Wednesday, January 19, 2011


New York City Ballet: Winter Season Begins--Walpurgisnacht, Duo Concertant, Valse-Fantaisie, The Four Temperaments

The story of ballet, according to Jennifer Homans' magnificent tome, Apollo's Angels, includes this bit of history from the French Academie de Poesie et de Musique, established under Charles IX and influenced we are told, by neo-Platonists:

"If he danced, so the men of the Academy believed, man might break some of these earthly ties and raise himself up, closer to the angels. The movements of the body, disciplined with poetic rhythm and meter and brought into accord with musical and mathematical principles, could tune him to celestial harmonies. . . . this sense of perfect mathematical proportion . . . led the Abbe Mersenne, in a moment of high inspiration in 1636, so refer to the 'author of the Universe' as 'the great Ballet-master.'"

I sometimes, in my overly brainy--or dare I say, melancholic-- way wonder what dance is and why it moves us. This quote has now been lodged in my brain as I read Homans' book slowly--anything I read these days, I read slowly--and as I went to see the New York City Ballet last night, the first night of the Winter season.

There were four dances, all Balanchine choreography and by the end of the evening, I was really struck by the breadth of his ambition and the range of his work. That's one thing about an artist--I'm always more impressed by people who try a variety of things, even if some fail, than someone who sticks to a tried and true recipe.

The first performance of the evening, Walpurgisnacht, takes its title and music from the opera Faust. You've heard of the expression: a Faustian bargain? In both the opera and the play, the very learned doctor Faustus is bored; his life of books hasn't made him happy. So he makes a deal with the devil to obtain and experience the love of Marguerite, a beautiful woman, unparalleled among her peers. At one point, Faust is taken to watch Walpurgisnacht, a kind of "springtime Halloween" in the pagan-meets-Christianity world, which takes place on the Eve of May Day, when the souls of the dead run wild and free. The holiday is still celebrated in parts of Europe in particular and is, of course, associated with springtime, the end of winter and fertility. Some parts of the world celebrate with bonfires; you can be sure there is also plenty of drinking and general merriment.

Even though the Balanchine ballet isn't intended to be a direct representation of Walpurgisnacht, the music and the title do inform the piece. The women begin with their hair tidily kept in buns.

(Photo-not City Ballet)

By the end, their long hair streams across their shoulders and they dance with abandon and joy. In the performance last night, I was struck by the quality of the corps. I'm not sure I've ever seen such strength, or such a virtuosic use of women dancing together like this--not in the so-wounded-we-might-kill-you Willi of Giselle, or among the tortured-feather-ex-princesses of Swan Lake. What power the women displayed, right up to the climax and ending.

Wendy Whelan, City Ballet's veteran ballerina, danced the lead. Alastair MacCauley, the lead dance critic at the New York Times, has never been a fan of Whelan's, often describing her shoulders and arms as stiff. I love Whelan. It's true--in the past couple of years, I do feel that her strength is diminishing, but in a way, I love her even more on stage because she is able to give performances where she seems even more stripped of any artifice. The point of Whelan's dancing is not all the things she isn't--ethereal, or super limber, or super loose necked. The point is that Whelan is an artist. Everything she does has commitment, speed, virtuosity and a point of view. She's an intelligent dancer. And while Walpurgisnacht is not my favorite kind of dance for Whelan's gifts (I love her in Wheeldon's works, for example), who can forget the sight of her whirring across the floor in mad-cap bourres, her long hair flailing around her? Whelan always commits herself to the music and it is precisely because of her individuality that she is able to pull new and different shapes out of space, thus stretching what dance can do. No wonder she is Wheeldon's muse.

I was impressed by Ana Sofia Scheller--this is the second time I've seen her dance. I don't know if I can think of anyone off the top of my head who has such command of legs, feet and torso. She is so secure in her extensions and turns. And yet for me, there is something missing in the way she uses her upper body. It's as though her feet and legs are solid, but the music doesn't completely flow up into her arms--they move more like an afterthought.

But the net effect of the Walpurgisnacht last night was of a very kind Charles Askegaard, rather outmatched by the wild women turning and jumping around him. Balanchine loved his women strong.

(Photo here: the sublime Alina Cojocaru)

We were then treated to an entirely different work--Duo Concertant, with music by Stravinsky. When the curtain opens, a piano and violinist are on stage and begin to play together. A man and woman--last night, Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild--stand nearby and appear to listen to the music, before finally taking to the stage and interpreting the music. I've seen Hyltin twice before, and while I've always liked her, I've always found there to be something a little slight in her dancing--the full impact (unlike Wendy) of her presence hasn't come across to me. Last night she thrilled me. Her entire body was alive--down to her fingers. There is a moment, toward the end of Duo Concertant, where the stage light highlights just Hyltin's hands. Her fingers seem vibrantly alive. One reason her performance worked so well, though, is because she was beautifully matched by Fairchild, who was given a series of steps in which he needed to keep his center of gravity low, while still maintaining an air of insouciance, and even off-the-cuff improvisation as he moved through very precisely determined steps. He was effortless and beautiful. And the two of them together--Hyltin and Fairchild--brought forth the playfulness of Stravinksy's score.

As the piece ended, however, the dancing took on a poignancy--Fairchild seemed unable to truly "capture" Hyltin though he tried. In a series of steps, he would freeze her body into place, then try to place their hands together to dance with her. But, like Marguerite does to Faust, Hyltin disappeared, just slightly out of reach. Inspiration, of course, works like this--seizing us, playing with us and disappearing. In last night's performance, both Fairchild and Hyltin were able to embody these moods, and able to use their bodies so beautifully, from toe to finger. For me, these two were probably the highlight of the evening, in pure "dancer" terms--I hope to see them again.

(Photo here with Tiler Peck--she looks like a princess, right?)

In Valse Fantasie, we were treated to Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette, who stepped in as last minute cast change (not his best night, but I do love him as a dancer). Bouder has been heating up the dance world for a while now, and I was eager to see her perform on stage. Bouder is a true artist, inhabiting steps and music with her entire being. Oddly, MacCauley--who seems awfully focused on the eyes and mouths of ballerinas--has this to say about Bouder:

The main problem for this terrific virtuoso is her excessive need to project prepared facial expressions. It occurs only when she looks directly out front, as if addressing the rehearsal mirror; an element of calculation seems to enter her upper body.

I found this an odd but interesting comment--and I'll look at Bouder's dancing again to see if I agree. Most of the time I was watching, I found myself cheering for Bouder for being that rare dancer who dances with every fiber of her being including her face. She's a marvelous, sprite-light performer, bringing to life a piece I might otherwise not have liked so much. I often find Balanchine's wholly neo-classical pieces--the "I'm looking back at the Romantic period of ballet, but creating a romance without any princesses even though everyone is dressed like a princess"--to be a let-down. In the past, I have found such pieces almost farcical--they are the kind of thing that, in the hands of the wrong dancer, can seem untethered, overly mannered, and embarrassingly too pretty. Not so with the enchanting Bouder in the lead. She convinced me, via her presence and carriage, of the sheer joy of the music and the steps, stripping away anything that might make the choreography seem slight and insignificant.

I thought again about Bouder's use of her face during the final piece, The Four Temperaments, while watching Sebastien Marcovici dance the role of "Melancholy." Yes, his face registered lots and lots of melancholy and no small amount of torture. But for me, the expression didn't match the movement of his body. It was odd and felt like a trick to me--he seemed to be telegraphing that he felt the music, and yet his body didn't seem committed to the action or the drama. As a result, I found his dancing insincere. With Bouder, it was the complete opposite. Her face glowed with good-dance-happiness, because she was dancing.

As for The Four Temperaments--what a monster of a piece of dancing. The title owes its origin to a medieval school of thought which posited that human character was the result of a balance--or imbalance--of four humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. As a result, you were phlegmatic (content, kind, "at rest"), melancholic (overly reflective), sanguine (cheerful and social) and choleric (energetic, passionate and fiery).

The Four Temperaments, the ballet, is an astonishing display of theater and psychology. Watching the surprising shapes and twists and jabs, all executed from these strong, neat and powerful bodies, I couldn't help but think both of the Homans' quote at the start of this blog post, and of the aspirations of the ancient Greeks, which I wrote about after visiting the Getty Villa in LA. The choreography had both a searching, yet declarative quality, as though to say: "this is how we are as people," and at the same time, "look at all the things we can't do--we don't know everything yet." The universe--the possibilities for people, music and art--are vast.

I suspect that for me, the Four Ts is also a piece that will need repeated viewings, with different casts. While I appreciated the angular jabbing and thrusting of Theresa Reichlen's Choleric--how completely the Balanchine ballerina she seemed last night--I didn't see a marked difference in her delivery than I did from the Sanguine section, danced by Jennie Somogyi. Aren't Choleric and Sanquine supposed to be different humors? They can't both get to be the strong, unstoppable Balanchine ideal. I've written about Marcovicci above. And while I liked Ask de la Cour's Phlegmatic, there was a part of me that wanted him to do more. I wanted him to inhabit the piece even more--I couldn't help but wonder what David Hallberg might have done with a similar solo. I was left feeling that many of the dancers were doing the steps, but that the choreography wasn't fully elevated.

I don't have anything to base this on--this is my first viewing--though after I mentioned this feeling to a friend who has seen the piece before, she told me that more intensely. She also commented that she had seen other companies give stronger renditions. All the same, the striking, searing and searching power of the choreography and the music impressed me greatly.

I'll close just by saying that I read recently that Rupert Thompson's novel "Divided Kingdom" is set in a world in which people are divided according to their temperament. The Japanese, of course, have their whole "blood type prejudice system." I need to read this book. Finally, just above, a clip of the Four Temperaments, danced by the Dutch National Ballet.

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