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Harlequinade

It’s been a decade since New York City Ballet staged George Balanchine’s vibrant ballet-comedy “Harlequinade,” and the current revival of this sparkling gem comes just in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original production.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Square Dance” and “Harlequinade”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 28, 2015

Words

Oksana Khadarina

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's “Harlequinade.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

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“Harlequinade,” created for NYCB, premiered on February 4, 1965 at the New York State Theater with a star-studded cast featuring Patricia McBride in the role of Columbine and Edward Villella as her loving Harlequin.

This year also marks the 115th anniversary of Marius Petipa’s “Les Millions d’Harlequin” (“Harlequin’s Million”)—the ballet that inspired Balanchine to create his own version. “Les Millions d’Harlequin” was the last major choreographic success of the French-born ballet master. It premiered at the Hermitage Theater in St. Petersburg in 1900 and years later Balanchine himself danced in this production while a student at the Imperial Ballet School. “What I liked about it was its wit and pace and its genius in telling story with clarity and grace,” wrote Balanchine about Petipa’s ballet, which he regarded as “the model for comedy narrative.”

In his “Harlequinade,” Balanchine, an unsurpassed master of balletic abstraction, demonstrated his talent for storytelling as well as his penchant for comedy, giving the dancers ample opportunity not only to showcase their prodigious dancing but also to reveal their comic skills.

Set to a bouncy, tuneful score by Riccardo Drigo and made in the tradition of Italian commedia dell’arte, “Harlequinade” tells the story about Harlequin and his improbable escapades on a quest to win the heart and the hand of the lovely Columbine, daughter of the rich merchant Cassandre, who wants to marry her off to a wealthy fop, Léandre. A sweet romantic fantasy and delightful entertainment, this two-act ballet is filled with vividly-drawn, colorful personages and offers an impressive turn for a crew of 32 children—the students of the NYCB affiliated School of American Ballet.

The first act of the ballet contains the main storytelling, with all the hustle and bustle needed to outwit Cassandre and outbid Léandre. The adventures of main characters are swiftly wrapped up in the beginning of act II to begin the traditional classical ballet divertissements, which feature a parade of dazzling ensembles and an extended formal pas de deux for Harlequin and Columbine as part of their wedding celebration.

I cannot think of any ballerina in the company who is better suited for the role of Columbine than the exuberant and vivacious Ashley Bouder. Balanchine created this role with Patricia McBride in mind, a ballerina who was the epitome of brilliant technique, lively energy and lovable personality. Bouder is all that and then some. From her first entrance, she lit up the stage with her cheerful demeanor and the vibrancy of her dancing. Her Columbine was a fun-loving, alluring coquette, but at the same a young woman full of dignity and self-worth. Balanchine created a charming, spritely filigree of footwork for this part; and Bouder was an irresistible ball of joyful energy and glee, conquering the taxing choreography with confidence and ease. A true comedienne and a real sweetheart, she brought a steady stream of humor to her role and captured the hearts of the audience with her gaiety and charm.

It was a tall order to be a Harlequin worthy of Bouder’s Columbine, but Gonzalo Garcia rose to this challenge, delivering a theatrically potent and technically strong portrayal of the main character. He was emotionally compelling as a mandolin-strumming lovesick hero serenading his beautiful beloved in the first act, and demonstrated perfect dramatic skills and comic timing in the bizarre events that followed. Garcia is an impressive bravura dancer, with a high jump and a mercurial turn; and he truly shone in his solo numbers packed with super-energy pyrotechnics. His partnering skills were assured and secure—a huge asset for this role, enabling the serious daredevil leaps the courageous Columbine made to be in Harlequin’s loving embraces.

The company’s soloist, Anthony Huxley, gave the role of hapless Pierrot, the obedient servant of Cassandre, an especially poignant touch. This is mainly a character role which calls for both melancholy appearance and outlandish behavior. Huxley moved through his cartoonish role with touching affection and demonstrated plenty of outstanding dancing along the way.

A member of the corps de ballet, Claire von Enck, danced the role of the delectable Pierrette, wife of Pierrot and the chief accomplice of Columbine in her quest to marry the man of her choosing. Von Enck is a very young dancer—this is her second year with the company—but she shows great promise. Petite and nimble, Von Enck felt perfectly at home in this theatrically-fanciful and technically-complex role. Her Pierette was delightfully enticing and witty, deftly mixing the sweet playfulness of characterization with polished, swift dancing.

Isabella LaFreniere made a memorable impression in the role of La Bonne Fée—a gracious and generous fairy who saved the day by bestowing Harlequin with a cornucopia of golden coins to pay off Columbine’s father to secure a marriage with his daughter.

In the second act, scores of children dressed as mini versions of Harlequin, Pierror and Pierrette, joined by little Scaramouches and Polichinelles, enlivened this production with their invigorating and perfectly rehearsed performance.

Last but not least, the picturesque stage decorations and gorgeous costumes by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, a long-time creative collaborator of Balanchine, contributed immeasurably to the visual appeal of this ballet. For the entire performance the stage was awash with vibrant colors and spectacular movement, making this “Harlequinade” a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

The program opened with Balanchine’s “Square Dance”—an abstract ballet for a principal couple and an ensemble of six supporting couples in which Baroque music meets classical ballet, all sprinkled with a touch of Americana.

When “Square Dance” premiered in 1957, the dancers, outfitted in hoedown attire, looked like cowboys and cowgirls; and there was even a professional square-dance caller onstage who called the steps: “Gents go ’round, come right back/Make your feet go wickety-wack.” (In one of the interviews, Balanchine said that the caller, Elisha Keeler, was asked to say anything he wanted, as long as he didn’t use ballet terms.) In 1976, the ballet was revised. In the new staging, there was no caller; the costumes were changed to white practice-like dancewear; and a new solo was added for the principal male dancer.

In its current stripped-down form, “Square Dance” is stunning in the visualization of its music—a collection of compositions by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi. It is also an exemplar of Balanchine’s genius to create imaginative and artful dance patterns and, in this particular case, to brilliantly combine structural elements inherent in social- and folk-dance idioms with the classical ballet vocabulary.

The company’s soloists, Erica Pereira and Taylor Stanley, led a cast of 12 dancers in the Saturday matinee performance, injecting the choreography with joyous youthful abandon and high-octane energy.

Making her debut in this role, Pereira had a rather shaky start, but swiftly recovered; as the dance progressed, her performance looked more assured and effortless. A beautiful dancer in every way, she has a wonderful crystalline technique and natural musicality. She needs more time, though, to deepen her fluency with this rapidly-paced and utterly demanding part.

Stanley, on the other hand, was in his very best form. He danced with notable clarity and elegance, giving the vigorous and highly athletic choreography its full measure. His performance in the melancholic solo, set to Corelli’s Sarabanda, was expansive and exquisitely shaped. This slow-motion monologue for a male dancer feels like an anomaly in the otherwise fast and fiendish piece of this ballet, but it clearly stands as a captivating example of classical male dancing at its most glorious, with choreography deeply rooted in the tradition of Romanticism; so in many ways this solo renders the most exalted moment of the entire ballet.

Leaping and darting onstage with infectious felicity, the six-couple ensemble had a few off moments—there were some fleeting instances of disharmony between their dancing and the music—but the overall impression was fairly admirable.

A note of distinction goes to the New York City Ballet orchestra. Throughout the program the musicians, led by Clotilde Otranto, played with engaging dynamism and gusto.

Oksana Khadarina


Oksana Khadarina is a Washington, DC–based dance writer. She has been covering dance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in New York City and internationally, since 2006. She has written for Dance Magazine, Pointe and DanceTabs, among other publications.

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