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New York City Ballet

Balanchine's World: ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’, ‘Tarantella’, ‘Bugaku’, ‘La Sonnambula’

January 2008
New York, State Theater

by Eric Taub

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So what world of Balanchine's do these four ballets represent? Geographically, the part that's not Russia or America. Thursday night's musical Baedeker takes us from France to Italy (by way of the United States) to Japan and then back to Italy in a rather lopsided Grand Tour. On the map of Balanchine's aesthetic, the pins are stuck more widely. There's a "black-and-white" ballet, a bravura pas de deux, a toe-curling erotic fantasy and a borderline-sentimental story ballet. While each selection might not be his finest example of the genre, they're each unforgettable, and show there's a lot more to Balanchine's artistic landscape than Stravinskian severity or Tchaikovsky and tiaras.

Le Tombeau de Couperin is a jewel from 1975's Ravel Festival, and a gift to the corps de ballet, as it's entirely an ensemble work. There are no leads, soloists or demis, just sixteen of the company's best corps dancers. Ravel's music is extraordinary: looking back to the style of the Baroque composer, Francois Couperin, with a sadness born not only from nostalgia, but from war, as Ravel dedicated each movement of his originally six-part piano work to a friend who'd died in World War I. Ravel orchestrated four of these, which Balanchine used in this ballet. After the opening Prélude, the remaining sections — Forlane, Menuet, Rigaudon — each refer to somewhat archaic dance forms popular in Couperin's day. While never quite melancholy, each section is hauntingly evocative, bringing to mind the dappled shadows beneath a tree on a bright summer's day. While looking backwards, the score is resolutely of its time, with sassiness looking forward to the Jazz Age in the energies of the concluding Rigaudon.

I've gone into some detail about the music (cribbing a bit from a marvelous little essay by Clive Barnes in the evening's program) because the miracle of Balanchine's choreography for Tombeau is how thoroughly he understands the ideas that run through Ravel's score, and how exquisitely he expresses them in dance. It's like a brilliant translation of poetry into a new language, but translation's a one-way transformation, and as Balanchine's non-verbal score runs alongside Ravel's, the works transform each other. It's a sublime, non-verbal dialog between two unseen geniuses. Of course this isn't the only ballet in which Balanchine's worked this miracle. He does it everywhere, but particularly movingly in Tombeau.

Just as Ravel follows archaic dance forms in his music, Balanchine assembles his dancers again and again into echoes of olden social dances. They melt in and out of lines of contredanses, to squares suggesting very formal precursors of modern square dances, to flashes of boisterous energy in the Rigaudon (the wonderful moment when all the extend themselves to each other in hearty, almost cartoonish handshakes) which verge on a hoedown. The geometry of Tombeau becomes dazzling, as dancers form and reform into squares, diamonds or chevrons.

But even at its jauntiest, Tombeau never strays far from grave beauty, and in places Balanchine's almost giving a little treatise on special magic of a well-ordered corps de ballet, how by repeating, echoing, mirroring each other in just the right way, an ensemble can transform an empty stage into another realm more powerfully and thoroughly than the most brilliant principals. It's the secret of the Shades, swans and Wilis, one Balanchine learned well, as his works are filled with stunning evolutions of the corps de ballet. Famously indifferent to the clockwork unity so sacred in other corps, Balanchine made his own "Shades" to celebrate the corps as individuals as well as ensemble, as in the charming section where each Quadrille forms into one of two parallel, diagonal lines, and singly and in pairs, each dancer emerges into the space between the lines for a few featured steps, before melting back for the next dancer's turn.

It's no wonder dancers love this luminous and lambent ballet. This night's casting paired some of the corps' senior women with much less experienced men, who are nonetheless well on their way to becoming mainstays. The Left Quadrille paired Saskia Beskow, Pauline Golbin, Ashley Laracey and Gywneth Muller with Allen Peiffer, Devin Alberda, Daniel Applebaum and Austin Laurent. The Right Quadrille was Faye Arthurs, Glenn Keenan, Lauren King and Ellen Ostrom with Troy Schumacher, Vincent Paradiso, Kyle Froman and Henry Seth (these last two veterans themselves). As he's done all season, Maurice Kaplow conducted with calm and consistent tempi which only enhanced the dancers' power.

Following Tombeau with Tarantella isn't quite going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it's an emphatic shifting of gears. Made in 1964 for the inimitable Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, Tarantella is a brutal, sexy, thrilling, brutally hard and intoxicating bucket of fireworks for two bravura dancers. Villella would write of collapsing in the wings between solos, and I never saw Mikhail Baryshnikov look as thoroughly miserable onstage as at his first (and I think only) Tarantella. The nonstop rush of leap after leap, turn after turn was built on Villella's uncanny ability to fly into the air with seemingly no preparation at all; nothing could've been more alien to Baryshnikov's training (and temperament).

Although titularly Italian, Tarantella has international antecedents. The score is based on a piano piece by the first great American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (ingeniously orchestrated by Hershey Kay). Balanchine's choreography hearkens back to his year with the Royal Danish Ballet in the 1930s, and the famous tarantella from Bournonville's Napoli. Don't believe me? Just look at the man's ballet slippers in Tarantella — they're black with that little ever-narrowing white stripe above the arch and toes, which extends the line of the leg to a pretty, if painted, point. Where else do we see such shoes? With the ever-traditional Danes. Case closed. With a Russian choreographer and American composer, invoking an Italian dance as performed by Danes under a French choreographer, Tarantella's its own League of Nations.

With Daniel Ulbricht, City Ballet's demi-caractere powerhouse, the role and the man have met. Relatively short, and with powerfully muscled legs, he has a spectacular jump which gets more so every year. From the instant he ran on with Megan Fairchild, waving happily at the audience, Ulbricht was in perpetual motion. He'd fly into big, soft leaps, hanging in the air at his apparent leisure, only to redouble his speed once he touched the ground. Ulbricht sped from trick to trick: huge sisonnes and assembles battus, hopping turns in arabesque, going from front to back and leg to leg, and triggering, with a bang of his tambourine, a ferociously quick manege of jeté coupés which left the audience screaming. He even pounded his tambourine so enthusiastically that it broke, showering the stage with the little metal cymbals as he flew into the wings, returning with a spare, half again as big. Apparently tonight's wasn't the first tambourine he'd busted.

Miraculously, Megan Fairchild wasn't hiding behind her technique, and was actually selling her role. It was great to see her swaying her hips and looking both sassy and knowing at the audience while flicking her white, pouffy skirt. "Yes, I'm hot and I know it," she could've been saying, swaying her hips into each bout of tricky pointework, and even sinking into those splayed-leg grand plies on pointe in second with just the hint of a raised eyebrow and knowing grin. "This? Naughty? Really?" By Tarantella's end, the audience was clapping along with each smack of the tambourines, and afterwards brought the pair back for three curtain calls, a rarity today when City Ballet audiences sit on their hands.

Next the grand tour was Bugaku, that odd bit of erotic fluff inspired by a visit to New York of the Japanese Imperial Household's Gagaku dancers and musicians in 1959. There's much to commend Bugaku. It has an interesting score by Toshiru Mayuzumi, with traditional Japanese tonalities played on Western instrumentation, a beautifully spare and colorful set by David Hayes, creating a sort of intimate bedroom/handball court in midstage, and Karinska's ever-miraculous costumes, with their chrysanthemum tutus. Balanchine obviously gave a lot of thought to ways of combining traditional Asian stances, as when the men sink weightily into deeply rooted, wide-legged stances (a more robust plie in second), with balletic vocabulary (arabesques and penchees for the women, etc.). There are lovely, ritualistic processions, of men and women coming to and going from the center space. While not remotely authentic, there's a strong feel of a profoundly different culture, reflecting in different ways of moving. To this extent, Balanchine wasn't much different than Bournonville teaching Danes to dance the tarantella he'd seen in Naples.

From Suzanne Farrell Ballet's recent Bugaku staging - Natalia Magnicaballi and Jared Redick
© Carol Pratt

The preceding elements notwithstanding, the heart of Bugaku is its acrobatic, sexual pas de deux. I'm enough of a child of Seventies to be a little disturbed by a representation of a foreign culture as a venue for one's exotic sexual fantasies. Perhaps one day I'll get past my discomfort, and enjoy Bugaku's high-falutin' roll in the hay without fretting over cultural imperialism, much as I've granted myself dispensation to love Stars and Stripes despite its jingoistic overtones.

But for that to happen, it's got to have a better performance than it got Thursday night. Maria Kowroski, she of the india-rubber joints and the 6:10 pm penchée, was a perfect choice for the pretzel girl. I've seen her before and been left cold, but not this time. It's a supremely difficult role. She has to be distant and serene and proper throughout, even in the throes of that torrid duet. As in her "Diamonds" the week before, Kowroski showed a wonderful amplitude and clarity. With her height, long limbs and flexibility, she must dance large or she goes flat — passive in her limbs and vacant in her face. While she kept her face a mask beneath her white geisha's makeup, it was an active blankness, enhancing the contrast between her character's impassive face and lascivious body.

As the partner of her indeterminate relationship, Albert Evans better than usual, but still depressing. I'd expected his usual diffidence as he led his procession of male attendants onstage, and later, stripped down for the actual clinchings with Kowroski in her bikini. Instead, he showed flashes of the intensity which had made him such an interesting character dancer six or seven years ago. But only flashes; his focus wandered, and there was no connection at all between him and Kowroski. He supported her solidly enough as she rather graphically demonstrated just how handy it is for a gal to have a great split, but there was just no chemistry between them. It's a tricky balance, as Bugaku's protagonists must maintain a formal sang-froid without looking bored (it's part of the ballet's titillation — it wouldn't be half as naughty if they were miming orgasms for the folks in the cheap seats, like, say, Eifman's dancers). Kowroski made a commendable effort, but she couldn't overcome Evans' passivity. Maybe one day I'll see a Bugaku that has the affect writers ascribed to Kent and Villella (even in still, black-and-white photos, they're sizzling). I don't think it's going to happen soon.

In a bit of an Allegra Kent doubleheader, the program closed with La Sonnambula, the role that became associated with her even more strongly over the years. This night, Darci Kistler was the sleepwalker, and Nikolaj Hübbe the unlucky poet with stupendously bad judgement in female companionship. Sarah Mearns debuted as the Coquette, whom Hübbe courts and then abandons. She's the mistress of the Baron, danced by Amar Ramasar also in a debut. It hardly matters that Sonnambula's plot is silly; most ballets have silly plots. What's noteworthy in Sonnambula is the economy and ease with which Balanchine tells the story, and the occasions he creates for visual drama. When the Poet makes his sudden appearance at the upstage gates of the Baron's courtyard, he's immediately entranced by the Coquette. Hübbe arrived as suddenly as the Annunciation and fastened his gaze on Mearns. She's far downstage, and turns her back to him, and yet, for a few moments, you can see the effect his gaze is having on her. Later, during the various divertissements for the Baron's guests, Mearns and Hübbe sat on a bench and mimed a conversation filled with flirtation and ardor. The greatest James of his generation, Hübbe goes off like a torch in the presence of a beautiful women, or rather a searchlight. I've never seen a man focus so rapturously on a woman onstage. Blossoming in the ardor of Hübbe's unflinching regard, Mearns' Coquette was entirely undone. And how could she not be? They rise off the bench; he turns their backs to the festivities, and he shows her the stars.

Usually, the Coquette isn't a very pleasant character. A practiced manipulator, she's flattered at the attentions of the handsome Poet, but narcissistically, and her fury at his betrayal is more from wounded pride and jealousy than a broken heart. After Jenifer Ringer's misguided portrayal of a sweet, charming Coquette-next-door, I hoped I'd never see a sympathetic Coquette. She's a cobra ready to strike. The Poet foolishly pokes her, and suffers the consequences. And, yet, here was Mearns with a Coquette so sympathetic she's practically a stand-in for the audience as the ballet's one protagonist who's not a little loopy. Mearns played on her youth and beauty to show us a courtesan-in-training, not yet the jaded mercenary, although well on her way. But Hübbe's Poet literally shows her new horizons, and the possibility that she might find a better path for herself (with him, of course). When the pair return to the party, she can't take her eyes off of him, and it's as much a jolt for her as Hübbe when Ramasar squires her away to join the guests offstage.

This is when the Sleepwalker appears, and Kistler makes the most of her entrance, rushing onstage in her billowing nightgown as if propelled by a silent thunderclap. Of course Hübbe's intrigued and challenged. How to win the attention of this beautiful woman for whom he's invisible? With her gaze never wavering from the flame of the candle she held before herself, Kistler inhabited two worlds at once, the Poet's physical world, and the untouchable one in her head. (Some viewers, familiar with her otherworldly deportment in other ballets, might consider this uncomfortably close to type-casting.) As Hübbe tried to gain her attention, Kistler perfectly illustrated Newton's First Law. He'd push her, and she'd glide backwards on the tips of her toeshoes, slowing only gradually, as if on bearings. He'd push her arm, and she'd spin in a circle, slowing only gradually, and, as her eyes are fixed on her candle, never spotting. In recent years I've gotten used to making allowances for Kistler's declining strength and technique, but here Kistler danced with an amplitude and fearlessness that brought to mind her early days with the company. It's been a long time since I've seen a Sleepwalker step over the supine obstacle of the Poet's body with such cruel, casual dismissal. She doesn't see him, but senses just enough to elude him. She's playing the ultimate game of hard-to-get, and of course this enflames the Poet's passion. He leads her offstage into a doorway, with our imaginations leaving little doubt as to what they're getting up to. Mearns' Coquette returns, looks offstage at whatever they're up to, and in a fury, summons the Baron, who stabs the Poet to death. The horror on Mearns' face hinted that she didn't think the Baron would actually kill the poet, and that she'd learned the very same lesson on unintended consequences as the Brahmin in La Bayadere.

At the ballet's end, Kistler emerged looking none the worse for wear. She drifts towards Hübbe's body, and, no longer quite so imperturbable, stumbles a bit over it — displaying a hint of emotion as overcomes this obstacle. Shocking even today, four men lift the Poet's body and place it in the Sleepwalker's arms. She carries him backwards offstage, and the assembled guests follow the light of her candle upwards, as the curtain falls.

As much as I've written about Mearns' Coquette, I've little to say about Ramasar's Baron. With his slight build, he exudes no menace; no wonder it's almost a surprise that he kills the Poet. I particularly liked Ana Sofia Scheller and Vincent Paradiso in the exotic pas de deux (but not quite enough to take my eyes away from Mearns and Hübbe. Adam Hendrickson's dyspeptic Harlequin was a little comic gem.

Well, that's the trip around a part of Balanchine's world of sublime purity, dazzling bravura, exotic sex and tragic fantasy. Not too shabby, and that's not even getting into Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

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