Watching a full-length classical ballet is easy because the plot is formulaic: boy meets girl and they either die or live happily ever after. Balanchine modernist ballets are a much more difficult task to interpret, similar to viewing an abstract painting. What is this painting about? What emotions did the artist want to convey? How do the various parts of the painting interact? What am I missing?
The New York City Ballet program Balanchine Black & White presents four classic Balanchine minimalist pieces without décor, with the dancers largely in simple black and white leotards set to 20th century music. With these pieces, audience members have plenty of opportunity to attempt to find meaning and context in these master works.
First up was The Four Temperaments (1946) set to music by Paul Hindemith. According to the reparatory notes, Balanchine choreographed the piece for the opening program of Ballet Society, the forerunner of New York City Ballet and is one of his earliest experimental works. “The ballet is inspired by the medieval belief that human beings are made up of four different humors that determine a person’s temperament. Each temperament was associated with one of the four classical elements (earth, air, water, and fire), which in turn were the basis of the four humors (black bile, blood, phlegm, and bile) that compose the body.” An individual’s temperament is determined if one element dominates. The ballet has four variations reflecting these principles: Melancholic (gloomy), Sanguinic (headstrong and passionate), Phlegmatic (unemotional and passive), and Choleric (bad-tempered and angry).
Sean Suozzi danced the morose Melancholic variation with six female dancers. He was anguished as he interacted with the other dancers, until his slow exit with an exaggerated arched back as he walked backward off the stage.
Adrian Danchig-Waring danced the Phlegmatic third variation. He danced this variation quite well, with four other women. His arms flowed effortlessly, an important characteristic in this section, as there are several passages in which he bows, with arms flowing in opposition in a swimming motion.
Ashley Bouder was the highlight of the piece, dancing Choleric with reckless abandon. Her solo featured precise movements on tempo featuring rapid, almost violent chaîné turns. Her jumps were powerful, forceful and with purpose. She was clearly on a mission to capture the essence of a bad-tempered angry individual.
The second piece was Episodes (1959) set to music from Anton von Webern. According to the notes, Episodes was made in honor of von Webern by New York City Ballet and Martha Graham and her company. The piece opens with four couples led by Abi Stafford and Sean Suozzi. There is much action here to discordant music; the technique is classical, with flexed feet, off balance lunges, overly arched backs every now and then to remind that is a neoclassical piece.
I enjoyed the pas de deux by Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour. Reichlen was in a white leotard while la Cour in black with a spotlight highlighting the color contrasts. The interplay during the tense pas de deux was dramatic. I also enjoyed Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford as they danced to the more soothing music of Ricercata in six voices from Bach’s “Musical Offering.”
My favorite of the evening was Duo Concertant (1972) with Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle. Violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Susan Walters were on stage as the curtain opened, playing the Stravinsky piece from 1931 as Megan and Jared stood behind them listening. Here the musicians are not just unobserved partners; they are part of the dance as the dancers frequently acknowledge them and stop to listen to the beautiful music.
Megan and Jared started their dance side-by-side moving in opposition with mechanical movements dominated by intricate, fast footwork. Jared’s dance was fast featuring quick single tours in succession. The piece is cheerful, joyful, and inspiring.
In the end, the stage goes dark and the music slows; they are illumined by a dim light; they embrace; she runs off-stage; he is alone and lost; she returns and their hands embrace, highlighted by a spotlight in a dramatic climax.
The final piece was Symphony in Three Movements, another 1972 piece set to Stravinsky. Daniel Ulbricht and Ana Sophia Scheller were exciting in the opening movement. Scheller was very limber, almost kicking herself in the head on an arabesque. Daniel is one of my favorites and I love watching his controlled and high double tours. The opening segment had a lot of dancers on stage as they darted in and out of the action. The second movement featured a nice pas de deux from Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar.
These pieces are complicated and nuanced; you could see these 10 times and pick up something new that you hadn’t seen before in the 11th viewing. I was absorbed in the Saturday performance but there was so much that I missed. I look forward to seeing it again Friday night for more insight on Balanchine’s abstract canvas.