On Saturday, January 22, Joshua and I attended the matinee and evening performances at New York City Ballet. Both performances were devoted exclusively to George Balanchine.
It was not until we arrived at the theater on Saturday afternoon that Josh and I realized that Balanchine had been born on January 22, and that two all-Balanchine programs were New York City Ballet’s way of celebrating what would have been the master’s 107th birthday.
The audiences on January 22 were the finest ballet audiences I have ever experienced at New York State Theater (or anywhere else, for that matter). The audiences were supremely knowledgeable, even by New York City Ballet standards, which are surely the highest in the world. Every Balanchine aficionado in New York must have been in attendance—the house was packed for both performances—and everyone appeared to be in a festive mood. The atmosphere was electric.
Our presence in the theater was entirely fortuitous. Josh and I had had no idea, when we purchased our tickets online, that January 22 was to be a Balanchine celebration in all but name. Josh and I had traveled to New York simply because we liked the programs on offer; everything else, for us, was a bonus.
The Saturday matinee program was the best program of the weekend. On the bill were “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”, which Josh and I had seen the night before, “Duo Concertant”, “The Four Temperaments” and “Cortege Hongrois”.
The Saturday afternoon “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” performance was better than the Friday evening performance. The dancing was crisper and had more elan, and the principal dancers were much finer, than what we had witnessed the night before. The company, I believe, was inspired to give of its best on this special day—and gave the kind of performance one waits years to encounter. I am not certain I have ever seen anything finer than the Saturday presentation of “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”. The performance was effortless, and effervescent.
On the matinee program, there was one Balanchine work new to me: “Duo Concertant”. It was the only ballet of the weekend that I had not already seen at least once.
“Duo Concertant”, created in 1972 for New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival (held one year after the composer’s death), is danced to the Stravinsky piano/violin work of the same title.
According to the notes in the program booklet, Stravinsky’s piano/violin duo was known to Balanchine since shortly after the work’s 1932 premiere and was to become one of Balanchine’s favorite pieces of music—and, having known the piece for forty years, Balanchine decided after Stravinsky’s death to set the music to choreography. “Duo Concertant” is, consequently, one of Balanchine’s few ballets in which he violated his self-imposed rule not to set chamber music to dance. (Among many other things, Balanchine believed—rightly or wrongly—that chamber music was unsuitable for dance because it was “repetitive”.)
“Duo Concertant” is the ballet in which the dancers, famously, merely listen to the music during the first movement, standing next to the musicians at the side of the stage. During the three danced movements, the dancers (there are two) periodically rejoin the musicians and, once again, simply listen. “Duo Concertant” is a fascinating ballet, and probably a masterpiece. At its conclusion, I instantly wanted to see the ballet again.
Following “Duo Concertant” was “The Four Temperaments”, a template of twentieth-century classicism and one of the calling cards of New York City Ballet.
January 22 was Josh’s fourth encounter with “The Four Temperaments”—he had previously seen the ballet danced by NYCB in 2007, San Francisco Ballet in 2008 and Boston Ballet in 2010—and he has grown to appreciate a ballet he initially thought was “dry and academic, sort of like the music”.
The January 22 performance of “The Four Temperaments” was very fine, probably the finest performance of the ballet I have ever witnessed. There was something unique in the air on that particular Saturday afternoon—the dancers were giving, and relaxed, and enjoying themselves immensely—and the performance of “The Four Temperaments” benefited from the sense of celebration.
When “The Four Temperaments” had concluded, and the final curtain brought down, and the house lights brought up, I turned to the lady sitting next to Josh and asked, “They [the dancers] are having a special day, aren’t they?”
Her response, in New Yorkese: “Believe it, baby. They’re on fire.”
The matinee concluded with “Cortege Hongrois”, the last of four works Balanchine created to music taken from Glazunov’s “Raymonda”.
Blanchine—who as a child had danced in Marius Petipa’s staging of “Raymonda” at the Mariinsky, and who had met Glazunov during one of those “Raymonda” rehearsals—first worked with the composer’s “Raymonda” music in 1946, when he and Alexandra Danilova had staged a complete “Raymonda” for Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo. The 1946 staging has never been revived; it may not have survived, as most Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo ballets were not notated.
After establishing New York City Ballet, Balanchine turned to Glazunov’s “Raymonda” score three times to borrow music for three separate and discrete abstract ballets, all created for NYCB dancers.
In 1955, Balanchine choreographed “Pas De Dix”, using music from Act III of “Raymonda”.
In 1961, Balanchine created “Raymonda Variations”, using music from Act I of “Raymonda”.
In 1973, Balanchine created “Cortege Hongrois”, using—once again—music from Act III of “Raymonda”, including some music already used in “Pas De Dix”.
“Cortege Hongrois” is an unusual ballet for Balanchine. It is a mixture of classical dancing and character dancing, with the classical dancers en pointe and the character dancers in shoes. It is, in all but name, a final-act divertissement, modeled upon the final-act divertissements favored by Petipa, in which colorful “ethnic” or “folk” dancing provided a significant portion of the entertainment. It is the character dancing that makes “Cortege Hongrois” unique in the Balanchine canon: in no other Balanchine abstract ballet does character dancing feature.
In theory, “Cortege Hongrois” should work splendidly, as it was precisely the kind of entertainment that Balanchine could manufacture in his sleep.
However, I do not believe that “Cortege Hongrois” is a successful ballet. “Cortege Hongrois” is a case study in which Balanchine is seen going through the motions, trying to craft a joyous, crowd-pleasing, program-closing work, but without much success.
There is no inspiration and no conviction in “Cortege Hongrois”. The choreographer had long since evolved beyond this type of confection by 1973—it was the sort of ballet Balanchine had needed to create in the 1950’s in order to give the public an accessible closing ballet in hopes that the non-specialist public would return for more performances—and it no longer brought out the best in his talents. I suspect that Balanchine, while making “Cortege Hongrois”, knew that his heart was not in the project: he was never again to return to such territory for the rest of his life.
There was nothing wrong with the performance on January 22, but it was apparent that the audience’s attention was much less riveted to the stage for “Cortege Hongrois” than it had been for the previous three ballets on the program. Despite its infrequent appearance on NYCB programs, “Cortege Hongrois” does not galvanize the dance-lover—and it did not galvanize the January 22 audience, which was distinctly unenthusiastic in its response. What should have provided a roof-raising conclusion to the Saturday matinee program was anticlimactic if not wan.
“Cortege Hongrois” is a rare—but not entirely uncountenanced—example of Balanchine operating on autopilot. Even the greatest artists create work that does not reveal them at their finest.
And “Cortege Hongrois” certainly is not a disgrace. The ballet even has a few charms.
It is, however, hard to believe that Balanchine, only months earlier, had created “Symphony In Three Movements”.