Where Music and Choreography Meet on Eye-Level
Pleading for a New Category of Literature
The New York City Ballet in Germany
with ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins
New York City Ballet
March 16 though 18, 2012
by Horst Koegler
copyright © 2012 Horst Koegler
It´s more than thirty years since the New York City Ballet appeared in Germany at the 1981 Berlin Festival. They returned for a lovely spring-time week, with two performances at the big industrial city of Ludwigshafen on the Rhine and and three more at the Grosses Festspielhaus in Germany´s favourite spa of Baden-Baden, two cities which have no ballet companies of their own, but invite troupes from abroad for guest-seasons. The company danced a range of ballets, from Balanchine's “Divertimento No.15”, “Tarantella” and “Symphony in Three Movements” to Robbins' “Dances at a Gathering”. Baden-Baden has built up over the years an ambitious programme, dominated by the annual visits of John Neumeier and the Hamburg Ballet (very much like the New York City Ballet in Aspen, Col.). Considering that NYCB is definitely the favourite international company over here since that first appearance at the Berlin Festival of 1952, thirty years was a rather long time that Germany had to live without the Americans.
Having been present by chance during the premiere of “Tarantella” at the company´s old home at City Center on 7 January 1964 during my first visit to the US, the impression of Patricia McBride and Edward Villella buoyantly flying about the stage is imprinted so strongly on my mind that I have some difficulties in appreciating later performances, generally as I also liked, for instance, its whirlwind passages, recreated by Suki Schorer and John Clifford. Nor can I say that its Baden-Baden performance by Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz, brillantly as it was executed, did accelerate my heart-beat to that almost fainting tempo as I remembered McBride and Villella skimming the floor.
I had never seen”Divertimento N. 15” before, but as Mozart ranks as the Jupiter of my musical house-gods and as I had always marveled at Balanchine´s “Symphony Concertante” to Mozart´s K. 364, I was very much looking forward to K. 287. I was not disappointed. It´s one of Balanchine´s most classical pieces, tightly fitted to the music´s forms and graces, and as such its patterns are structured by symmetries to such degree that all of its five movements look like variations on the subject of symmetry. As such I find it endlessly fascinating, with its virtuosity hidden rather than of the ostentatious bravura kind, its key word being courtesy. In fact it could come from a handbook of courtly etiquette. And as such it was danced by its cast, headed by Megan Farchild, Lauren King and Erica Pereira, by Abi Stafford and Janie Taylor, Daniel Applebaum, Zachary Canzaro and Andrew Veyette as a model of 18th century elegance.
As if to demonstrate that the basic material of the extended danse d´école is capable of demonstrating exactly the contrary, the asymmetrical and harshness of modern times, the Baden-Baden programme offered “Symphony in Three Movements”, created in 1964 at the climax of the Cold War, for the opening of the new New York State Theatre. If Stravinsky aimed at reflecting ´this our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension. and at least cessation and relief´, his stabbing and yelping and mercilessly driving rhythms often sound like a distant echo from “Sacre du printemps” times.
Balanchine has translated them into stabbing and angular steps and bizarre patterns, which show him as getting as near to the sources of “Sacre du printemps” as his genuinely not Dionysian but rather Apollonian nature would allow him to do. In fact if I had often wished in the past that Balanchine would have dared to accept the challenge of choreographing Stravinsky´s “Sacre” score, and thereby subjugating its elemental chaos and destruction to the intellectual control and order of the mind, he seems to me to have in his ballet tamed the irrational forces of the music through his choreography and lifted them to a different spiritual level. So that after a long time, even some decades of not hearing the music, I sensed that Balanchine has sublimated the music to an altogether different aggregate state. Is the ballet “Symphony in Three Movements” then Balanchine´s reaction to Stravinsky´s “Sacre” – actually Balanchine´s “Transfiguration du Printemps”? If this sounds too fancy to fudamentalists of the original ´Scenes of pagan Russia´, I suggest reading the many comments by Stravinsky himself and score of musicologists of references to “Sacre”, like Eric Walter White´s ´the handling of the ostinati and the shock tactics… recall movements like the Glorification of the Chosen Victim and the Sacrificial Dance.` In her book on “The Stravinsky Festival” Nancy Goldner has directed our attention at ´Balanchine alternately scurrying just underneath, tearing through, and running ahead of Stravinsky, but Stravinsky has the last word´.
With the diagonal of girls in white leotards at the opening of the curtain after the explosive flash of the music reminded me very much of a cohort of Amazons of the Penthesilea tribe lining up for their morning exercise, continuing with their arms swinging aggressively in wide circles and plunging forward. And so it was executed by the dancers (Goldner speaks of ´a demoniac invocation´). It continues with clockwork precision, with its chilling tension somewhat relieved in the second movement, with Abi Statford and Jared Angle moulding their poses like sculptors experimenting with their own bodies as material, before, in the third movement ,the entire cast assembles for the march section and the horrors of war, exorcised by the Nazis, but finally placated by the advancing Allied forces. Danced by the NYCB acolytes it looked as if they had received a special training at West Point Military Academy.
And so to “Dances at a Gathering”, which I had first seen a couple of weeks after their 1969 New York premier when the company guested with it in Monte Carlo. And I have to admit that from my first viewing I considered it as one of the about half a dozen of masterworks of the 20th century – actually as redemption from the ur-sin of modern ballet Fokine had committed when he created his “Les Sylphides” back in 1909 for Diaghilevs Ballets Russes in Paris, with Chopin´s precious piano pieces blown up to orchestral size, allowing numerous alterations of their original tempi, while often sentimentalizing to tearjerking status.
With “Dances at a Gathering” since performed also by the Stuttgart and Hamburg companies (with Germany being the only country, I guess, with two productions of the work apart from the US), I am every time carried aways by their elegiac sweep and incandescent energy. And though I cannot maintain that its today cast of Gonzalo Garcia, Sterling Hyltin, Rebecca Krohn, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Brittany Pollack, Tyler Angle, Adrian Danching-Waring, Adam Hendrickson and Amae Ramasar, matches my rememberances of Villella, Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, McBride and Verdy, of Clifford, Maiorano, John Prinz and their colleagues of 1969, I felt again overwhelmed by their collective force and power, not to mention their brillant virtuosity and obviously inexhaustible energy.
The more often I see “Dances at a Gathering”, the more I feel moved by the incredibly rich human story behind its wordless plot. So that I feel tempted to call it an action ballet without a libretto. As such it stands in a row with, say, Balanchine´s early “Serenade” and Ashton´s masterwork “Symphonic Variations” - on a less exalted level, I am thinking of a lot of Van Manen ballets (like his superb Beethoven “Adagio Hammerklavier”) or Spoerli´s two ballets to Bach´s “Suites for Solo Cello” – i.e. ballets without any story which can be told by words. And yet they deal with all sorts of human relationships or mental states and thus appeal to the imagination of the viewer, thereby establishing a new category of literature, resembling a short story or novella rather than a novel or drama. Surely the time has arrived for a distinguishd author to define an appropriate literary genre for ballets of this type – ballets in which music and choreography meet on eye-level while the rest belongs to the mind.
Photos by Paul Kolnik.