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Boston Ballet

Jerome Robbins' "Interplay," George Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" & Rudi van Dantzig's "Four Last Songs"

Wang Center, Boston, MA

March 11, 2001
By S. E. Arnold


Read as if a triumph of innocence, the three works on the Boston Ballet Celebration of Dance program champions a world at once virtuous and wistful. The exuberant democracy of Interplay, for example, connects to the spiritual acceptance of death in Four Last Songs. Four Last Songs in turn points to an ideal world governed by the spotlessly graded forms of Theme and Variations.

Set on four couples to music by Morton Gould, the pairings and re-pairings of the group give Interplay, by Jerome Robbins an air of a family picnic rather than the broil of a Drawinian rut. Indeed, the upbeat jazzy pieces by Gould banish the dark side of competition to wash, instead, the activity of the couples with the colors of mutuality and cooperation. Costumed for out door play, for example, the men wear white slippers and socks that suggest sneakers, the dancers easily chased, caught, and matched the effortless choreographic weave of ballet, jazz, and Broadway. Gender barriers also fall in the four sections of Interplay, particularly in the finale titled "Team Play." Mix gender teams form for a dance contest that delivers a win- win situation for audiences as bravura moves pass back and forth between dancers without regard to traditional gender scoring. At the closing moment of Interplay, the dancers in line abreast rush the audience as if to tackle them. The males, however, slid to a grinning finish between the feet of the ladies who shape victory with their arms.

The motifs of embrace, turns, and lifts, apt for a work set on four couples, thread through Four Last Songs, by Rudi Van Dantzig, and bind it together the way motifs might in the eponymous work of Richard Strauss. Although played without pause, a fresh solo couple marks the change in text, sung in German by soprano Margaret O'Keefe. Above all, however, the subject of death links the independent paths of dance and music. The Four Last Songs of Strauss, for example, completes instead the romantic sense and sentiment of the dramatic weather-scape on the backdrop rather than a dance image. This particular fusion of sight and sound plus the non-threatening male figure of Death overfills the wistful pas de deux with portent. This overflow of portentousness trivializes its subject matter and renders Dantzig's Four Last Songs into a feel good piece of predictability. Yet, if one shrouds the literary content and turns the music down or off, the piece after all begins in silence, then one may consider the dance alone. The huge space consuming circles, the endless spins and partnered turns, abundant lifts, and the near absence of time articulating steps and balletic poses make the dance breathless (meaning exciting rather than dead) and interesting.

In sharp contrast to the endless polyphony of sound and the ever-evolving patterns of sight in Four Last Songs, Theme and Variations, instead, reveals the conspiracy of dance and musical forms to effect a poetic sense of permanence. A sense of permanence projected, moreover, by Balanchine's connection of the art of the past with the present. In Theme and Variations, Balanchine distills the ethos of Petipa ballets, its decorum, costumes, hierarchies, forms, manipulations of music, and lexicon, then filters the 'essence' of this process through a modernist sensibility. Accordingly, Balanchine rearranged the fourth movement (titled tema con variazioni) of the Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 so to shape his theme and variations into the divisions that echo the scenes and acts of Petipa ballets. Within this abstract, technical sounding theme and variations procedure, Balanchine compresses the likeness of a 19th century three-act story ballet. The 'narrative' in Theme and Variations, however, depends on familiar forms or structures rather than characters and incident. Sculptural poses, slower tempo, right side left side symmetry in the corps, and a pas with variations for the principals, for example, distinguish the 'vision scene' from its 'celebration scene' or processional. By its historical references and its procedure, Theme and Variations embodies, and perhaps guarantees the spiritual solaces promised by, the formal and structural elements that seem to transcend time.

Noticing form and structure, however, leads one; it seems naturally, to noticing technique or other performance values. Although scored for four couples Interpaly nonetheless highlighted corps dancers, Zack Grubbs, Mikhail Ilyin, Sarah Lamb, Jose Martin, and Lyn Tally. Additionally, Theme and Variations gave the audience an opportunity, without say the distractions of plot and production, to focus on and enjoy the technique and artistry of each of its twenty-three cast members. Yet, one felt a singular pleasure watching Jennifer Gelfand dance, whether in Four Last Songs partnered by Paul Thurssell or in Theme and Variations partnered by Jose Martin. In Theme and Variations particularly, Gelfand's confidence and clarity made a compelling invitation to join the celebration of dance.

 

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Edited by Marie.


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