“Balanchine Black & White,” a three-program celebration of the great ballet master’s most exalted and extreme aesthetics, offered a unique opportunity for ballet-goers to appreciate and experience anew the breadth, depth and extraordinary invention of Balanchine’s trademark style of neoclassical ballet. The festival, which opened New York City Ballet’s spring season, featured twelve abstract one-act ballets, stark and minimalist, entirely liberated from any kind of stage décor, theatrical pantomime or elaborate attire, with the dancers wearing stylized practice costumes predominantly in black and white. In each of these ballets only music and movement create a nucleus of the action, expressing all essential meaning, emotions and beauty—a distillation of classical ballet style to its absolute and purest form.
The first program of the festival featured five ballets, all varied in style and musical choices: a strikingly contrasting duo, “Monumentum pro Gesualdo” and “Movements for Piano and Orchestra;” the sublime “Concerto Barocco;” the haunting “Episodes;” and the magnetic “The Four Temperaments.”
Created separately to pre-existing concert scores by Igor Stravinsky, “Monumentum pro Gesulado” (1960) and “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” (1963) make a perfect twosome and beg to be seen back-to-back. Balanchine paired these relatively short and stylistically opposite pieces in 1965; and they have been performed together ever since.
The pure and elegant “Monumentum” is choreographed to Stravinsky’s arrangement of three Renaissance madrigals by Don Carlo Gesualdo, created to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Spanish composer’s birth. In the ballet’s three distinctive sections, rapidly changing dance architecture aptly reflects Stravinsky’s shifting rhythmical intricacies and sonorities. Balanchine harnessed the Renaissance harmony of the music in pure classical steps. The whole piece looks like a modern adaptation of three formal court dances, all permeated with the hushed atmosphere of male-female chivalry and imbued with a hint of romance. (There is a moment in the ballet when a principal male dancer graciously bows to his ballerina and gently kisses her hand.)
The ballet lasts only seven minutes, but it reveals a kaleidoscope of imagery that is immensely compelling and extraordinary rich in its ideas and connotations. In the course of the dance, the leading couple and an ensemble of six supporting couples conjure a dual world of regal elegance and austere modernism. (Watching this ballet, one would imagine Don Carlo being one of the most humane and benevolent men of his time. Yet the history tells us a different story.)
After the sensual “Monumentum,” the atonal and edgy “Movements” delivered a shock on the ear and the eye, and this sudden contrast is what makes the juxtaposition of these two pieces so defiant and ultimately satisfying.
“This was Stravinsky at his most cerebral and stark . . . it was music unlike any that had ever been danced to before,” wrote Suzanne Farrell in her memoir Holding on to the Air, describing her first impression of the ballet’s score. (The 18-year-old Farrell stepped in for the indisposed Diana Adams for the premier of “Movements” in 1963—a breakthrough moment in the young ballerina’s career which launched a new phase in Balanchine’s creative output. “When Farrell arrived Balanchine didn’t just change his style; he seemed to change his content. Many of the works Balanchine made for Farrell in the so-called ‘Farrell years,’ the 1960’s, had a sort of jazz-baby sexiness,” wrote dance critic Joan Acocella in the New Yorker, describing a period when the choreographer got his new wings, inspired by his last and perhaps greatest muse.)
Watching the folding and unfolding geometry of “Movements” makes one realize how boldly and radically Balanchine modernized and advanced the classical ballet lexicon. It’s still the academic style, but each movement is inverted, angled and bent to echo the sharp and spiky melodic patterns of Stravinsky’s serial score. The ballet’s movements create a formal visual landscape for the dense and dissonant music; the sonic complexities take visual shapes and configurations and the music’s pulses, rhythms and structure are delineated in the utmost direct and unadorned manner.
In this performance, the leading couple—Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour—was the centerpiece and the chief unifying link of these two dissimilar and fragmented ballets. Dancing with supreme authority and full-scale grandeur, Kowroski claimed these works as her own. It was a special thrill to see her navigating the complicated maze of “Movements”—a seemingly unsolvable puzzle for which she was the key. Her long-limbed physique, astonishing precision in each movement and impeccable musicality made this performance a manual to fully understand the veiled enigmatic appeal of the choreography. Dressed in simple white, without tiara and glittering tutu, she looked every inch royal in “Monumentum,” gliding through the piece with stately poise and giving the choreography its full value.
“Concerto Barocco” (1941) was a gratifying, welcome respite from the astringent Stravinsky. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, to which the ballet is set, is a grand composition. The music stands on its own as a glorious example of human genius in art. Bach was speaking with God when composing his music and this divine conversation still reverberates with us centuries later. Balanchine’s choreography added a new layer to the emotional appeal of Bach. Watching “Concerto Barocco” you feel a sense of overwhelming joy to be able to experience music and dance in such a celestial fusion: the choreography is divine and pure as the music itself. With this ballet, Balanchine makes the sacred Bach more approachable and human, bringing him closer to our hearts.
During the performance, flanked by eight female dancers of the corps, two principal ballerinas (Sara Mearns and Teresa Reichlen) brilliantly personified the two solo violins of the concerto. Creating gorgeous sculptural effects, both Mearns and Reichlen delivered dancing profound in every sense. This was a stunning performance: immense, dramatic, and larger than life. The ensemble matched the leads in their intensity and passion, dancing with admirable precision and spirited abandon.
It was a clever programming choice to include “Episodes” on the same program with “Monumentum,” “Movements” and “Concerto Barocco,” for it combines serialism and Bach in a unique, captivating manner. “Episodes” has a fascinating history. It was conceived as a result of creative partnership between Balanchine and Martha Graham, perhaps one of the most unlikely and peculiar collaborations in twentieth century dance. While Graham’s section on a theme of Mary Queen of Scots was dropped soon after the premiere, Balanchine’s section lives as a stand-alone piece in a somewhat abbreviated form. (A solo originated by Paul Taylor, then a Graham dancer, is no longer part of the Balanchine piece.)
”Episodes” is what its title implies—a series of four seemingly unrelated dance episodes choreographed to the orchestral music of the Austrian composer Anton von Webern. (It was Webern’s serial compositions that inspired Stravinsky’s forays into the world of dissonance and atonality.)
“Episodes” will never cease to amaze me; this ballet is as mysterious and eerie as the music which inspired it. Here tension and dramatic power are accumulated slowly but steadily from the opening “Symphony” (danced with a serene air and exactitude by Megan LeCrone and Sean Suozzi in the leads) to the haunting duet in “Five Pieces” (Savannah Lowery and Jared Angle) and the imaginative “Concerto” (beautifully rendered by Jennie Somogyi and Craig Hall). There is a sense of disturbance as the piece progresses. Webern’s disjointed and ominous score is a tough listening task. To accentuate its perplexity, Balanchine created some of the most unconventional vocabulary in the neoclassical canon. The movements are unpredictable and mesmerizing, disconnected and convoluted at the same time.
But it all comes to a heavenly accord in the ballet’s final section, set to the magnificent orchestration by Webern of Ricercata in six voices from Bach’s “Musical Offering.” Here Baroque meets Modernism, and this merger is an ultimate attainment of peace, harmony and order. To reveal the music’s multilayered polyphony, Balanchine conjured a breathtaking choreographic visualization of a six-voice fugue. The ballet’s finale is definitely one of the choreographer’s most ingenious and distinguished modernistic creations. The dancing was polished and flawless throughout. But I wasn’t moved. The corps de ballet’s movements seemed to be too mechanical, even rigid, without any trace of vulnerability or excitement to produce a triumphant effect.
The program ended with an excellent rendition of “The Four Temperaments.” Set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith, this 1946 work is Balanchine’s timeless masterpiece, and was given a royal treatment. The dancers deftly illuminated the rhythmical intricacies of the score, revealing in full power the images and choreographic ideas that makes this ballet so visually effective and dramatically resonant.
Gonzalo Garcia imbued the ”Melancholic” solo with a subdued, languorous flair, acutely stressing the downward pressure of the movements, deeply bending his supple back as if trying to split his chest and let his soul to fly heavenward. Ana Sophia Scheller and Tyler Angle danced the second variation “Sanguinic” with increasing vitality and effusive demeanor. Amar Ramasar in “Phelgmatic,” the ballet’s most technically taxing number, demonstrated a remarkable composure and impressive skill, stretching and collapsing his body as if struggling with a bout of unbearable ennui; and the spritely Ashley Bouder was a fierce, derisive Choleric, leading the entire cast with a no-nonsense attitude in the ballet’s towering finale.