Last week the New York City Ballet premiered the newest Ratmansky work. This week, the new… Balanchine? The company’s latest program is full of offbeat revivals: two B-sides from the house’s founder and a Jerome Robbins deep track too. It was must-see viewing for ballet nerds, who were out in full force. If I may speak for our kind, it didn’t disappoint. Though I do wonder if the casual ballet-goer was as entertained.
The evening began with Balanchine’s seldom seen “Haieff Divertimento,” from 1947. It’s a funny little ballet; it is easy to see how it got lost in the sea of dormant rep. (It was last performed in 1994.) I previously wrote for Fjord about how Balanchine’s “Symphonie Concertante” (1945-47) looks like a messy test kitchen for the masterpiece “Symphony in C” (1947). In this case, I felt like “Haieff” was the germ of an idea that incubated for ten years and blossomed into the far superior “Square Dance.” The simple costumes were nearly identical and the basic ingredients were the same: side couples flanking a leading duo, with petit allegro and quick footwork for all. There was much courtly bowing. Then there was an inventive adagio solo that formed the real heart of the piece—but for the woman in, not the man as in “Square Dance.” But that showstopping solo was added to “Square Dance” in 1976, making it nearly two decades before the latter work actually mimicked the format of the former. It can be hard to remember now, almost 37 years after Balanchine’s death, how fluid his process could be.
Or I’m just way off in my “Square Dance” comparison, for “Haieff” was certainly its own animal—most notably in its focus on an odd kind of pointework that ballet dancers call “ginched.” Ginching occurs when a woman is on pointe but her knees are bent, making it so that she has pull her arch back and knuckle over on her box to stay on balance. The thirty-two hops on pointe in “Raymonda Variations” are the most obvious example of ginching. “Haieff” was full of it. Balanchine seemed to be working out every possible permutation of the foot in this position—something he normally only sprinkled around his dishes.
“Haieff’s” central pas de deux, nicely danced by Unity Phelan and Harrison Ball, was also fairly weird. It too seemed like a laboratory experiment. Balanchine’s preoccupation here was with unusual partnering grips. Phelan and Ball faced each other, but in profile to the audience, while she kept doing a pawing pas de cheval step and he kept switching his hold on her shoulders. They did a similar thing while she stayed in arabesque, opening and closing their fists alternately as he supported her—a hand motif more famously employed in “Apollo.” Their final pose echoed the opening of the “Apollo” pas de deux too. And a snaking developé theme step evoked both “Rubies” and the “Four Temperaments.”
Phelan’s solo was stunning. Though slow and subtle, it was deceptively difficult. Phelan repeated a step with a high leg extended front that had a quick switching of the pelvis before she rolled down off her supporting foot. Usually this twitching in an extended position is done in arabesque, and up-tempo (as in “Who Cares?”). Balanchine appeared to be futzing with what solo adagio work could be here. Phelan calmly met the many bizarre challenges with aplomb.
“Haieff” made for a fun game for diehard fans who like to identify steps that found greater success in better ballets. Phelan and Ball did the partnered dragging développés from “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” in the finale. There was the third movement finale step from “Symphony in C,” choreographed that same year, which shows up in many other works in the canon. And there were the “creeps” from the “Four Temperaments” which also appear in “Divertimento No. 15” and other ballets. There were more; “Haieff” was riddled with such choreographic snippets. I think this is why it’s important for these uneven rarities to see the light of day on occasion; they inform our understanding of the major works. I love seeing forgotten Balanchine, it is the rare glimpse of a master’s rough drafts.
Robbins’s “Concertino” is obscure too; it was last run by City Ballet in 2006. “Concertino” is the remaining artifact from a longer, now defunct, ballet made for the 1982 Stravinsky Centennial: “Four Chamber Works.” It can be read as Robbins’s riff on Balanchine’s second “Agon” pas de trois, but it’s floppier and funkier. Like “Agon,” it had winding group promenades and tag team partnering. And it invoked a true sense of contest when Teresa Reichlen, fantastic, stood triumphantly center stage with “ta-da” arms at the very end, her two consorts ceding the spotlight. Reichlen even performed a step from the male solo in the “Agon” pas de deux at one point. But it also contained more peculiar moments: satyr moves, frozen pliés in passé, deep squats, and what I think of as “monster” pas de chats—those done with menacing arms and high knees so often employed by goons in the story ballets. “Concertino” was wonderfully brought to life by Reichlen, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Jovani Furlan.
Then came Balanchine’s cerebral “Episodes,” with the exciting reinstatement of the solo Balanchine made for Paul Taylor (who died last year, and to whom the evening’s performance was dedicated). This made it the first time the ballet was performed fully intact since 1989. Er, sort of. The original version was actually a collaboration between Martha Graham and Balanchine. Her section disappeared long ago; his half survives. Like I said, ballets are surprisingly mutable. “Episodes” started off a little wishy-washy, but with the arrival of Lauren Lovette (in a debut) and Taylor Stanley in the “Concerto” section, the ballet came alive. Her lunges were huge, his isolated manipulations of her body were crystal clear.
The restored “Variations” followed, magnificently incarnated by guest artist Michael Trusnovec—the recently retired luminary of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. This was fitting, as the solo was choreographed for Taylor while he was still a member of Martha Graham’s troupe. He served as a muse-on-loan for Balanchine and the incident supposedly influenced Taylor’s own choreography a great deal. Trusnovec, clad in white spandex, seemed trapped by his bright spotlight on the dark stage. (Balanchine told Taylor he was like “a fly in a glass of milk.”) Trusnovec at times shielded his eyes from the light, at times he crawled around on the floor—appearing alternately simian or entomological. A backwards running-man step seemed deranged; a slouchy standing pose combined Pierrot posture with T-Rex arms. There were more monster pas de chats. It was fascinating.
It also made the entire ballet much more cohesive. It always seemed weird to me that one section was danced in the dark (the second, “Five Pieces”) while the rest of the ballet had the standard bright lighting of all Balanchine’s black and white ballets. With the solo back in, two of the five sections (every other one) were now plunged into darkness—and the juxtaposition of dark and light (and clarity vs. obscurity) emerged as a major theme of the piece. Also, Trusnovec’s steps were very much in conversation with the rest of the ballet. He bent over to put his palms on the floor in a deep second position plié, like Lovette and her female retinue had just done in the movement prior. He also manipulated his own legs with his hands in the same way Stanley had just moved Lovette’s: both unconventionally grabbing at calf muscles. Adrian Danchig-Waring also echoed Trusnovec’s sad clown stance in the “Bach” section immediately after.
The entire work read differently. Hitherto I had regarded “Episodes” as a sort of dry “Four Temperaments”/ “Agon” mashup, but now I see it as an arresting investigation of formality vs. wildness. Webern’s score is densely atonal, and Balanchine was reacting to it in two ways. He conquered its murkiness with tight canons, courtliness, and clear shapes; but he also railed against its inaccessibility with flailing and despair too. The final “Bach” section is always powerful, but its return to order had never felt as glorious to me before. Let’s hope the solo stays in, “Episodes” is a far better work uncut.
Mercifully, Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” closed the show with big familiar melodies (by Aaron Copland) and full-bodied movement. In Balanchine’s “Episodes” the dancers are all rather trapped in place, even when there is some minimal travelling it doesn’t feel liberating since it is contained by a tight follow spot. How wonderful then for the curtain to go up on a line of men running at full speed across the stage in “Rodeo.”
Peck’s take on this cowpoke classic is utopian and democratic, as is his wont. His modern cowboys bear no resemblance to the Wild West kill-or-be-killed variety. His cast of fifteen men are more like millennial Peace Corps volunteers working together for the betterment of some third-world ranch. When the lone woman in the cast enters, she only turns one head. She’s more of a wild stallion than a love interest. Sara Mearns as the sole gal was excellent as per usual, and Peter Walker had another strong debut as her admirer. In “Rodeo” there is no competition in machismo, but there is one of athletics—done in a hoedown circle. After three servings of scholarly history, it really hit the spot.