Balanchine Black & White
Episodes; Le Tombeau de Couperin; Symphony in Three Movements
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
May 4, 2011
by Tom Phillips
Copyright 2011 by Tom Phillips
Just when you're ready to give up on New York City Ballet and their vain attempts to be cool in the 21st century, they turn around and do something that shows why they exist, and why they are a national treasure. Opening its spring season with a week of Balanchine's black and white abstract ballets, the company reminds us of its raison d'etre as the original home of some of the greatest, most definitive art of the 20th century. On Wednesday evening they revealed three Balanchine masterpieces, to music by three 20th century masters -- Webern, Ravel, and Stravinsky.
More than ten years into the next century, we can just begin to see the 20th in perspective, and the enormity of its effects on the human race. Among these were a series of technological innovations that began to replace face-to-face human communication, and quantum leaps in the violence of warfare, so that what was once a branch of politics carried out by professional soldiers became a system of slaughter threatening every soul on earth. Abstraction began in art as a retreat from the horrors of reality into the purity of form, and in most cases it produced a sad, dehumanized, weird and soulless kind of art. But in the hands of the greatest artists of the century it became a redoubt of civilization itself, where the values of humanity – harmony, compassion, peace – could be hidden and preserved. You can see it, however faintly, in the faces of Picasso’s disassembled subjects, or in the roar of the wounded bull in his Guernica. And you can see it, again and again, even in Balanchine’s most severe abstractions.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Episodes, set in 1959 to the weird, sparsely orchestrated music of Webern. Nothing could be weirder than the first three sections, pas de deux for couples who seem to have lost their ability to connect in normal ways. The most striking image was amplified by the long-limbed couple of Ask la Cour and Teresa Reichlen – she upside-down and behind him, arms around his waist, her legs and his arms forming a giant set of horns above his head. Staggering in and out of their separate, unstable spotlights, they could be refugees, like Balanchine and his fellow expatriates, blown across the world by revolution and war. Or they could be kids who simply have no idea what’s happening to them, or what to do about it. Wendy Whelan and Sebastien Marcovici followed with a duet in which the woman is completely manipulated by her partner, but in a detached manner that suggests she is no more to him than a tool or a toy.
But Balanchine does not leave us here. In the final Ricercata for 16 dancers, based on Bach’s “Musical Offering,” we hear violins sing at last. And we see the calm, rational gestures of classical ballet, albeit in a stark and colorless landscape. In this section Sara Mearns seemed to understand perfectly that she was the bearer and restorer of something precious, and said it all in a simple, generous arabesque. At the end, the dancers stand in a deep contraction, heads down, then open up to face the audience, palms front as in a benediction. Peace be with you.
Still, Episodes leaves us feeling a bit queasy, as if the finale might have been tacked on to spare us the horror of an empty conclusion. A more profound redemption may well be found in Balanchine’s Tombeau de Couperin, set in 1975 to music of Ravel. Usually this suite of square and contra dances, set in a double quadrille for 16 corps dancers, is treated as a light diversion, a small gift by Balanchine to his corps de ballet. But can we really ignore that these gentle, communal revels are set to a piece of music Ravel wrote to commemorate six friends who died in World War One, that while the tempos are gay the modes of the music are mournful, that the title itself refers to death, that the dancers are dressed in black and face each other at all times, not the audience? The gaiety we see is precisely that of a memorial service, at a decent interval after a death, where the community renews itself in the basic ceremony of civilization, the dance. Seeing Tombeau is like watching from the side at a country dance where everyone knows each other and knows what to do, where the figures are performed not for the audience but for one’s partner and the others in the dance. The layers of reference are manifold: it’s Ravel’s homage to his slain friends, and to Couperin and French Baroque style; it’s also Balanchine’s homage to Ravel, to French formalism and American spunk -- the twin roots of the square dance -- to his company and his dancers, to the redemptive power of dance itself. If Episodes redeems weirdness, Tombeau goes even further -- it goes all the way, redeeming suffering and death.
The 16 celebrants had just the right proportions of formality and fun. Their lines were not always straight, but that doesn’t matter. Ashley Laracey looked like she was having more fun than anyone else, and that’s all right too. There’s one like that at every dance.
Symphony in Three Movements has its roots in World War Two; Stravinsky supposedly wrote part of the music in response to newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers. Amidst today’s wars it can still inspire “shock and awe” with its squadrons of menacing invaders, its signal corps and radar patterns, its helicopter leaps onto center stage. All this is the context for a central pas de deux that is one of Balanchine’s weirdest and most chilling. I can’t match the description written by critic Paul Gellen after the 1972 premiere, so I’ll quote it: “the dance isn’t combative, but they never appear to give in to each other with total weight and harmony; they’ve forgotten how to make love. The air around them is all oxygen, cold and clear. Too pure. The pas de deux ends with (the ballerina) posed against her partner’s side, arms uplifted like frozen snakes – a modern Shiva.”
Symphony in Three Movements must be danced with the speed, efficiency and ferocity of an amphibious assault, and unfortunately it was not at this performance. Daniel Ulbricht and Tiler Peck had energy and elevation as the first couple, but not the lethal intent that’s needed for their landings. In the second rank of soloists, only Georgina Pazcoguin opened fire. And in the pas de deux, Jared Angle was strong but too dominant over the waif-like Janie Taylor, who looked more like a victim than a destroyer.
Balanchine Black & White runs through next Tuesday, kicking off a short spring season that is long on NYCB’s 20th–century legacy. To judge by the large audience’s response to this program, black and white is back in style. In any case it will be around for centuries to come, hopefully right here where it was born.
Copyright 2011 by Tom Phillips