You could say that City Ballet’s opening “all black and white” week was a marketing gimmick, and you’d be right. But you could also say it was a highly instructive, even impressive, event, and you’d be right again. On the most basic level, it gave us seven programs with absolutely no dross–no second-tier Robbins or third-tier Martins (they’re coming); no Susan Stroman (it’s coming back–duck!). This entire season is loaded with Balanchine, from La Sonnambula and Divertimento No. 15 to Vienna Waltzes and Jewels, enough greatness to make believers out of the dance-blind, and enough to restore faith to those of us lifelong (and long-suffering) believers who have hung in there waiting for relief from the flop festivals and the dead-on-arrival premieres.
In the old days, it was daring for the company to schedule an entire evening of the black-and-whites–it happened maybe once a year; the audience was still coming to grips with the avant-garde music (Stravinsky, Webern, Hindemith) and extreme choreography of Agon, Episodes, The Four Temperaments, even though the latter had been around since 1946. (It still looks more modern, more challenging, than 90 percent of today’s newest ballets.) And it was this starker side of Balanchine’s work, reinforced by the 1972 Stravinsky Festival (Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements, Duo Concertant), that many people first thought of when they spoke of Balanchine; these “abstract” ballets seemed revolutionary, and for a long time were thought to be caviar to the general.
To see so many of these once-daunting masterworks, now old friends, gathered together, made it clear that their effect on us has not been eroded by familiarity. Apollo followed by The Four T’s–each of them so filled with the genius of invention, each so central to the history of 20th-century ballet–was almost too much to absorb. It didn’t really matter that none of the performances was ideal; they were accurate enough to convey Balanchine’s intentions. And because they opened the season, there had been time to rehearse them properly; they weren’t just flung onto the stage.
The most anticipated event of the week was the debut of the very young Chase Finlay as Apollo–this is only his second year in the company. Apollo is not easy to get right: He’s a newborn cub at the beginning who, from his gleeful awakening, grows into his strengths–taking command, and ultimately achieving godhead; he has to be playful and majestic, jazzy and severe. And it helps if he’s a beauty. Finlay is a born Apollo, and a surprisingly relaxed one. His size is average, his looks fall between the heroic (Peter Martins) and the impish (Edward Villella) and his carriage is both manly and pliant. He’s appropriately excited and impetuous in his early passages, and appropriately responsive to his three muses. The evolution to maturity is as yet sketched rather than realized, but it will come.
The muses themselves were less satisfying, except for Tiler Peck as Polyhymnia–as always utterly musical and fully energized; if I were Apollo, she’d be my muse of choice. The script, however, requires him to choose Terpsichore, at this performance danced by Sterling Hyltin, also a debut. Alas, she makes the same limited impression she so frequently does. Her body is slim, perfectly proportioned; her dancing is fresh and sprightly. But there’s no depth, no profound response to the music. Her Terpsichore is charming, but there’s no underlying gravity, no essence of the dance–she’s a nice girl, but Apollo deserves more. As Calliope, Ana Sophia Scheller is competent and dry, as usual. But despite my reservations, I found this Apollo–with its engaging and engaged young god at its center–a revelation all over again, ballet’s crucial work of modernism, as many have called it, and a masterpiece of the first order.
Agon–like Apollo and The Four Temperaments a ground-breaking work–received a dutiful performance. Wendy Whelan in the duet has begun to lose her astounding elasticity, and this was never her finest role, but the fierce jazziness Andrew Veyette brought to the first pas de trois, gave it an excitement I’ve never seen matched. This was original and remarkable dancing.
More gratifying than Agon was Episodes, the startling, thorny ballet set to Webern that came along two years later and seemed a further step into the unknown. I was at its premiere in 1959 and remember very well the shock of the extreme, jagged vocabulary of its opening sections and the contrasting harmonious beauty, at the end, of Webern’s orchestration of the ricercata from Bach’s “Musical Offering.” We don’t get to see Episodes very often–it’s never been an audience favorite–but it’s a work of immense daring and provocative invention. Only Teresa Reichlen fulfilled its intentions until the ricercata itself, when Sara Mearns, skillfully partnered by Jonathan Stafford, resolved the tensions of the earlier sections in a flowing, generous performance. (She is actually more suited to this glorious music than the original, Melissa Hayden, who was many impressive things, but was hardly known for embodying harmony.) Episodes stands up as a major work, even with lusterless performances that lack, among other things, the quirkiness and wit of the first cast–Violette Verdy, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent–and even without the amazing solo Balanchine concocted for Paul Taylor, on loan from Martha Graham. Think of a fly trapped in a bottle of milk, Balanchine told him, and Taylor did. (He’s always been partial to insects.) The absence of the Taylor solo, which could still be resurrected, is a serious diminishment of this important ballet’s impact.
The fact that all these ballets have been so studiously rehearsed only underscores the sad reality that for the most part they aren’t adequately coached. Surely Megan Fairchild could be helped to be more decisive and accurate in Square Dance: She relies far too much on cute punctuation–adorable tilts of the head, etc. Amar Ramasar should be pushed to appear more fully invested in what he’s doing. Abi Stafford has to be helped to project a dance personality–though she’s consistently capable, she’s almost an invisible presence.
Most important, the corps needs to be energized as well as regimented. When the curtain goes up on Symphony in Three Movements, the long diagonal line of girls in ponytails and white leotards is one of the most stunning images in all of Balanchine. But Balanchine wanted his dancers radiating energy even when standing still. Today’s corps just stands there, waiting for their cue to move. This failure is all too evident throughout the repertory–it’s the most notable difference between Balanchine in his day and Balanchine in ours. If the well-drilled corps in Symphony in Three Movements, say, absorbed the way Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht danced alongside them–alive, full-out, holding nothing back–they’d have no problem. Well, at least they aren’t chewing gum.
To end on a happier note: Maria Kowroski, she of the glorious body and legs, is finally coming into her own, her back stronger and her confidence greater. In both Monumentum/Movements and the first “aria” of Stravinsky Violin Concerto she looked in total charge, although she could still be helped to emphasize the contortionist/acrobatic aspects of the role. What matters is that she’s finally becoming a real ballerina. Perhaps strong coaching would have got her to this point earlier, but better late than never.