A Balanchine Tribute

 (Balanchine arranging Suzanne Farrell’s headpiece for Diamonds, 1966)

As part of Lincoln Center’s series of streamed events to keep the homebound happy in the absence of live performances, the New York Citiy Ballet delved into its archive of televised performances of ballets choreographed by the company’s founder, George Balanchine. Unearthed (and still available on YouTube) were: a complete performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1986; the third act of a 1978 Coppélia , and a triple-bill Tribute to Balanchine consisting of performances of Vienna Waltzes, Mozartiana and Who Cares? from 1983, only a month after Balanchine’s death.

The 1983 program is a document of a company that had worked directly with Balanchine and was very much dancing for the man they knew as “Mr. B.”. The dancers in the video were all cast by Balanchine, and, we can assume, often coached by him; in quite a few cases, roles are filled with the dancers on whom they had been made. While there may have been higher water marks in the company’s history, the City Ballet of the early 1980s was one of the finest ever, and – this is important – the last group of dancers that was able to work with Balanchine himself.

This is not the place to go into Balanchine’s life story and the path that led him from a childhood in St. Petersburg and the Imperial Ballet to Paris and then eventually to New York, where he co-founded the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. During that career, Balanchine created some of the best, most ingenious, most musical and most gripping ballets to be seen anywhere. He took balletic neo-classicism to new heights, and, simultaneously, made it into a specifically American art form.

The Tribute to Balanchine telecast is oddly arranged, and may have been taken from two different evenings. NYCB programs usually ran to three one-act ballets, and it was always clear whether a ballet was an appetizer, main course or dessert; here we get an appetizer sandwiched between two deserts. Vienna Waltzes and Who Cares? are masterpieces both, but you would never find them on the same program. Still, we should be grateful in the extreme that we have records of both ballets at this point in their histories, and not quibble too much about the fact that Vienna Waltzes is anything but a curtain-raiser.

 

Vienna Waltzes was made in 1977 and is one of two vehicles (the other is Union Jack from the previous year) that fill the stage with almost the entire company. There are no fewer than ten principal roles, plus a large corps de ballet that eventually gets sixty dancers whirling in white Edwardian ball gowns to music from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Vienna Waltzes is danced to four waltzes and one polka: Johann Strauss II’s “Tales form the Vienna Woods”, “Voices of Spring” and “Explosions Polka”, Franz Lehár’s “Gold and Silver” and the Erster Walzerfolge from Der Rosenkavalier. Although all the dancers from the first four sections return for the finale, the movements are otherwise self-contained and varied in structure, design and mood.

While the ballet is called Vienna Waltzes, Balanchine gives his dancers more to do than just ballroom waltzing, although 1-2-3 waltz steps account for a substantial portion of the choreography. While the steps are one aspect of Balanchine’s genius, another is the way in which he is able to move large groups of dancers across the stage. The final section of Vienna Waltzes may be the ne plus ultra of Balanchine’s management of a large corps de ballet.

In order to set up that finale, Balanchine is careful not to use the entire stage earlier in the ballet. Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s sets include trees for the first three sections, and café tables are brought out to create a Maxim’s ambience for the Lehár movement. Only for the Rosenkavalier section is the full stage available to the dancers.

The televised performance offers five of the original Vienna Waltzes principals: Sean Lavery, Helgi Tomasson, Bart Cook, Peter Martins and, most importantly, Suzanne Farrell. (Karin von Aroldingen, who dances “Gold and Silver” here, had “Tales from the Vienna Woods” made on her. In the years following the premiere, she shifted to the role vacated by Kay Mazzo, no longer being the ingénue for which “Tales from the Vienna Woods” seems to call.) The performance is almost unexceptionably wonderful, even if it’s not a ballet intended to be seen on a small screen. The impact of the stage full of waltzing dancers isn’t something you can really feel on a video screen, although the audience’s delighted applause when the entire cast of sixty is suddenly onstage gives some idea of the frisson of the moment live.

In the opening “Tales from the Vienna Woods”, Kyra Nichols, who would become probably the last great Balanchine ballerina in the 1990s, is fresh and thoroughly lovely, but is in a way upstaged by Lavery, whose partnering is downright heavenly. He looks as though he could have stepped out of a Sissi movie and moves with an elegance and style at a level not always matched by the rest of the waltzing company. One of the problems in putting on Vienna Waltzes for the first time was that the dancers, trained in complex combinations danced almost in practice clothes had to learn to waltz in big beautiful costumes. Lavery shows an uncommon and innate understanding of how one should whirl to three-quarter time.

“Voices of Spring”, the only movement of the ballet to be danced on pointe, offers a buoyant Tomasson, but, alas and for some arcane reason, Patricia McBride doesn’t appear in the role she created. It is taken by Heather Watts, who lacks McBride’s wit, piquancy, and, above all, musicality. At this point in her career, Watts was still a promising dancer with a good jump. What kind of dancer she might have become had she been able to continue to work under Balanchine’s tutelage is a very good question; she likely would have become a great deal more than the dancer she eventually did become.

On the other hand, the “Explosions Polka” (a sort of sorbet to wrap up with Johann Strauss II half of the ballet) goes as well as I’ve ever seen it go, led by Bart Cook and Elyse Borne. In “Gold and Silver”, something of a fantasia on themes from The Merry Widow to musical themes not from The Merry Widow, von Aroldingen has a great time indeed as the Merry Widow character, fantastic hat and all. Peter Martins stands there effectively in a part that requires little more than looking good in another Sissi-style uniform, and he gets applause on his first entrance, but it’s von Aroldingen’s show, one in which she is thoroughly enchanting.

Glamorous though the Lehár ballerina role may be, the star part in Vienna Waltzes is kept for last: Suzanne Farrell dancing to a sequence of waltzes arranged by the composer from Der Rosenkavalier. Farrell’s part is practically a solo. Although she has a partner (Adam Lüders, effectively “invisible”), she never appears to see him: is he really there or is he a figment of her imagination as she dreams of going to a ball? Farrell lives and breathes the music, and dances seemingly only for herself. It’s a moment of paradoxically great intimacy on a huge stage made even larger by the mirrors at the back. Nowhere in the Farrell canon do we get the feeling that she is so much just dancing for herself, always with that seemingly improvisational quality that characterized so much of what she did onstage.

Farrell is afforded a coup de théâtre of an exit downstage right, arms thrown back as she goes into a backbend and vanishes into the wings. At that moment, the lights go up to full and a wave of dancers, the women all in the same white gown worn by Farrell, bursts across the stage from the other side. From there on in the number of dancers on stage keeps building, until all the dancers from the other four movements are onstage in a dazzling black, white and mirror kaleidoscope of movement. It’s perhaps Balanchine’s most spectacular finale.

 

That big finale is followed by the far more intimate Mozartiana, the ballet Balanchine created for Farrell and only ten other dancers (four of them children) for the opening of the 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival. The ballet is considered to be Balanchine’s final masterpiece and is one of the highest summits his choreography for Farrell reached. We are fortunate indeed to have this video record of the three principals on whom the ballet was made. (Although the “Gigue” movement was made on Victor Castelli, he became injured shortly before the premiere, at which the role was danced by Christopher d’Amboise.)

Set to the fourth Tchaikovsky orchestral suite (orchestrations of four contrasting Mozart pieces), Mozartiana begins with Farrell and four girls from the School of American Ballet dancing to Tchaikovsky’s treatment of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”. This “Preghiera” movement is a dance reflection on the entire concept of prayer, with Farrell some combination of a supplicant, the Madonna and prayer itself as it wends its way upward to Heaven. Arlene Croce commented in the New Yorker that Mozartiana takes place in its own thinner and rarefied air. The dancing isn’t only ethereal; the whole ballet takes place in an ethereal world.

Farrell’s “Preghiera” is followed by the jaunty “Gigue” solo for Castelli and a minuet pas de quatre for four women. After that, Farrell returns, now joined by Ib Andersen (not one of her more regular partners) for a theme and variations movement (originally a piano piece based on a theme from Gluck’s Les Pélérins de la Mecque.) They dance briefly together, then alternate variations before a full-scale joint adagio and a finale that brings the full cast back to the stage.

Farrell takes ballet dancing to unprecedented heights in Mozartiana. It’s not just the virtuosity, although that’s there in the speed, the interplay between balance and off-balance movements and the ability to handle changes of direction as though they were the simplest things in the world. There is also the wit (note the phrase endings in the first variation that are laugh-out-loud funny for the flash that they are there) and the sheer beauty of the shapes Farrell creates, all of it stemming for that unique indefinable place from which her dancing emanates. Part of the greatness of the Balanchine/Farrell collaboration was the way in which Balanchine was able to access this aspect of the ballerina’s artistry.

The most remarkable feature of Farrell’s dancing in the vehicles Balanchine fashioned for her in the later years of his career (Chaconne, Tzigane and Mozartiana especially) is the way they create the—“illusion” isn’t the right word, although it is an illusion, that Farrell is improvising not only the choreography, but also the very music to which she is dancing. Farrell doesn’t merely dance to the music, she dances with it, and, in a sense, as the music as well. The music somehow seems to be coming from her at the same time as the choreography. Farrell may well be the most post-modernist of ballerinas. I don’t know whether Roland Barthes was much of a balletomane, but there are passages in his writings, particularly in The Pleasure of the Text, that apply directly to the Farrell of Mozartiana.

At her side, Andersen makes an exemplary partner and a dazzling technician in his solos. Trained by the Royal Danish Ballet , Andersen is one of several male dancers from that company (others include Peter Martins and Adam Lüders) who illustrate the affinities between Bournonville technique and Balanchine technique. The speed and the intricacy of the steps are the same, although, working a century later than Bournonville, Balanchine puts a modern spin (sometimes literally) on the Danish choreographer’s vocabulary. He also affords his dancers the opportunity of dancing to far greater music: no disrespect to the music to Bournonville ballets, which I find thoroughly charming, but it’s not Mozart filtered through Tchaikovsky. Andersen was probably the most engaging of the City Ballet’s male principals during the 1980s and early 1990s, and one of the forces that helped to keep the Balanchine flame alive following the choreographer’s death.

Victor Castelli is delightful in his solo, a close relative of the comic one for the Harlequin with lumbago in La Sonnambula, but with the low comedy repurposed into extremely subtle balletic wit. The four little and four big girls show off just how every rank of the company knew and loved the repertoire and its creator, the children demonstrating just how remarkable the training afforded by SAB was in those days. The four girls in Mozartiana have to dance with remarkable poise and support the mood Farrell creates. One can see just how much faith Balanchine had in his school by the fact that he was willing to entrust such important roles to young children.

 

Like Vienna Waltzes and Mozartiana, Who Cares? is a masterpiece, but of a very different color than the continental Vienna Waltzes and sublime neo-classicism of Mozartiana. It belongs in the Division of Americana, alongside Western Symphony and Stars and Stripes. Although “Who Cares?” is the title of one of the songs used in the ballet, the latter’s title also asks “who cares that this is a classical ballet set to Gershwin?”. Yes, certainly, there are some flashes of musical comedy razzle-dazzle in the choreography, and a certain looseness of limb is required here that the more strictly classical pieces don’t require, but the vocabulary is the same neo-classical one Balanchine perfected over the length of his career.

Hershey Kay, the man behind the scores for Western Symphony and Stars and Stripes, was brought in to arrange a parade of Gershwin hits. There was no attempt at reviving lost Gershwin material (that branch of musicology was still a decade and a half away when the ballet was made); using obscure music would have negated the purpose of the ballet anyway, which was to show just how innately classical Gershwin’s music is, even when he was writing in the most popular of idioms.

That was one reason for the ballet. Another was Patricia McBride, who became the company’s de facto assoluta following Farrell’s tumultuous departure in 1969.

McBride was likely the most musical of Balanchine’s ballerinas. Time and again she was offered the chance to show off this supreme musicality, which allowed her to be perhaps the most transparent interpreter of Balanchine’s choreography. If Farrell somehow manages to compose the music as she’s going along, McBride dances to and helps you to hear the music in new ways. Add to that a warm and radiant stage presence (McBride always had more warmth than Farrell) and you have a great ballerina for whom Balanchine fashioned such enchanting vehicles as Harlequinade, “Rubies” from Jewels, the second movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, the complete Coppélia and one of his loveliest pas de deux, “The Man I Love” from Who Cares?. Many have danced these roles since, but no one has captured the special radiance that McBride brought to them.

In Who Cares?, costumed in her signature pink, McBride brings a remarkable tenderness to her great duet, alternately looking for and finding the man she loves. Technique vanishes when watching McBride’s dancing. She was anything but a poor technician, but she possessed a genius for making her dancing far more than the sum of the steps involved. If “The Man I Love” shows her at her most melting, her solo, to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”, shows her at her wittiest. The quality of the choreography and the quality of McBride’s dancing establish that, of the three ballerinas in the ballet, hers is the leading role.

For Who Cares? is, as is Balanchine’s 1928 masterpiece Apollo, a ballet for three ballerinas and a character dancer. (There is even a brief quote from the earlier ballet in the finale of Who Cares?.) The other two ballerinas in the telecast are Lourdes Lopez (in burgundy) and Heather Watts (in blue), taking on roles created for von Aroldingen and Marnee Morris. Lopez, who would shortly thereafter be promoted to principal, gives a ballerina-quality performance, dashing off the complex jumps in the variation and bringing ample spirit to the most lighthearted of the ballet’s three duets, danced to the title song. Watts comes off better here than she did in Vienna Waltzes, although she dances a simplified version of her “turning” variation, obviously with Balanchine’s consent. (The original choreography, spectacularly danced by Elizabeth Loscavio, can be seen here.) As for Watts’ duet to “Embraceable You”, she handles the steps and the shapes nicely enough, but really cannot communicate what Croce called the part’s “vanilla wafer charm.”

I stated that the male lead in Who Cares? is a character dancer. That’s perhaps an exaggeration, but Balanchine’s choreography (done for Jacques d’Amboise) does call for more freedom of limb than a purely classical role such as the lead in Mozartiana requires. The part goes to Lavery in the telecast, and he’s perhaps slightly less marvelous than he was in Vienna Waltzes, precisely because he doesn’t quite excel in the musical comedy aspects of the role. His partnering of all three ladies is exemplary, as is his approach to the technical challenges of his variation, but, for example, when he’s supposed to mime a cane à la Astaire, it doesn’t quite ring true. It’s still an impressive performance by an extremely impressive premier danseur.

The remaining point to be made about the entire telecast is that the company so obviously gets the choreography. The lineup of 10 demisoloists in Who Cares? offers up some familiar faces from nearly forty years ago, all of them understanding the required combination of classical steps and a lighter musical comedy-type touch. This is what the company was like when Balanchine was still a presence overseeing his own choreography. Those standards would change all too quickly. Balanchine thought he was irreplaceable, and I have always maintained that his choice of an incompetent successor was his way of proving that he was indispensable. Without Balanchine, there could be no New York City Ballet.

That’s not what happened. NYCB still exists (COVID-19 notwithstanding), and they’ve been doing us the immense service of digging into their video archive to show us just how glorious the company was in a heyday in which its mission was to perform the greatest choreography being made by a team of specially trained, highly capable, and sometimes genius-quality dancers. That’s all over now – I doubt that Balanchine would recognize today’s company or even some of his ballets – but these telecasts show us that, for a few brief shining moments at least, there was something great and marvelous known as the New York City Ballet.

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