"The Four Temperaments", "Grand Synthesis", "Sinfonietta"
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
August 23, 2011
by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson
Ballet West brought 48 dancers East, to Wolf Trap. That's slightly more on-stage performers than the Ballet Russe companies used to tour but those legendary, long vanished caravans also traveled with enough musicians to form a small orchestra. In contrast, Ballet West danced to recorded music for this visit, live sound being something current economics simply won't allow. Still, this company can count on something the Ballets Russes only dreamt of - a permanent home. It sounds good. In practice, though, a home base can be both a blessing and a burden. Salt Lake City, Utah where Ballet West rehearses, tries out new productions and performs regularly, isn't on the international dance circuit. That imposes obligations on the company - it must keep its steady audience educated and aware because that public has no other source for standards, trends, traditions and innovations or for just about anything else. Moreover, when Ballet West travels it is expected to be distinctive, to represent its home and "the spirit of the West". Doing all of that is far from simple and easy. For this one night stand at Wolf Trap, Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute chose familiar works by 2 internationally famous choreographers and a newer piece by a dance maker not from the West but from Wolf Trap's neighborhood - the Washington, DC area.
The program began with a ballet by George Balanchine, likely the biggest name in 20th Century choreography. Even so, it was a chancy choice because Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" is tricky. His "Serenade" or "Concerto Barocco" would have been safer. "4 Ts", from 1946, was one of Balanchine's first experiments in split atom classicism. He did not process the ballet's 7 topics (3 "themes" and 4 "moods") all in the same way and to the same extent. Easiest to recognize, to take literally, is topic 6 - the "Phlegmatic" or third temperament.
"Phlegmatic" is a male solo against a female Greek chorus. The man has a definite persona, an ambitious one which Balanchine shows as being deficient in endurance. The phlegmatic man strives yet definitely wilts. Depicted more abstractly are "Choleric" and "Melancholic", with "Sanguinic" being the most elusive example of the four moods. That "Sanguinic" is a male-female duet based on body-to-body attraction becomes its principal clue to the blood carousing through the dancers' forms.
In "Melancholic" a male soloist again is placed against a female group, as in "Phlegmatic, but this man moves with low centers of gravity and slow pacing. It isn't literally a dirge that he dances yet the funereal isn't all that far off. "Choleric" is an assertive female soloist who dominates the stage whether she is by herself or in encounters with males or - as in the "Finale" - she commands an entire assembly of dancers.
What about the "Theme" couples who appear prior to the quartet of "Temperaments"? All three are male-female pairs. Dialogues about which partner leads, which partner follows and when seem to be in progress. By no means are these couples without character, yet Balanchine appears to be more interested in exploring the movement possibilities and limtations of partnering and the dynamic scope of Paul Hindemith's music for piano and strings than in dissecting the moods of these six participants.
Ballet West's cast did very well in "4 Ts" for the most part. The "Theme" couples - Emily Adams & Beau Pearson, Elizabeth McGrath & Christopher Anderson, Jacquelin Straughan & Rex Tilton - showed Balanchine's movement ideas cleanly, with suitably sharp edges and emphases. Nor were they impersonal demonstrators. Christopher Ruud as "Melancholic" displayed pliancy, fine degrees of pacing and sensuality even though he lacks a streamlined body. Katherine Lawrence caught the eye more than Christopher Sellars in the "Sanguinic" duet. Adrian Fry gave "Phlegmatic" dynamic variety but cartooned the acting on occasion. Haley Henderson Smith made "Choleric" something of a school marm rather than an Amazon Queen. The 14 women of the Greek chorus were as urgent and mutable as the choreography required. With motion having been explored and the emotions having been dissected and purged, this ballet's "Finale" builds to a crescendo of elation.
The program's other well-known work, Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta", not only begins and ends with a flourish of dancing - heroic leaps by its cast to the fanfares of Leos Janacek's brief and bold little symphony, but much of what comes inbetween also is upbeat. The movement is fairly classical for Kylian although his vocabulary of balletic steps is limited and soon becomes repetitious. What I find particularly annoying is this choreographer's refusal to put the women on toe. Oddly, I miss toe shoes less when the women's feet are off the floor and pointed or stand arched in high half-toe. It is with feet flat on the floor or with the heel raised just a little that the absence of pointe shoes gives the female foot flimsiness and becomes a flaw. Kylian fuses ballet and modern dance material mostly for the women, when they engage in duets with men. These are efficient fusions but both styles loose character. Luckily, "Sinfonietta" is short, its proportion of unfused ballet is high and it spells Janacek's musical dynamics smoothly. The cast of 14 dancers gave "Sinfonietta" the oomph it needed.
"Grand Synthesis" was the newest work Ballet West brought (premiered 2008 in Salt Lake City). Its choreographer, Susan Shields, trained classically at The Washington Ballet but was given the advice by her teacher Mary Day to become a modern dancer. That she did for choreographers Lar Lubovitch and Mark Morris and for the experimental company of ballet superstar emeritus Mikhail Baryshnikov. Shields teaches at Virginia's George Mason University and choreographs for ballet companies yet unlike Kylian isn't prone to fusing and denaturing styles. Rather, she works from within a style to expand it. Her plentiful movement material for "Grand Synthesis" is balletic. The dancers approach it in three different ways. They romp with it, they seem to rehearse it earnestly and they make ritual of it. There are 20 dancers, men and women, initially divided into two gender-mixed teams. A busy piece of music, Graham Fitkin's "Log", determines which of the three approaches the dancers take. The romping dominates and "Grand Synthesis" is much fun for the audience and apparently the cast too. There isn't quite enough ritual (the music's fault) to take the ballet to another level. The final moments, when the two initial teams blend fully, probably allude to both the Kylian and Balanchine ballets' conclusions but I'm not sure because the lights went out too soon.
Intentional lighting had been a problem in "The Four Temperaments" because the background's color changed annoyingly often; Kevin Dryer's scheme must have been long after "the original" illumination design. Ballet West's dancing has a characteristic and amiable cohesion, whether or not it represents the spirit of the West.