As anyone who has seen the New York City Ballet can attest, George Balanchine hardly stuck to one dance style. Yet the ballets for which he is most well-known are his “black and white” ballets, works in which he stripped ballet to its essence — movement, and music, and the ways in which the two illuminate each other. Gone were elaborate costumes and sets, replaced with practice clothes (leotards and tights, sometimes accompanied by short dance skirts or belts) and an empty stage.
NYCB has devoted the first week of its spring season to a dozen such ballets. On opening night, Square Dance, politely joyful, preceded Agon‘s stark modernism — demonstrating just how varied Balanchine’s work is, even within this pared-down aesthetic. While these two works (and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, third on the program) were sometimes uneven, several of the lead dancers gave insightful performances.
The central pas de deux of Agon, danced by Wendy Whelan and Sébastien Marcovici, explores the tension between two bodies. The two dancers’ arms twine around one another; Marcovici pulls Whelan from the floor (before she sinks again into a split); her leg twines around his back. Whelan, from the beginning of the piece, is fiercely alert — her movements are economical and decisive, without seeming overly studied. Yet somehow, the pas de deux occasionally seems to lose focus — perhaps the pairing is less than ideal.
There are also two pieces for three dancers in Agon, which fared better on Tuesday: the first for two women and a man (Andrew Veyette) and the second for two men and a woman (Teresa Reichlen). Both Veyette and Reichlen approach their parts in interesting ways. Veyette dances the first pas de trois with courtly precision and a straight face, but with intelligent humor sparkling through his steps; and Reichlen flies through the tricky Bransle Gay variation with self-possessed vigor.
Once, Square Dance included a caller, who shouted out instructions over music by Vivaldi and Corelli. His part was later excised, but the sense that this dance is, at heart, a communal event remains: the dancers most often dance alongside their partners (and when separated, tend to gather at the sides of the stage to watch); and the piece is filled with winding, intricate floor patterns, reminiscent of group social dances. At the center of the piece is a pas de deux (danced by Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley) and a lonely solo for the male soloist. Huxley, a physically slight and technically gifted dancer, expressed this sadness well; yet the quality of his movement sometimes felt constricted, perhaps too correct and a dash premeditated.
It was interesting to see this same structure — joyful group dances bracketing more meditative variations — in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, the final piece on the opening night program. The Toccata (the first movement of the piece) begins with eight discrete sections: in each, one soloist (there are four) dances alongside four members of the corps de ballet. The first time through, these entourages are of the opposite gender, the second time the same. By the time the fourth soloist (Ask la Cour) comes onstage for the second time, it seems obvious that his retinue of male dancers will be close behind them — yet, for several measures, they remain in the wings. It is the first taste the audience has — the dancers have — of a more solitary, private moment. (There are more to come.)
The two pas de deux in this ballet are fascinating works. The first, Aria I, was danced by Maria Kowrowski and Amar Ramasar, Aria II by Sterling Hyltin and la Cour. With slow, controlled contortions (backbends, an arabesque with a foot on Ramasar’s shoulder, the measured lowering of a leg as she comes out of a back walkover), Kowrowski seems entirely in control. This same, slow descent of a leg figures again in Aria II — but here, it seems dictated by the male dancer (la Cour), who gestures downwards with his arm as Hyltin lowers her pointed foot to the ground. In the original cast, this sense of mentorship (a student and teacher?) seemed more prominent; but Hyltin dances the part with such authority that here it becomes only one facet of their relationship. She still demonstrates a certain vulnerability, but she also undertakes her movements with resolve and intent.
This week also included several débuts in important roles — perhaps most notably, Chase Finlay as Apollo on Thursday evening. This young dancer is still in the corps, but has received some notice over the past year. In taking on Apollo, Finlay follows in the footsteps of several great interpretations (Baryshnikov and Martins are two of the most famous). This Apollo is less rough than young. At first, he seems unsure what to make of his gifts (his grace, his raw power): how to turn these into dance? When the three muses join him (Hyltin, Tiler Peck, and Ana Sophia Scheller, also dancing their parts in New York for the first time), his delight seems to bubble over: he darts forward to offer a hand to his partner, speeds from one corner of the stage to another. Of course, Finlay’s interpretation of the role is not yet fully formed — but then, neither is Apollo himself in the moment Balanchine depicts.
Also on Thursday, Gonzalo Garcia made his début in The Four Temperaments — a ballet that was looking excitingly good during the winter season and has only gotten better over the past few months. The young corps members who dance the three themes at the beginning of the piece have continued to shape the phrasing of their movements so that their dancing looks sharper and cleaner; Reichlen as Choleric continues to astound and la Cour, as Phlegmatic, confounds (marvelously) with his odd mix of lazy grace and awkwardness. Jennie Somogyi and Tyler Angle, in the Sanguinic variation, attack the steps with verve (and Somogyi with endless imagination). And Garcia’s Melancholic variation, though it could be more dramatically rendered, exudes a noble sort of bleakness.
There were of course many other exciting moments in other ballets. Kowrowski was quite wonderful in Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. She dances these ballets often, and with good reason: her flexibility and line serve the piece well. And she understands how well the two pieces fit together, changing her demeanor from the first piece (somewhat softer) to the second (a bit more attitude, shoulders swayed back just a touch).
In Symphony in Three Movements, the long diagonal line of corps de ballet dancers in white leotards that opens the piece never ceases to amaze. And the adagio danced by Janie Taylor and Jared Angle is mesmerizing. Taylor slips wispily between steps, except when she doesn’t; she seems to dance in a dream, until she becomes almost unbearably focused. When she stands in front of Angle, solemnly stretching her arms straight before her and carrying them to the side, she seems firmly caught up in her own mind, even as her gaze extends outwards.
And Le Tombeau de Couperin, which I had never seen before this week, is a curious ballet quite unlike any other. There are no soloists, but rather eight couples who weave in and out of complex patterns. There are few moments in the piece when a single dancer breaks off from the group — in fact, when towards the end of the ballet the dancers form two diagonal lines and begin to take turns dancing in the center, it feels utterly unexpected. Yet Balanchine nevertheless can retain the audience’s attention throughout — and on Friday, the appreciative audience brought these sixteen dancers out for curtain calls.