In her pre-show chat last night, Lourdes Lopez, Artistic Director of the Miami City Ballet, noted that George Balanchine created more than 400 works of original choreography during his 55-year career. About 80-100 of those works remain in the active repertoires of ballet companies around the world. Those companies include the one Balanchine founded, the New York City Ballet, but also organizations like MCB, which was started by an NYCB alum in 1986, and has been led since 2012 by Lopez, herself a former principal dancer at NYCB and a director of the Balanchine Trust. MCB is in town this weekend at the invitation of Ballet BC, presenting an all-Balanchine program; it is a rare opportunity for Vancouverites to catch a glimpse of dances created by a choreographer some consider the greatest of the twentieth century, if not of all time.
I admit that I am not an ardent member of that fan club--in part because I resist the narrative that classical ballet, born in baroque France and refined in nineteenth-century Russia, reached its apotheosis when Balanchine came to America. It's a nationalist teleology that, as most recently recycled by Jennifer Homans' otherwise very informative and lucidly written Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet (2010), insists that everything culminates with Balanchine's uncanny melding of European classicism and American athleticism. Et après Monsieur B, le déluge. Indeed, ever since the master's death in 1983 critics have been opining about who will be the next great choreographic genius to save ballet and lead the form into the future: Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky are the latest candidates.
Then, too, it has always struck me that the New York critics' cult of worshipping Balanchine for his musicality, the speed and intricacy of his footwork, and the stunning visual tableaux he creates through his partnering and his maximal use of the corps de ballet, means that everything necessarily devolves upon technique and the virtuosity of the dancers. The work is beautiful to look at, yes, but where is the emotional depth? This was the question I was left asking at the end of the first piece on the MCB program, Ballo della Regina, which is actually the most recent of the works, dating from 1978, and set to music from the Verdi opera Don Carlos. It is light and fast, filled with dazzling leaps by the male soloist (Renato Penteado) and complex variations by the all-female corps (including featured soloist Nathalia Arja, who does have a killer arabesque). But choreographed so assiduously to the music, the work comes off as a series of highly presentational interludes more than a self-sustaining whole, with the completion of a difficult or particularly acrobatic move, punctuated as it is by the score, not just craving, but demanding appreciation. It's an older version of showmanship in ballet that seems out of place in today's world--as evidenced by the confusion of the audience about when and with what measure of enthusiasm to applaud.
I much preferred the second work on the program. Symphony in Three Movements was choreographed by Balanchine in 1972 as a tribute to Igor Stravinsky, who had died the previous year. Set to a score that the composer had written in 1945 as a commemoration of the end of WW II, the movement features striking diagonal machine-like formations and opposing windmill arm turns by the corps, recalling the wings of bomber planes (and, to be sure, the female riveters who built them). One also detects the influence of Balanchine's NYCB confrère, Jerome Robbins, especially in the Jets and Sharks-influenced jumps of the male dancers. Finally, at the centre of the piece is a beautifully spare and simple duet that the program notes indicate was influenced by traditional Balinese dance. It begins with the male dancer positioned behind his female partner; as she bobs down, he pops up, the two of them syncopating this action with corresponding arm waves, as if they are swimming.
The evening concluded with the oldest piece on the program, Serenade, choreographed (in 1934) soon after Balanchine had emigrated to the US, and set on students from his newly formed School of American Ballet. Its famous opening features more than a dozen female dancers, clad identically in blue lyotards and long white tulle skirts, standing with their rights arms stretched out in a hieratic gesture reminiscent of Martha Graham. In perfect unison the women bend their arms and bring their hands to their foreheads before adjusting their feet on cue into first position. If there's one thing I will credit Balanchine for it is his democratizing of the corps de ballet--something brought out by the diverse MCB ensemble (which numbers some 50 members). In his works the corps is never mere decorative background; its members are, rather, fully integral to, and often initiate, the movement (and it is notable that when solos and duets do occur in Balanchine ballets, the corps is frequently offstage). This is clearly on display in Serenade, composed to music by Tchaikovsky, and filled with all manner of swooping turns, dynamic group patterns, and sculptural linkages--the latter showcasing another Balanchine trademark, the dizzying arm chains his dancers frequently form and through which they assemble into his signature bodily massings.
So, notwithstanding my earlier caveats, I guess you can say I was impressed. I won't lie--the choreography definitely seems "of a period." But, as enlivened by the incredibly talented MCB dancers, that choreography can still speak to contemporary audiences.