New York City Ballet
Maria Kowroski in “Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Cloaked in Darkness

New York City Ballet revives Balanchine's most avant-garde ballet

Performance
NYCB: “Raymonda Variations” / “Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir” / “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse”
Place
David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY, September 22, 2019
Words
Oksana Khadarina

George Balanchine’s unconventional, even shocking, “Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir,” revived for this fall season by New York City Ballet, shows the choreographer at his most avant-garde and unexpected and allows the audience to appreciate once again the extraordinary range of Balanchine’s creative genius and his daring musical choices.

Choreographed nearly 45 years ago, the ballet still looks and feels contemporary and fresh. It was unquestionably a dance before its times and I can only imagine how jarring and un-Balanchinian it seemed at the time of its premiere. One of the most striking aspects of this “Variations” is its high-pitched electro-acoustical score that sounds like an old wooden door swinging on ungreased hinges set against the deep sighs and groans of a human voice—thus the ballet’s title which is translated from French as “Variations for a Door and a Sigh.”

Balanchine was in his risk-taking element when he decided to do a ballet to such an eccentric music, knowing well in advance that this piece would never be a hit with the viewers. In his review for the New York Times, dance critic Clive Barnes described the ballet’s soundtrack as “a crashing bore.” “Variations pour une Porte at un Soupir” “will not be revived; perhaps it doesn’t deserve revival,” predicted Lincoln Kirstein in his book Thirty Years: The New York City Ballet (1979). Luckily for us, the ballet has not only survived but persevered and—judging by the ecstatic ovations at the end of the performance—is genially admired and appreciated by today’s audience.

“Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir” unfolds as a pas de deux, or rather a macabre duel, between a woman—the Door (the role originated by the supreme Karin von Aroldingen) and a man—the Sigh (danced at the ballet’s premiere in 1974 by John Clifford). There is an important element of the costume design for the Door—a silky black cape which spectacularly floods the entire stage. This enormous expanse of fabric rises and falls, shrinks and expands, ultimately becoming an intrinsic part of the dance. (“Mr. Balanchine’s choreography for his siren door was stabbing, predatory but minimal. His choreography for that cloak was sensational,” wrote Barnes in his review of the premiere.)

Sporting a short black wig, Maria Kowroski was an implacable, domineering Door. In her murderous pursuit of the hapless Sigh, she was never aggressive, but rather calm, sinister and crafty, treating him as bait. She moved onstage as if in trance, stabbing the floor with her sharp points, sinking in deep pliés, or fiddling with her extraordinary cape; and there was a sense of peculiar fascination, even enchantment, about her: she exercised a powerful pull not only on the doomed Sigh but also on the audience’s attention—you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

Daniel Ulbricht’s elfin Sigh evoked a swamp creature, his hair gray, his face concealed with a heavy make-up, his costume in shreds and pieces. With a mix of anxiety and comic poignancy, he pranced about the stage in undignified ways, folding his body into twisted shapes and, at one point, crawling on all four limbs. There was a sense of tormented desperation in his movements and a clear hint of impending demise. Watching his bizarre, giggle-inducing movements, I couldn’t help thinking about Balanchine’s knack of delivering a visual shock and a visual splendor with equal relish and panache.

Raymonda Variations
Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette in “Raymonda Variations” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

The masterstroke of this program was to show Balanchine’s “Raymonda Variations” and “Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir” back-to-back. Unlike the haunting and atonal “Une Porte et un Soupir,” the pure and classical “Raymonda Variations” is all about visual and musical delights.

Set to the music of the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, “Raymonda Variations” is essentially a tribute to the 19th-century Russian classicism. The ballet evokes a festive garden gathering and contains a sequence of variations (one more enchanting than the next) for a leading couple and a female ensemble. The ballerinas are dressed in traditional classic tutus in fetching pink and blue and look elegant and refined; and the music is so magnificently lively and tuneful, it fills your heart with joy.

As the principal couple, Ashley Bouder and Joseph Gordon, danced with fine clarity and precision. The dynamic and cheery Bouder looked particularly engaging in her tremendously fast and technically demanding solos, demonstrating in her dancing ample musicality and a wonderful spark.

New York City Ballet in “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The closing dance of the evening, Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse,” unfortunately didn’t rise to the occasion.

I was looking forward to see this piece, which Wheeldon created in 2006 for the Royal Ballet. The ballet is set to the propulsive soundtrack by Michael Nyman called “MGV: Musique à Grande Vitesse.” (The score, which at times makes you think Philip Glass, was composed to celebrate the opening of a new line of the French high-speed train, the TGV.)  So there is little wonder that both the music and the ballet’s movements rush and dash with a fascinating rapidity.

For this dance, the designer Jean-Marc Puissant created a highly unusual set—a huge structure of warped metal that (personally for me) evoked a crash site. The ominous-looking set and the grim lighting brought a somewhat gloomy atmosphere onstage.

The intrepid NYCB dancers did an admirable job—the velocity, the verve, the teamwork were consistently on display throughout the performance—but alas the choreography, especially for the chorus of principals, felt repetitive and bland. Despite its speed, this was one soulless journey, without love, purpose and a sense of direction.

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