Sunday, May 29, 2011

Boston Ballet In Balanchine And Robbins

Last weekend Joshua and I went downtown to catch the final program of Boston Ballet’s season.

Works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were presented; it was precisely the kind of evening that might be encountered at New York City Ballet.

Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15” was the first work on the program. Created in 1956 and danced to Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15 In B Flat Major For Two Horns And Strings, K. 287, “Divertimento No. 15” enjoys an exalted reputation. The ballet is among the most technically-demanding of all Balanchine works and was designed to show off the stunning array of ballerinas on the roster of New York City Ballet during the 1950s.

Learned dance writers have claimed that NYCB performances of “Divertimento No. 15” were unforgettable when the ballet was new. These same dance writers have insisted, however, that the magic of “Divertimento No. 15” disappeared during the early 1960s and has never been recaptured.

Before last weekend, I had seen “Divertimento No. 15” on a single occasion. It had been danced by NYCB—and it had left me unmoved.

The ballet calls for sixteen dancers: eight principals (five female, three male) and eight corps members (all female). “Divertimento No. 15” has all the intricacy of “Theme And Variations”—and requires a comparable level of bravura dancing. Nevertheless, “Divertimento No. 15” has never acquired the popularity of “Theme And Variations”.

“Divertimento No. 15” is, of course, a much more subtle ballet than “Theme And Variations”—and in this sense the two ballets mirror their musical scores: the Mozart composition is much more subtle than the Tchaikovsky composition (the final movement of Orchestral Suite No. 3).

I think a different factor, however, accounts for the relative lack of popularity of “Divertimento No. 15”: the ballet’s casting requirements are near-impossible. The ballet calls for five great ballerinas, all called upon to dance roles specifically tailored to showcase the gifts of five amazing dancers: Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Tanaquil LeClerq and Patricia Wilde. What company today can call upon such a wealth of talent as well as devote the countless hours of rehearsal time necessary to bring the ballet to life?

New York City Ballet’s current revivals of “Divertimento No. 15” are generally considered to be wan—and New York City Ballet enjoys the finest roster of dancers on the planet. Boston Ballet’s “Divertimento No. 15” was an enterprising project, but the result resembled more a ballet academy’s graduation exercise than a professional company’s thoughtful and considered rendering of one of Balanchine’s most challenging works.

During the entire performance of “Divertimento No. 15”, I thought Boston Ballet was in over its head. Simply put, the company was not in command of the ballet’s technical requirements, which rendered any explorations of the ballet’s style and content largely irrelevant. There was no specificity in the dancing, no playing off or playing against the music, no sense that anything other than the execution of difficult dance steps was the company’s objective.

The second part of the program was devoted to two Robbins works, both danced to Debussy: “Afternoon Of A Faun” and “Antique Epigraphs”.

Robbins’s “Afternoon Of A Faun” bears no resemblance to Vaslav Nijinksy’s version—except that both ballets are conspicuously narcissistic.

Robbins’s “Afternoon Of A Faun” is without plot. It depicts two dancers in a dance studio rehearsing first individually and then together. The studio’s imaginary mirror is between the stage and the auditorium—and the dancers are called upon repeatedly to admire themselves in the “mirror” as they face the audience.

There is nothing of choreographic interest in “Afternoon Of A Faun”. I am amazed that this 1953 work remains in the repertory—and I am even more amazed that it has become one of Robbins’s most popular works. The ballet is nothing more than a very thin pas de deux. I believe audiences must respond to the hints of romance that underlie the action. It is a ballet whose appeal should be limited to teenagers.

“Antique Epigraphs”, on the other hand, is one of a handful of Robbins ballets I very much like.

The choreography is very simple: eight female dancers recall the myths of ancient Greece by adopting, often in unison, a series of movements and poses inspired by Greek friezes and statuary.

It all sounds very Martha Graham, but in fact the ballet uses Classical vocabulary and bears none of Graham’s Expressionist tendencies. Further, the ballet carries no intellectual pretensions, which cannot be said of much of Robbins’s work. The ballet succeeds because it is so simple—and I am pleased that this 1984 ballet is now beginning to acquire a significant number of performances. Minor though it is, “Antique Epigraphs” will, I predict, establish a permanent place for itself in the ballet repertory.

Boston Ballet’s performance was satisfactory—“Antique Epigraphs” is not a difficult work to bring off—and I was delighted to encounter the work again. “Antique Epigraphs” is gravely beautiful; the ballet possesses an undeniable magic.

The program concluded with Balanchine’s “Symphony In Three Movements”, a recognized masterwork from the day it was unveiled in 1972.

“Symphony In Three Movements” is breathless with activity—it is perhaps Balanchine’s most overtly-energetic ballet—and packed with incident. Even the repose of the second movement does not dissipate the tension and excitement built during the bustling first movement.

The stage is alive at all times with striking images that became iconic on opening night. Sixteen female members of the corps, outfitted in white leotards, compete for attention with ten dancers (five female, five male) clad in black and white. Against this backdrop, three female principal dancers dressed in pink dance a dazzling array of maneuvers with three male principal dancers. The shifting onstage patterns are arresting; the eye hardly knows where to look. The ballet flies by in an instant.

Boston Ballet was at its best Saturday night in “Symphony In Three Movements”. The dancers innately understood the material (which was certainly not true of “Divertimento No. 15”) and gave a largely accomplished performance.

There is something inherently “American” about “Symphony In Three Movements”—the ballet could only have been created on an American company—that defies even the best efforts of European dance companies. The “American” essence of “Symphony In Three Movements” probably accounts for the fact that Boston Ballet gave its finest performance of the evening in the work.

Using Stravinsky’s very Russian music (albeit written in America), Balanchine assembled a work that is astonishing in its distinctly American vitality, openness and breeziness. There is the same effortless “throwaway” virtuosity in “Symphony In Three Movements” that is seen in the best of the classic Broadway musicals; in both cases, undue earnestness will kill the works’ appeal in a flash. The ballet is beautifully crafted, polished to the nines and instantly engaging—yet it is a work of great substance, with undercurrents of a bewildering array of events and emotions.

“Symphony In Three Movements” represents a type of high art that only Americans can create and perform—and the ballet, in my view, is the most “American” of all Balanchine works, more so even than his ballets set to American music.

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