The Big Balanchine Event

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Arts & Film, Theater.


By Susan Reiter

There are several attention-getting big events during New York City Ballet’s four-week autumn season, primarily the world premiere of Ocean’s Kingdom, a Peter Martins work for which none other than Sir Paul McCartney has composed a commissioned score. The six performances of Martins’ Swan Lake that dominate the opening week will—if recent trends and the impact of the film Black Swan continue—lure crowds to the box office. And any performance of George Balanchine’s timeless masterwork Jewels, a full evening of three exceptional, complementary ballets that encapsulate and reimagine various styles of classical dancing, always constitutes an event. NYCB will perform it five times this season, no doubt with intriguingly varied casting in its many lead roles.

Robert fairchild as Apollo in 's Apollo.'s Photo by Paul Kolnik.

But amid the splashier events, there are two evenings that focus on Balanchine’s bracing, musically sophisticated “Black and White” ballets. A larger selection of these works, typically performed in simple black and/or white leotards and tights, provided a momentous week of performances last spring. It was exhilarating to watch the company, with its ever-broadening repertory that relegates Balanchine’s works to a smaller portion of its programming, delve into these seminal, eternally contemporary ballets with such focus and devotion.

On Friday, Sept. 16 and Tuesday, Sept. 20, the program features three seminal Balanchine ballets dating from 1928, 1946 and 1959. Even if the most recent one is over a half-century old, they all remain astonishing in their daringly innovative use of the classical idiom and in the sophisticated musical sensibility required of the dancers. All three display Balanchine’s innovative dialogue with music by major 20th-century composers.

Two are expansive ballets in several sections, with demanding and contrasting major roles. The Four Temperaments, set to a score commissioned from Paul Hindemith, is one of the choreographer’s greatest works, rarely out of the NYCB repertory for long and performed by companies worldwide. From the intricate partnering and sleek, brisk moves introduced by three couples who embody the music’s theme, Balanchine develops an endlessly fascinating series of variations, each named for one of the four medieval “humors” or “temperaments”—melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric. Episodes, set to a series of concise Anton Webern scores, is an edgy, often dark, unpredictable work in which bodies are cantilevered and upended in striking shapes; each section creates its own distinct world.

The program’s central work, Apollo, is the earliest Balanchine ballet that is still performed and represents a landmark work for the choreographer as well as in the history of ballet. It is one of the rare Balanchine ballets for which the program identifies specific characters. But while it has a hero and a subject—the young god Apollo’s growth into maturity as he is guided and inspired by three muses—it does not “tell” a story in the lumbering way that many a much more recent ballet has attempted to do. Rather, Apollo suggests and illuminates, incorporating movement ranging from the athletic to the jazzy within its bold, striking anatomization of classical ballet.

The role of Apollo is one of the greatest to which a male dancer can aspire, and has been performed by a select list of company luminaries. But with the recent retirement of several great interpreters of the role (Peter Boal and Nikolaj Hubbe), the ballet’s return to the repertory necessitated that dancers from a new generation be entrusted with its challenges. On the first “Black and White” evening, Robert Fairchild—whose range and virtuosity in a growing number of roles have been most impressive—takes on the role in New York for the first time. Apollo will have additional performances Sept. 21, 23 and 24, so it’s quite possible that Chase Finlay, a recently promoted young soloist who danced it with eager athleticism and gleaming playfulness last spring, will also perform the role.

Episodes will have additional performances Oct. 1 and Oct. 9, while Four Temperaments only surfaces one other time—Sept. 23, on an all-Balanchine program that veers away from his pristine black and white mode, closing with the expansive (and colorful) panoply of marching, intricate patterning and celebration of all things British that make up his 1976 Union Jack. Other Balanchine works included this season are Square Dance and La Sonnambula.

The Sept. 23 program and an Oct. 6 program of works by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, are part of NYCB’s “See the Music” series. In this series, one of the conductors (often the charming, witty French music director Fayçal Karoui) will discuss one of the evening’s scores, with the orchestra pit raised so the musicians can illustrate his points. The Sept. 16 performance has special ticket prices, with all seats costing $25 or $50.

 

New York City Ballet

Sept. 13–Oct. 9, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, www.nycballet.com; $29+.

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