Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette in “Rubies” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Stravinsky’s Dark Fairies

The 50th anniversary of New York City Ballet's Stravinsky Festival

Performance
New York City Ballet: Stravinsky Festival IV
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, May 13, 2022
Words
Faye Arthurs

The first time the scope of Balanchine’s Stravinsky Festival hit me, it was physical; I recognized it in my dancing body. I was learning the finale of “Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fée,’” an infrequently performed work I had never seen, and, as if by fairy-kiss magic, I already knew many of the steps. Sweaty and panting on a five, I asked Rosemary Dunleavy, the senior repertory director who was teaching the ballet, why there were so many of the same steps—but out of order—from the Five Couples’ dances in “Symphony in Three Movements” (which we performed frequently). She laughed and said, “because they were choreographed the same week! He was running out of time and recycling!” This incident made me realize the whirlwind accomplishments of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, which premiered twenty new ballets in one week. The New York City Ballet is celebrating the 50th anniversary of that event this season with four different programs honoring the composer. I caught the fourth and final tribute program.  

Erica Peirera and Anthony Huxley in Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

No matter the choreographic overlap, “Symphony in Three” and “Baiser” could not be more different. The former is abstract and angular. It is danced in plain leotards and cheerleader ponytails. It is one of Balanchine’s enduring masterpieces, and it runs often. Naturally, it was showcased earlier this season. The latter gets far less airtime. It is danced in short puffy tutus with colorful, peasanty corsets. It’s a loose homage to Bournonville—with lots petit allegro and an unusually somber male solo created for a brooding Icelandic: Helgi Tomasson. Though it is plotless, it has historical baggage, occasionally hinting at the story on which it is based: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden. The music comes from Stravinsky’s longer score “Le Baiser de la Fée,” commissioned by Diaghilev for the ballerina Ida Rubinstein and first choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska in 1928. Balanchine made a ballet to the full score in 1937, and then the pared down “Divertimento” version for the 1972 Festival. The haunting, final “cooldown” movement was added in 1974.

So “Baiser” is a shapeshifter, having survived many rounds of tinkering. But though it is lesser Balanchine, it is nonetheless a treasure—though a peculiar one. The vibe is ominous; the steps are spiky. The shared “Symphony in Three” choreography is weird: including flatfooted walking—striking hard at the heel with flexed hands—and oddly angled karate kicks. These moves could not be easily absorbed into other short tutu ballets like “Donizetti Variations” or “La Source.” “Baiser” has a dark streak, and I don’t just mean Mark Stanley’s dusky lighting. It sits between genres, and it absolutely requires dancers with imagination. Perhaps it was the curse of the date, but on Friday the 13th, it did not get the showing it deserved.

Post-Martins era but pre-Covid, I thought I had seen something of a blooming in soloist Erica Pereira. Unfortunately, the past several times I’ve seen her dance, and especially in her turn headlining “Baiser,” she has reverted to blandly coasting along. She gave a sketchy and undeveloped performance of the central female role in “Baiser” on Friday, apparently placing it in the same soubrette category as the Doll in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” or Pierrette in “Harlequinade.” “Baiser,” frustratingly, looked juvenile.

She could take a page from her partner, Anthony Huxley, who long ago suffered from a woodenness onstage. He has made great strides over the years—though he could still do a lot more in “Baiser.” A lot more. But he at least dances with a through-line, skirting more passionate moments by converting them into a sort of personal questing. He is also committed to fluidly marrying the steps to the music, linking them through his impeccable technique. He is no great actor, but he has learned to speak through a silken phraseology that he has honed over time. It mostly works. He could let go more here, following his movements through with his neck and head, not just his upper back.

Balanchine, famously, did not love overemoting. Dramatic acting is never necessary in his works, even in romantic ones like “Baiser.” One only has to perform the steps with dynamism. But Pereira lacked even a commitment to the Balanchine style and technique. In a partnered développé side, her leg was thoughtlessly stuck up in the air, there was no tension in its unfolding. Penchés did not lengthen and extend into space, did not seem to involve any muscularity at all. Nothing seemed crafted or shaped, or even intentional. Her elbows were mostly locked and her wrists flapped. She resembled a stick figure. This is not altogether her fault, she is a slight woman who must work extra hard to make things read. But she can look to Sterling Hyltin, of a similar build, as a guide. The choreography’s quirkier poses—like attitude front in plié with a bent over upper body—looked fumbled and downright uncomfortable. Even Pereira’s basic arabesques and pirouettes were slapdash and inelegant, as if they were tasks to check off. She needs to watch Tiler Peck spin as if composing poetry through the pace and texture of her revolutions. Pereira can do the steps, but she makes no case for doing them.

These are problems that mar any ballet (and they were a blight on “Serenade” when I saw her dance the Russian role last season: when she tried the least hard of anyone I’ve ever seen to sissonne jump after rising from the floor, or to push herself off balance in the arabesques in the Russian Dance), but they absolutely kill the mysterious, perfumed-world of “Baiser.” (“Serenade” is airtight enough to absorb some blows.) In a dramatic moment, Pereira appeared to turn her head away from Huxley’s kiss because it was the right count on which to do so. A kneeling hug looked like a hunched rest step, not an embrace. When the music swelled climactically in the second pas de deux, and the couple performed huge backbend lunges in opposite directions, Huxley’s was lush and lingering while Pereira’s was appallingly curtailed, finishing well before the musical phrase it was meant to fill. The night was off to a bad start.

Alexa Maxwell, left, and Isabella Lafreniere in “The Cage” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Luckily, after the first intermission the evening completely turned around. Alexa Maxwell made a strong debut as the post-pupal, man-eating Novice in Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage.” She looked like a young Liza Minelli in the black wig, and she had some of her charisma too. Most importantly, she was incisive throughout. Her pincer hands flicked like a snake’s tongue, and she gummily développéd side to side in her first solo, as if her legs were still sticky from her recently shed placenta. Isabella LaFreniere was great as the Queen, striking a massive sous-sous to announce her solo and sitting deep into her hips during ball-change heel poses. And Chun Wai Chan was excellent as the Second Intruder, luxuriating in his talon port de bras like a lyrical Tarzan. Though all three were new to their roles, they were finding moments to accentuate, to make their own. The audience even chuckled at the death-by-pubis slaying of the first intruder, which is rare.

After a brief pause, things got even better. Indiana Woodward glowed in her second show of “Duo Concertant,” opposite a terrific Taylor Stanley in his debut. She soared around in a manège of attitude turns, and he managed a pillowy plié even in a fast passage of tendus springing in and out of fifth position. They were both playful, yet polished. “Duo” premiered the day after “Baiser” in 1972. And, like “Baiser,” it has a dark, slow, final movement that requires strong casting. In the wrong hands it can feel overly sentimental or tacked on. Woodward and Stanley made this odd finale sing. It contains awkward partnering in a blinding spotlight which is tricky—and can look it. Woodward confidently draped herself backwards over Stanley’s outstretched arms, smooth and secure. They were the best “Duo” cast I’ve seen in a long while, and a good argument for ditching the originator typecasting that often trips up the NYCB. Stanley, a medium-height black man, looked nothing like Peter Martins, the lanky pale originator of the role. And Woodward, warm and compact, is nothing like the cool and waiflike Kay Mazzo. “Duo” looked fresh and invigorated, as if sprung free from a 50-year time capsule.

Indiana Woodward and Taylor Stanley in “Duo Concertant” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The evening closed out with the fabulous Mira Nadon presiding over Balanchine’s “Rubies” in the soloist role. As usual, she had the audience at hello. But she got serious competition from Sterling Hyltin, dancing opposite Andrew Veyette, who blazed through the choreography as if it was the last time. Turns out, it was. She was on fire in her farewell to the role, boldly attacking even the little kitten shimmies and chicken arm dances in between the bigger feats. She and Veyette made the choreography—which includes mock jumping rope and stamping—look like child’s play. But they didn’t look at all childish.

In one of Veyette’s bright and punchy solos, he did the same unusual en dedans double swivel turn to arabesque relevé that Huxley did in his pensive “Baiser” solo. I thought again of the “Symphony in Three” recycling, and indeed there were bits of repurposed choreographic code scattered throughout the evening. Many were from other Balanchine/Stravinsky collaborations—as when the “Duo” dancers strummed invisible instruments á la “Apollo.” Or when the “Rubies” couple intertwined their arms and touched their fingertips a bit like the central couple in “Symphony in Three.” But others were from ballets to other composers. I had never thought about how much “Duo” calls on “Serenade” (set to Tchaikovsky) before. In the final segment, Woodward repeatedly stretched her right hand out in the spotlight and then put it to her head, somewhat like in the opening of “Serenade” when the dancers appear to shade their eyes from moonlight. Woodward and Stanley both did this flexed-hand reaching in their brisk first dance in “Duo” too—but robotically, as part of the clockwork semaphore they perform while keeping the meter with their pulsing footwork. But whether done fast or slow, the gesture looks so different in “Duo” than it does in “Serenade.” When it is slow, it is more personal and yearning, less spiritually elevated. When it is fast, it is pure geometry. The move adapted to Stravinsky’s music, with its jagged themes and dissonant tensions.

In the opening movement of “Duo,” the dancers stand behind the piano and simply listen. The music really ranges, from ardent cresting to combative digressions between the instruments.  Woodward and Stanley smiled at each other during a harmonious phase, but they simply concentrated as the piano and the violin grew argumentative. Then they walked hand in hand to the empty stage and beautifully incorporated both the sweet and bitter tones into their dancing. And that, perhaps, is the real magic of Balanchine’s relationship with Stravinsky. Both choreographer and composer worked within classical formats, but they skewed them. When they collaborated, ballet did not have to be only pretty; it could be sharp and strange too. Modern. Stravinsky’s tonal and rhythmic complexities brought out Balanchine’s own eccentric inventiveness, reshaping classical ballet’s aesthetics in the process. Even the fairy kisses have bite. In all of Balanchine’s pieces to Stravinsky, whether they are danced in stark leotards or flouncy demi-tutus, the steps have edge.