 19th, and Megan Fairchild and Mr. Ramasar did the same on the 22nd. The four movements of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 – Elegie, Valse Melancoliue, Scherzo, and Tema Con Variazioni – were given commendable performances by, respectively, Teresa Reichlen and Ask La Cour, Janie Taylor and Sebastien Marcovici, Erica Pereira and Daniel Ulbricht, and Ms. Fairchild and Andrew Veyette on the 19th; and on the 22nd by Rebecca Krohn and Zachary Catazaro, Abi Stafford and Justin Peck; Ana Sophia Scheller and Antonio Carmena, and Ashley Bouder and Mr. Veyette. Without in any way ‘ranking’ any of the performances, all of which were top notch, Ms. Fairchild and Mr. Veyette gave ‘Theme’ a special flair, and Ms. Krohn added extraordinary intensity to ‘Elegie’.
The third, and final, repertory program in the Tchaikovsky Celebration (the final program will be Peter Martins’s full-length Sleeping Beauty) included Divertimento from 'Le Baiser de la Fee', Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Bal de Couture, and Diamonds(the third gem in Balanchine’s evening-length Jewels). Except for Mr. Martins’s 'Bal,' which didn’t really fit, the program provided further examples of the extraordinary Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaboration. [Mr. Martins might consider restructuring the piece to more clearly link the ‘bal’ to the piece’s central pas de deux, and to downplay the ‘couture’ – which as presented restricts the ballet to being a piece d’occasion (the ‘Valentino gala’) rather than a choreographic work that will endure.]
'Baiser,' the pas de deux, and Diamonds each provide interesting counterpoints to Balanchine’s Swan Lake.
‘Baiser’ is as fresh and streamlined and exhilarating as his Swan Lake is disappointing. While the underlying story is similar (a boy loves a girl and she him, but they live in different worlds and their love cannot endure), the treatment is very different, more abstract, and in this viewer’s opinion much more successful. Indeed, 'Divertimento' hints at what Balanchine’s Swan Lake might have been had it not been tethered to the Petipa/Ivanov concept. There are fairies, but no fairy costumes or wings; there is love and loss, but no pathos; and there is a ‘search’ for what cannot be found (there’s always a search). But it’s all displayed as a series of beautiful and bittersweet choreographed emotions unburdened by restrictive plotlines, sets or costumes, with enduring and haunting images of hopeless parallel dreams that can never be fulfilled. The extraordinarily sensitive performances by Ms. Peck and Robert Fairchild were breathtaking.
Following the 1877 premiere of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky was asked to compose a new pas de deux for the lead ballerina. [The pas de deux’s genesis is a bit more complicated than that, but there’s no need to delve into that here.] The ballerina was reportedly pleased with it, but the composition was not part of the original score and was not available to Petipa when he revived the ballet in 1895. The composition was lost for more than 50 years. It is the music for this Act III pas de deux that Balanchine used to choreograph what became his free-standing and broadly familiar Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. While it might have been interesting, as well as a bit ironic, to have included this pas de deux on the same program as Balanchine’s one act Swan Lake, I’ll take it whenever I can get it. The piece is a glorious example of Balanchine style (constant, exhilarating movement but without unnecessary pyrotechnics) applied to Tchaikovsky’s music, and is now a repertory staple in many companies around the world. The pas de deux was given a rousing performance by Ms. Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz.
While the performance of Diamonds on the 25th also was comparable, in a sense, to Balanchine’s Swan Lake, the comparison was a result of the performance by Ms. Mearns rather than the choreography.
Although I appreciate the piece more in the context of Jewels as a whole, Diamonds is a particularly appropriate conclusion to the repertory section of the Tchaikovsky Celebration. If any of the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky pieces can be seen as an homage to Balanchine’s Russian imperial roots, it is Diamonds – even more than Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. Clearly, as the dancers repeatedly bow – literally to each other – they are communicating Balanchine’s tribute to his Russian heritage.
The piece seems highly repetitious at first, but repetitious the way that facets on a brilliantly cut diamond are repetitious, and gradually builds in intensity to its finale (which resembles, and appears derivative of, Balanchine’s ‘Theme and Variations’). In all of its movements, however, the piece has an innate majesty to it. To this viewer, in the central pas de deux (the ‘andante elegiac’ movement), Ms. Mearns was doleful rather than noble – as if her stage persona had carried over from her Odette; she seemed to be in mourning. The characterization, perhaps Ms. Mearns’s ‘curve ball,’ may have been appropriate for an elegy, but in this viewer’s opinion not for this piece. But the pathos disappeared immediately thereafter, replaced by the regal demeanor that should have been there throughout, and Ms. Mearns had the NYCB audience cheering. Ms. Mearns was partnered gallantly by Ask La Cour.
And that, in a sense, is a distillation of what these Tchaikovsky ballets (if not all ballets) are about. Tchaikovsky pitches his score. Balanchine ‘sees it’ differently from others, and creates miraculous ballets that provide a new way of ‘seeing’ the music. And dancers see these ballets differently from the way other dancers see them, creating performances that provide a different way for an audience to ‘see’ the role, or the ballet as a whole. Sometimes the curve ball that the dancer pitches results in a disappointing strike out, or a fowl ball; sometimes in a home run. So it goes.