BWW Reviews: American Ballet Theater
Balanchine and Massine on the same program on February 20, 2014? I can't remember that last time I saw that. I wonder if the two would approve. But there is one fundamental difference separating the two choreographers. Balanchine, even 30 years after his death, is still in the forefront of modern ballet choreography, and most of Massine's ballets have fallen into oblivion. To be honest, the only Massine ballets I have seen prior to this were Parade and The Three Cornered Hat, both of which I enjoyed. I'd like to see The Good Natured Ladies, Le Beau Danube, La Boutique Fantasque, Rouge et Noir, Choreartium and Les Présages one of these days, but the chances are very slim. As the old saying goes, keep dreaming.
There is, however, one thing binding them forever: Serge Diaghilev, one of the 20th century's great impresarios with an eye for spotting and nurturing talent. Without Diaghilev, I wonder if we would ever have had a Balanchine or even a memory of Massine. Thank you, Mr. Diaghilev. Almost 90 years after your death, your influence still reverberates throughout the dance world. There are not many people who can lay claim to that!
Balanchine's Theme and Variations, choreographed to the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G major, Op. 55, was originally presented by ABT in 1947, when the company asked him to create a work reminiscent of the wedding scene in The Sleeping Beauty. Balanchine responded with a ballet that celebrated and manifested the grand Petipa style with a cast requiring a ballerina, a danseur noble, soloists, and a corps de ballet. It makes crushing demands on the ballerina and danseur. Like a great Mozart aria, everything is exposed; there is no place to hide. You can't fudge. If you're an opera fan, you remember Maria Callas saying that she did not like singing Mozart because the music was not dramatic. I beg to differ. She couldn't sing Mozart because she lacked the technique. The same applies to Theme and Variations.
The cast did, for the most part, rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, James Whiteside, in the danseur noble role, could not master his part, one of the most fiendishly difficult in the ballet canon. His partnering also lacked what I would call panache. It did not show nobility, rather someone striving to reach that exalted station. He looked like a good partner, but one that still needed coaching and repeated performing to conquer the demands of this killer role.
Polina Seminova in the ballerina's role was a much better choice for the ballet. She did not look like a Bolshoi ballerina dancing Balanchine. While she had to work for the speed of the steps a few times, she succeeded beautifully. Here's one dancer I would like to see in other Balanchine roles. She has the talent, not to mention the stamina for other Balanchine parts. Who knows?
Balanchine's Duo Concertant seems to have dropped in from another universe. Set to an Igor Stravinsky composition for violin and piano it was originally dedicated to violinist Samuel Dushkin, who also premiered Stravinsky's Violin Concerto and Ravel's orchestral version of his Tzigane, both of which entered New York City Ballet's repertoire for Balanchine ballets.
The ballet is quiet and meditative. The curtain rises on two dancers standing still and listening quietly to the violinist and pianist. Then they begin to dance. It's nothing spectacular, just two people enjoying what they are hearing and putting the quiet steps into motion. At the end of the ballet the lights darken and all you see are dancers' hands reaching out to each other. While not a pyrotechnic pleaser like Theme and Variations, it casts a sweet and reflective glow on the audience. You can make up any story you'd like and apply it to what you've seen.
Misty Copeland and Eric Tamm danced with quiet, assured authority. You could feel the connection, yet the severance of communication after the lights dimmed. I have not seen Eric Tamm before, so all I can say is that his concentration, technique and quiet command were highly commendable. I look forward to seeing him again in other roles. As for Misty Copeland, she continues to mature every time I see her. I remember her as a retiring, quiet soloist lacking assurance or impressive technique. I can only say that I'm sorry. She has so totally matured into a formidable presence that I wonder what ABT has in mind for her future. I can't wait to see.
Massine's Gaîté Parisienne closed the program. I came to the production with a knowledge of the music and some images in my mind, having seen photographs and an old movie that was filmed by Victor Jensen in thirty-second "takes" filmed in various locations over a number of years. Not really much to go on.
The ballet was first presented by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Théâtre de Monte Carlo on April 5, 1938 and became an instantaneous success. It seems that there was friction between Massine and the ballet's orchestrator, Manuel Rosenthal, who did not like the music that Massine had selected. Upon hearing the orchestrations Massine became convinced that he had a failure on his hands so he brought it to Stravinsky for an impartial view. Stravinsky's verdict was that if Massine did not use the score he was crazy!
The ballet was a favorite of audiences, especially when Alexandra Danilova danced the part of the Glove Seller. It was to remain indelibly associated with her for the rest of her career. One critic said that her performance was "champagne." Now that's a compliment!
The plot of the ballet is just as silly as any Offenbach operetta. There's a lusty Peruvian on the make, a glove seller who, as the great Frederic Franklin used to say, is selling more than gloves in her basket, a courteous Baron and a corps of can-can dancers. It sounds like fun, and reading the old reviews it seemed like quite a romp. But it's the characterizations that really matter, because without them there is no ballet. And here's the problem.
ABT has never been a character driven company. This is glaringly manifested in the performance of Craig Salstein as the Peruvian. A charming, funny dancer, he went over the top in his performance. The character may be funny, but he's not a downright dim-wit about the facts of life. Hee Seo as the Gove Seller was more of a blank in her characterization. She danced prettily, but nothing more. Where was the allure, the vivacity associated with Alexandra Danilova? Were dancers better back in the old days? No, but their sense of theater was sharper. Without an actor's tools of imagination the performers danced, but they could not project a soul. And that's exactly what Gaîté Parisienne needs. Or maybe it needed Misty Copeland in the female lead. I would have liked to see that.
Photograph: Andrea Mohin