BWW Dance Review: Balanchine/Ratmansky/McGregor at American Ballet Theatre, October 24, 2018.
I know that everyone went gaga because American Ballet Theatre presented three world premieres by women choreographers, but for me the big news of the fall season was the revival of Balanchine's Symphonie Concertante, so irregularly revived anywhere that a chance to see it is like looking at a mirror image of dance history that has been lost and now reclaimed, if only for a short time before going into hibernation.
And I've never seen it before.
So why hasn't New York City Ballet done anything with it?
Perhaps we ought to start with Mozart, a composer Balanchine revered but rarely visited in his choreography. The music just didn't need him. He had already done a ballet in 1941 to the composer's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, for Argentina's Teatro Colon; Symphonie Concertante to Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat major, K. 364, originally done as a student workshop presentation 1945, later entering Ballet Society's (a forerunner of New York City Ballet) in 1947, to be dropped in the early 1950s; Caracole, to Divertimento No. 15, B flat major, K. 287, in 1952, to be later re-choreographed as Divertimento No. 15, and still in the company's active repertoire; and A Musical Joke, to the composition of the same name, K22, both for the commemoration of Mozart's 200th birthday at the American Shakespeare Festival Festival in 1956.
I'm always curious to read up on ballets I've never seen, so I went back to a John Martin's 1950 review of Symphonie Concertante: "It is not one of Balanchine's major triumphs as a ballet. On the one hand, it is inclined to follow the Mozart music with almost total rhythmic literalness...The work as a whole is not theatrically engrossing; it is perhaps a dancer's ballet."
On its revival by ABT in 1983, Anna Kisselgoff of the Times wrote that it restored a major Balanchine work to the international ballet scene. But it didn't really catch on with audiences, and has only been intermittently revived since then. Judging by the audience's tepid response Wednesday night, I'm not sure when we will see it again.
Then there was an SAB workshop performance in 1993. And then . . .
Here's what I think and, unlike all the other Balanchine ballets I have seen over the years, this is based on a one time viewing.
The Mozart music is lovely, but I don't think it lends itself particularly to dance. Unlike Divertimento No. 15, there is a static quality to the music; it just keeps repeating itself-- it doesn't move with the dancers. They are inhibited, they smile, but it's obvious that the ballet holds little interest for them. As Maria Tallchief famously said about the ballet, "it's like taking your medicine every day." Only in the third and last movement is there a joyful and flowing mood, and it is here that the choreography takes flight, as it were.
The ballet can also seem reminiscent of other Balanchine works such as Symphony in C, whereas the female partnering and bonding is done on a greater artistic plane in Concerto Barocco. In the latter the male appears and partners the first ballerina in the second movement, only to disappear afterwards, whereas in Symphonie Concertante he makes his entrance in the second, partners both ballerinas and stays for the third movement.
And, most importantly, the literalness of the piece. The two ballerinas parallel and mimic the violin and viola, there is no room for dance freedom, they seem so much alike. When originally presented, Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil Le Clercq were the two ballerinas, both so unalike in their attack and physiques. Tallchief was fire, Le Clercq was much lighter. Since I don't know of any extant video or footage, it's hard to see what made them so special, or understand the special mark they left on the ballet. Talk to any dancer or dance specialist: What's the first thing they think about when they hear Symphonie Concertane? Tallchief and Le Clercq.
But I come back to the music. Every step is followed note by note, quiver by quiver. Without the ability to digress for a second from the music, the dancers are stuck in it. This is not to say this this is bad; it's just that the ballet can seem draggy. It's not, but for an audience not used to Balanchine's manipulations, the movement seems to lead back to itself, repeating itself forever.
Christine Shevchenko and Isabella Boylston were the two ballerinas. The dancing was right on the mark, musical, fresh and free from affectation. Blaine Hoven supported them like a true cavalier, both gracious and attentive, and the soloists and ensemble were all excellent.
An essential work to understanding Balanchine in the years leading up to the founding of New York City Ballet. Most definitely! But for a general audience--I think not.
Alexei Ratmansky's Songs of Bukovina, to music of Leonid Desyatnikov, Excerpts from Bukovian Songs (24 Preludes for Piano) is a modest and bland affair. I've heard people call it another Dances at a Gathering, but I beg to differ. Dances is a beautiful Robbins ballet where his dancers are infused with shade, mood, even character, even if Robbins always insisted otherwise. But Bukovina doesn't go anywhere. It's just there. There is one lead couple as well as four secondary couples who don't seem to have the faintest idea what they're supposed to be doing. The dancers, Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal as the lead couple, and Alexandra Basmagy, Zhong -Jing Fang, Catherine Hurlin, Lauren Post, Jose Sebastian, Cameron McCune, Aran Bell and Tyler Maloney as the secondary couples did their utmost to try to convince us that this was a Ratmansky jewel, but failed.
I've now seen Wayne McGregor's Afterite three times, and I'm always astounded by its lack of cohesion both in thought and choreography. I understand that it's more of a theatrical piece than an all-out ballet, but McGregor's grasp of the ballet idiom is so meager that I am surprised it's still being kept. And once you've seen the gas chamber the first time, the shock value is nil.
People will talk. It's Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, that really wasn't a ballet. I concede. Whichever way you slice it, it just was not good.
The first two times I saw the ballet I couldn't figure out who was who, due to the terrible lighting design. It was just as bad this time, but I tried to make out the dancers. And I pretty much did. So here's to Aran Bell, Isabella Boylston, Skylar Brandt, Herman Cornejo, Alessandra Ferri, Blaine Hoven, James Whiteside and everyone else who was in it for their perseverance.
At the end of the evening it was, and always will be, obvious. No one can measure up to Balanchine.
At least not yet.