I took my 11-year old daughter to her first New York City Ballet performance Saturday evening January 30 to see the classical mixed rep program All Balanchine II. Before the performance, she inquired, “Why is Balanchine a big deal?” Having seen many NYCB performances over the years, the question forced me to summarize the key characteristics that make his choreography so noteworthy and pathbreaking. I generally try to adhere to the adage that if you can’t explain something to an 11-year old, you don’t understand it, so here goes:
1. Plotless Short Ballets
Balanchine believed the focus should be on the dancing rather than a story. As a result, most of his works are short, plotless ballets, although Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Nutcracker demonstrate that he also excelled in story ballets. Unlike other major companies such as ABT, The Royal Ballet, Mariinsky which primarily focus on full-length ballets such as Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Sleeping Beauty, most NYCB performances are mixed repertory, consisting of 2-4 works, each lasting 10-45 minutes. Moreover, to concentrate attention on the dance, costumes and sets are generally spartan, even in classical Balanchine works relative to grand Petipa productions.
2. “Ballet is Woman”
The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.
In my ballets, woman is first. Men are consorts. God made men to sing the praises of women. They are not equal to men: They are better. Brainyquote
Balanchine’s works generally centered around women, with the male dancer having a supporting role, most succinctly articulated by his “Ballet is Woman” quote. In Balanchine ballets the male’s work allows the female to blossom as the center of the performance.
A notable feature of many Balanchine ballets is the speed of the dancing in the petite allegro dances, much faster than most classical choreography. The rapid tempo is taught in early training at NYCB’s School of American Ballet.
The frenetic pace is shown in the video of Theme and Variations with Gelsey Kirkland from 1978. Take a look at 3:00 and 10:10; Gelsey works hard to keep up with the lightning fast pace, with numerous challenging turns, beats, and jumps. At a slower pace, the steps would be straightforward; at a frenetic pace, they are very challenging.
Balanchine was a choreographer with great musicality, able to marry movement and music across diverse scores from Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky.
“Balanchine’s deep and rare understanding of music allowed him to create dense, complex formal explorations of each ballet’s score. He possessed a genius for producing bold dance movement of a seemingly endless richness and variety…Every step feels as inevitable as the notes in a Mozart symphony…” writes Damien Jack.
Dancers in Balanchine works must themselves have a great sense of rhythm and timing to the music. Rebecca King of Miami City Ballet explains how dancers are taught to respond to the music:
In the Balanchine technique, dancers are often encouraged to dance “on top of the music” instead of “behind it.” When dancing “on top of the music”, the dancer is not waiting for the next note to cue their movement. Rather, they are anticipating what comes next, thereby allowing them to be exactly on the note. When this happens, there is often a little time left to hold that position before moving on to the next. This is where “phrasing” comes in. This is when a dancer is able to play with the music and timing, making for a more dynamic performance.
5. Not much Bravura
Balanchine’s choreography focuses on the music, linkage of intricate steps, and speed of execution rather than bravura. Many of the steps are fairly simple, but performed in innovative combinations at a rapid pace. Those expecting circus style steps that populate some full length ballets, such as endless turns, gravity defying leaps for men and long balances on pointe, will be disappointed. No big pirouette combinations, jumps such as jeté passé en tournant or grand fouettés for women. His philosophy is summed up by his direction to dancers on the appropriate number of pirouettes: “Two, maybe three…after that the audience starts to count.” (Greskovic, Ballet 101, p156)
6. Other Qualities
Rebecca lists other more subtle characteristics of the Balanchine style: deep pliés, abstract arms, emphasis on lines. See her post for more detail.
All Balanchine II
The wonderful All Balanchine II program this season provides a nice overview of classical Balanchine works with Walpurgisnacht Ballet (1980), Sonatine (1975), Mozartiana (1981), and Symphony in C (1947). All four works are plotless ballets, performed with no sets or elaborate backgrounds (although with lush beautiful costumes, particularly Walpurgisnacht Ballet). The works are to beautiful music (Charles François Gounod in Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Maurice Revel in Sonatine, Tschaikovsky in Mozartiana, and Georges Bizet in Symphony in C), with Balanchine weaving intricate steps and complex patterns as if to explore the music through movement.
The emphasis on the women was clearly evident from the first ballet of the evening Walpurgisnacht Ballet, with one male, two lead females, and supporting cast of 22 women. The tempo was brisk, particularly for female dances in the hair down section of Walpurgisnacht Ballet and the third and fourth movements of Symphony in C.
The steps for the men were straightforward. The male dancer basically serves as a galant partner in Walpurgisnacht Ballet (Adrian Danchig-Waring on Friday, Ask la Cour the previous Saturday), with a simple short solo. In Mozartiana there is a Gigue character (Troy Schumacher Friday, Daniel Ulbricht the previous Saturday) filled with intricate light footwork that I find very dull, even when performed well. There are more traditional basic classical steps such as pirouettes in the male solo in the Theme et Variations section (Tyler Angle on Friday and Anthony Huxley the previous Saturday). Symphony in C has a short male solo in the first movement, only partnering in the second movement, a short solo in the third and fourth movements.
As for individual performances, Sara Mearns was expressive in Walpurgisnacht Ballet last Saturday, flowing with the beautiful music with interesting phrasing. Anthony Huxley gave an impressive performance in Mozartiana with crisp, clear footwork. Tyler Angle was less impressive Friday, as his form was not up to par. The highlight of Symphony in C Friday was Ashly Isaacs and Joseph Gordon, who displayed great energy. Nice to see Ana Sophia Scheller back in action in the first movement. Her partner Andrew Veyette was uncharacteristically weak in his solo, displaying loose form. In the third movement, Justin Peck was shaky in his partnering with Sterling Hyltin and lacked authority.
My daughter’s verdict from her first Balanchine experience from last Saturday: Walpurgisnacht Ballet was her favorite, particularly the hair down section with rousing music. Mozartiana was interesting; Sonatine was dull. As for the final ballet of the evening, Symphony in C…she couldn’t stay awake. Past her bed time.