Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Balanchine's Ballets

Last night I had the unique aesthetic experience of going to the ballet. I recently joined the Fourth Ring Society a cheap way to get season tickets to the New York City Ballet, and last night I went to my second show of the season. Both of the performances I’ve attended so far consisted entirely of ballets choreographed by the great George Balanchine. The first show was a series of five short “leotard” ballets (so called because the dancers wear minimalist leotards and the scenery consists only of lighting) set to Stravinsky music, exploring the working relationship between the choreographer and the composer. But last night’s performance was a more balanced introduction to Balanchine’s oeuvre, as it included the leotard ballet Square Dance, the incredibly romantic Liebeslieder Waltze, and a razzmatazz finish: Stars and Stripes.

Having now seen a broader array of Balanchine’s work, I still think his leotard ballets are his best. They seem just as modern and innovative as they did when they were first made. Along with the sets and costumes, Balanchine often expelled narrative formulas, so that the ballet becomes, like the music itself, abstract. What’s left is the beauty of form and emotion, and erasing dance’s extras allows you to concentrate on those beauties more completely. In other words, this is ballet’s Abstract Expressionism.

The principal ballerinas in Liebeslieder Waltzer, Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Miranda Weese, and Wendy Whelan, get extra points for looking light on their feet in floor-length full-skirted evening gowns that were a cross between Godey’s Lady Book (1850s) and Dior’s New Look (1950s). The men, who perhaps should have looked silly in coattails and white ties, only looked elegant. You felt that men were meant to dress and dance in these clothes, and that life would be better if only they did. The ballet also featured four singers and two pianists (playing on the same piano) on stage, and was set in a perfect representation of a Viennese ballroom. Its large mirrors and wedding-cake-like embellishments reminded me of the IES building that I studied in during my four months in Vienna. Actually, the combination of the set and the on-stage musicians made me feel like a little kid (from the 19th century) who had sneaked out of bed to watch my parent’s annual ball, dreaming of the day when I could waltz in a big dress (still hoping for that one). For the second movement the ballerinas changed into lavender-grey tutus, having clearly had enough of the bulky ball gowns. It was like the ballroom had been overtaken by fairies who had been watching from the garden for the adults to go to bed.

I started to fall asleep myself during the second intermission (having woken up at 6am for a work event), so it was a relief when Stars and Stripes began and jolted me awake. Set to Sousa’s marches and given at times a jazzy twist, this ballet was pure energy and fun. Two cadets of ballerinas and one cadet of male dancers each took over the stage like toy soldiers and spinning tops. Then the two soloists, Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette, really brought down the house. This part of the ballet was featured in the movie Center Stage, but while the film emphasizes the athleticism of the male dancer, the real ballet is all about the ballerina. She was on fire, and the audience couldn’t get enough of her.


The evening’s performance was dedicated to Melissa Hayden, who danced in the NYCB for 23 years and had leading roles in more than 20 Balanchine ballets, including Liebeslieder Walzer and Stars and Stripes. Hearing the tributes from her partners certainly added to the emotion of the evening. I walked out of that jewel box theatre into the plaza of Lincoln Center feeling very misty eyed. That big beautiful fountain was shushing, lights in the neighboring trees were sparkling, and, just in case you weren’t yet convinced that it was a magical evening, it was snowing.

1 comment:

Ricardo said...

Very Nice. It brought to mind the various times I have walked out of the Ballet or Opera, or any event in which the performace was so strong that I still felt "in it" even though taxi's were honking and people were rushing to get somewhere.

It's amazing to me that so many shows on Broadway and off-off Broadway, and the cinema, generally fail to leave you "in it". And yet, here we find that sense of comfort in an activity so classical. It just reinforces the role of Tradition in an age of hyper-evolution.

I hope to join one of these days.