The third—and final—instalment of the New York City Ballet’s “Balanchine Black & White” festival offered three abstract ballets: “Square Dance,” “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” in a program dedicated to Balanchine’s famed minimalist aesthetics. If the costumes of the dancers were simple and stage décor was absent, the stylistic and dramatic variety of the choreography was rich, vibrant and powerful.
The evening began with a lovely account of “Square Dance,” an imaginative marriage of an American country pastime and Baroque music. “European spoofs of popular American forms” that are inherently “Russian, imperial and balletic,” wrote Agnes de Mille describing Balanchine’s forays into American vernacular. She surely had a point. But with this ballet, Balanchine aimed to show more than anything else that traditional folk dance and the classical ballet shared the same roots and common spirit and that there were infinite ways to combine these dissimilar dance forms in one work.
In the original “Square Dance,” which premiered in 1957, the movements and patterns only alluded to American social-dance etiquette and style; the dancers, in hoedown costumes, were still doing pure classical ballet steps. To add more legitimacy—and to have some fun—there was a professional caller onstage, hollering whichever square-dance commands his heart desired.
As Balanchine grew older, his penchant for paring-down and distilling his pre-existing pieces was getting stronger. In 1976, he revamped the ballet, dressing the cast in plain attire of white and grey and dispensing with the caller. Still, in its unadorned form, “Square Dance” remains a fascinating merger of classical ballet lexicon and cowboy spirit, all danced to the enchanting sounds of Vivaldi and Corelli.
During the performance, Ashley Bouder and Taylor Stanley were the principal couple and centerpiece of this sparkling showpiece of classicism. Spicing her part with a pinch of sweet playfulness, Bouder was as luminous as ever. Just watching her doing a series of quicksilver fluttering jumps and brisk shimmering skips was a pleasure in itself. One could feel her sense of excitement and her energy level going through the roof. Whenever she was onstage she got the audience’s undivided attention. The ever-elegant Stanley matched her ardor and vitality in a beautifully-rendered pas de deux. In his solo, however, he showed his calm and meditative side, dancing with a subtle, contemplative dash and adding an extra layer of melancholic glow to the part. And it seemed like nothing could stop the supporting ensemble of twelve dancers, who injected the invigorating choreography with additional jolts of youthful energy and zest, making this “Square Dance” a true crowd-pleaser.
“Le Tombeau de Couperin” (1975) is a curious oddity in Balanchine’s oeuvre. Here there is no leading couple, no central pas de deux, no love story to savor, dissect and analyze. It’s a pure ensemble dance which unfolds in four movements, demarcated by the dances of Maurice Ravel’s score—Prélude, Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon—to which the ballet is set.
Despite its grave title, the ballet brims with sunny charm and lively playfulness as Balanchine unleashes the whole range of visual and emotional splendor just by moving scores of dancers about the stage. This was the moment to shine for the young and talented squad of the NYCB corps de ballet. During the performance, the sixteen dancers, divided into two quadrilles, vividly caught the lilting pulse and gentle warmth of the music and the choreography, performing with graceful style and beaming smiles.
Seven out of twelve ballets featured in “Balanchine Black & White” were inspired by and set to music of Igor Stravinsky. Thus it’s only fitting that this program culminated with “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” (1972), one of the most illustrious outcomes of Balanchine and Stravinsky’s creative alliance.
It was a real pleasure to see this magnificent work danced to perfection. The dedicated cast, led by Maria Kowroski, Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin and Ask la Cour, scored a coup of sheer virtuosity, bringing to the fore the heart-racing vigor and incandescent beauty of the choreography while violinist Kurt Nikkanen, backed by the NYCB orchestra under baton of Andrews Sill, unveiled in full power the rhythmical vibrancy and contrapuntal drama of Stravinsky’s music.
The opening Toccata invited onstage eight brief mini-ensembles, each led by one of the soloists, in what looked like a never-ending flow of entrances and exits. Speed, sharp attack, and intrepid nonchalance were on display in wide spectrum as the piece rushed forward.
Yet the heart of the ballet belonged to its two contrasting duets set to Arias of the concerto.
The first, convoluted and intense, seemed like a battle of wills; the second, poetic and pensive, was an exploration of romantic love.
The first Aria was announced with a piercing chord of the violin that sounded like an agonizing question, which was answered by three consecutive hollow strums of the strings—a somber ellipsis begging for silence. This fleeting pause was interrupted by a tantalizing melody which turned into sarcastic laughter of the solo violin. Throughout the entire aria, the music was gripping, provocative, and agonizing.
Just as Stravinsky’s violin brought a suspenseful mood, Balanchine’s movements painted a picture of insistent clash between male and female. The dancers seemed to connect with each other only to hastily disengage from each other’s orbit.
In this knotty dialog of thwarted passion, Kowroski and Ramasar brought abstract dance-drama to a new emotional high. The stunning Kowroski was in her element. Finding the perfect balance between the athletic and the graceful, she molded her lissome body into alluring contortions and poses. Jagged or fluid, she looked seductive and dominant at every turn. Brilliant without being flashy, self-asserted without being cold, she ultimately cemented her supremacy in the duet’s final image as she arched her torso in a deep sensual curve, towering over Ramasar’s splaying body. In this unnerving courtship, the poor fellow never stood a chance.
The second Aria created an entirely different universe onstage. The elegiac music inspired a heartrending pas de deux, which brought together two people in desperate need for each other.
Hyltin was poignant in the ballerina part, bringing just the right amount of vulnerability and delicacy to her role. She draped herself around La Cour’s body, clinging to him sometimes lovingly, sometimes passionately, often desperately. In their relationship he was in total control of her destiny, and she entrusted him with the course of their love journey. When at the end he titled her head back and covered her eyes with his hand, she looked serene and solemnly content. Just as the saying goes—love is blind.
The exuberant Capriccio, in which the composer and the choreographer both indulged their “inner Russian,” united the entire cast in an invigorating finale, with the dancers tossing and churning the flashy, folksy steps with spectacular abandon and bringing the ballet—and the program—to a highly gratifying conclusion.