Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Influence Of The Master

Whatever one may think about his work, Jerome Robbins always had the good sense not to imitate George Balanchine.

In more than five decades as a choreographer, Robbins never created a single neo-Balanchine work, not even during the period in which the two choreographers worked together at New York City Ballet. Everything in a Robbins ballet, from the forces used to the subject matter to the décor to the music, was designed to prohibit comparison to the work of the great master—and this was so even though Robbins stuck largely to the same classic ballet vocabulary used by Balanchine himself.

I was reminded how un-Balanchine-like was Robbins’s oeuvre last weekend, when I saw Robbins’s “In The Night” for the first time.

Danced to Chopin, “In The Night” is a short ballet for three couples. The ballet explores the emotional moods and tensions of three relationships, all of which appear to be fundamentally unhappy and fraught with grievances. The ballet is from Robbins’s “Chopin Period”, coming immediately on the heels of “Dances At A Gathering”.

For me, the defining characteristic of “In The Night” was that there was not the slightest hint of Balanchine in the work. “In The Night” may be viewed as reheated leftover from “Dances At A Gathering” or as oddball repertory item meandering onto NYCB turf from the Joffrey slum—but, however “In The Night” is viewed, it owes utterly nothing to Balanchine.

Premiered in 1970 at the New York State Theater, “In The Night” was unveiled exactly one week before the first public performance of “Who Cares?”, Balanchine’s only Gershwin ballet. It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar ballets created at the same time for the same company—just as it is hard today to contemplate two great figures working, amicably, with the same company in the same theater at the same time for the same audience, both producing major works in nonstop succession year after year. That the two choreographers worked independent of each other, with little or no cross-reference between fiefdoms, is remarkable.

Houston Ballet, on tour, appeared in the Twin Cities last weekend, dancing “In The Night” among other works, and my sister-in-law and Joshua and I attended Saturday night’s performance.

Despite the fact that no Balanchine ballets were on the Houston Ballet program, it was impossible to ignore Balanchine last weekend: none of the ballets programmed would have seen the light of day without the influence of the master choreographer.

Balanchine created the company (and working conditions) that allowed Robbins to create Robbins ballets; Balanchine’s own ballets were the inspirations for the other two works on Saturday night’s Houston Ballet program.

The Saturday program began with Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s “ONE/end/ONE”, yet another Elo ballet with a stupid title (in October, we had suffered through a Scottish Ballet performance of Elo’s “Kings 2 Ends”). Houston Ballet commissioned “ONE/end/ONE” last year; it was the first Elo ballet created for the Houston company.

“ONE/end/ONE” is an abstract ballet, intended purely to explicate the music, the function of so many Balanchine works. It is highly-structured, like Balanchine, and uses classic vocabulary—to which is added non-classic and unconventional movement and gesture. The ballet was created for eight dancers, four male and four female, and even featured classic tutus that might have been designed by Madame Karinska on a bad day.

Elo’s choreography is “busy” if not relentless. Something is always going on onstage—yet nothing ever happens. Elo creates activity for activity’s sake; everything is very much on the surface, nothing attracts either the eye or the mind. Elo should be working not with ballet dancers but with gymnasts, synchronized swimmers and ice skaters. He is Europe’s answer to Gerald Arpino, creator of mindless ballets forgotten even before the final curtain comes down.

Elo’s dances have only a coincidental connection to music. The score for “ONE/end/ONE” was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4—and there was no inherent connection between Mozart’s music and Elo’s choreography. Elo’s steps would have worked just as well, if not better, performed to George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, the one piece of music I thought ideal for what we saw onstage Saturday night.

Elo must like setting his ballets to Mozart violin concertos. The “Kings 2 Ends” we saw five months ago was danced, in part, to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1—and the steps in “Kings 2 Ends” had been just as unconnected to the music as the steps in “ONE/end/ONE”.

The Robbins was the second work on Saturday’s program. “In The Night” is not a strong work, but it was clearly created by a competent choreographer—and instantly revealed the preceding Elo ballet as hackwork. Robbins’s ballet was musical, and thoughtful, and well-constructed, and suggested meanings on many levels, none of which could be claimed for Elo’s work.

The Robbins work was not well-danced, and yet it created a greater impression than the Elo. I suspect that “In The Night” requires six exceptional dancers to make an impact—the ballet was created for six dancers of formidable talents (Kay Mazzo, Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, Anthony Blum, Peter Martins and Francisco Moncion)—and the six Houston dancers simply did not possess enough personality or depth to bring such a fragile ballet to life.

Saturday’s program concluded with a second abstract neo-Balanchine work, the oddly-named “Rush”, created by Christopher Wheeldon in 2003 for San Francisco Ballet on commission from the Edinburgh Festival. “Rush” observes strict Balanchine hierarchy—two principals, four soloists and ten corps members comprise the cast—and was much more tightly constructed than the Elo ballet, offering as much symmetry and order and architecture as Balanchine’s masterful “Symphony In C”.

“Rush” was danced to Bohuslav Martinů’s Sinfonietta La Jolla, a pleasant but forgettable score for piano and chamber orchestra written and premiered in 1950 for a chamber ensemble in La Jolla, California.

The ballet, on first encounter, was a marvel. The first and last movements are characterized by energy and a bewildering array of eye-catching event and incident, much of it ambiguous in tone. The centerpiece of the ballet is an extended pas de deux that is considered to be one of the highlights of Wheeldon’s work list, a pas de deux that moves from darkness to light to darkness again. The ballet, on first viewing, is fully satisfying, and slightly unsettling.

“Rush” was beautifully designed and lighted, which added greatly to the appeal of the work.

I was captivated by “Rush”, and I instantly wanted to see the ballet a second time, as did my sister-in-law, who very much likes Wheeldon’s work.

However, in the past I have been fascinated by Wheeldon ballets on first viewing, only to find them not durable on second or third viewings. There is a law-of-diminishing-returns quality to Wheeldon’s work that becomes apparent upon reaquaintence and repetition, a law I have observed also to apply to the ballets of Alexei Ratmansky, the other leading choreographer of the day.

In this respect, Wheeldon and Ratmansky are the opposite of Balanchine, whose works reveal greater beauties and greater rewards with each viewing. No matter how many principles Wheeldon and Ratmansky learned from the work of the master, and no matter how much they pattern their own efforts after Balanchine, it is the Balanchine-like qualities of their work that stand out, not the Wheeldon or Ratmansky qualities.

Robbins was probably wise never to allow his own work to parallel, in any fashion, the work of Balanchine. Robbins’s works are inferior to Balanchine’s, but Robbins’s works will live or die on their own merits, and not because they are recycled Balanchine.

Houston Ballet is a fine company. The dancers were excellent in the Elo and the Wheeldon; they were less impressive in the Robbins (an elusive work, probably difficult to coach and stage). It was apparent, minutes into the performance, that Houston Ballet is a much finer company than Boston Ballet, which Josh and I had the opportunity to observe many times in Boston. The Houston corps standard was much higher than the Boston corps standard, and the soloist standard was higher as well.

Houston Ballet is a company of international standard, one of the top dozen or so companies in the world—and it was good to have the opportunity to see Houston Ballet in the Twin Cities, where we have no large-scale resident dance company.

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