BWW Review: NEW YORK CITY BALLET Offers a Win-Win with a Balanchine and Robbins Double Bill
As part of New York City Ballet's Winter Season 2016 at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater, the program appropriately entitled "Masters at Work" was a perfect pairing of two disparate yet in one way similar creations by the troupe's founding choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Mr. B's Liebeslieder Walzer, which premiered in November of 1960, is a lush and romantic evocation of 19th century Vienna to the music of Johannes Brahms set to poems by Friedrich Daumer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In contrast, Robbins's Glass Pieces dating from 1984 is a pulsing portrayal of urban urgency in the 20th century with Philip Glass's minimalist score as the accompaniment.
City Ballet unfailingly treats us to live music, and this program was no exception. For Liebeslieder Walzer, an accomplished vocal quartet with a soprano, a mezzo soprano, a tenor, and a bass were onstage along with pianists Andrews Sill and Susan Walters. For the Glass score, Clotilde Otranto conducted the New York City Ballet Orchestra, which is sounding especially fine this year.
What was so ingenious about the programming is that the two ballets, although essentially very different, share a key artistic choice. The Balanchine offering is all about waltzing in tuxedos and gorgeous gowns or tutus while the more contemporary Robbins piece is danced in colorful versions of classroom attire. However, they both employ a juxtaposition of pedestrian movement with virtuoso ballet technique.
For Liebeslieder, four couples in ballroom attire perform a balletisized version of what the citizens of Vienna would have danced, albeit with some artful and accomplished lifts interspersed among the waltzing and flirting. Then after a brief pause, the dancers reappear with the ladies in romantic length ballet tutus and wearing pointe shoes. A program note tells us that Balanchine said, "In the first act, it is the real people who are dancing. In the second act, it is their souls." What a magnificent concept! The couples then come back as "real people" who finish the ballet by applauding the musicians.
In Glass Pieces, Robbins also put "real people" in his ballet along with dancers. We don't know whether he thought of the dancers as "souls", but I like to believe that he did. The large corps de ballet enters with heel-to-toe pedestrian walking and arms swinging naturally while they progress in random patterns. Next the corps is interrupted by a series of three couples in variously colored unitards who dance as though they are other worldly spirits in the midst of the mundane. Later, shadowy figures of the corps de ballet process methodically across the upstage perimeter while a fourth couple brings to life Glass's pounding rhythms. I am fascinated by the fact that both of the master choreographers felt the urge to contrast ordinary movement with hard won ballet technique.
The dancing on the evening of January 29th 2016 when I saw this double bill was first rate. Whichever of the Ballet Masters cleaned the performance deserves hearty applause. I was, as usual, especially taken with Amar Ramassar. Not only is his dancing strong and precise, but he always portrays his roles with depth and sincerity. In Liebeslieder, he made me believe he was hoping for a relationship with his ballerina -- especially when he knelt and respectfully kissed her hand. Yet if he was a standout, all of the dancers in both ballets were superb. How heartening it is to see this generation of NYCB dancers looking so good. Kudos to Peter Martins and his team for nurturing them and keeping the venerable NYCB alive and well.
Photo by Paul Kolnik