Two Ballet Theatres

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AUGUST 13, 1977

Two Ballet Theatres

 

“Don’t perform; just do the steps,” I heard Balanchine say to Violette Verdy when he was making La Source with her (the equivalent of which would have been Bernard Shaw’s telling Mrs. Patrick Campbell to just say the words in Pygmalion).But Edward Villella, replying some years earlier to my question what his dancer’s eye perceived in the Verdy operation, mentioned “the amazing way Verdy understands a new role…as soon as it is started [and] brings something to it while she is learning the steps….I remember when a dancer was showing her the steps of a role: when Verdy repeated them they weren’t just the steps anymore, the way she suddenly brought them alive and made things happen and explode.” One of Villella’s examples of what Verdy brought to a role was her use of her eyes in the series of passés (the toe of one foot raised to the knee of the other foot) in her solo inTchaikovsky Pas de Deux: “When she does this passé-passé-hold,it’s not only the foot and the leg and the body and the arms, but the eyes too, with everything reaching the same point in time together”—the effect of which “very few [dancers] realize…and understand…but Verdy does.” And as photographs of this repeated passé-passé-hold sequence in a Dance Horizons booklet about Verdy show, what Villella meant by “the body and the arms” was the changes in tilt of the head and in configuration of exquisitely inflected arms, wrists and fingers that were uniquely hers. Those photographs don’t show the subtleties of timing and rhythmic inflection that made the enchanting movements breathtaking; butit is such photographs with their limitations that are all we will have from now on to recall to us the unique marvels she made of what she performed—the roles Balanchine made expressly for her in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Episodes, Liebeslieder Walzer, Emeralds, La Source, and theones originally made for other dancers. For her departure from the New York City Ballet last fall, as it turned out, ended the possibility of ever seeing their living realities again on the stage.

What Verdy had performed (like the role of Eliza Doolittle after Mrs. Campbell’s era) was performed this past year by others, and—whether poorly or well—performed differently. The first Emeralds had Christine Redpath “just doing the steps” unimpressively (which, incredibly, she had been assigned to do several times the preceding year in place of Verdy when she was still with the company); the next one had Sara Leland doing no better; but then the outstandingly gifted Merrill Ashley made the supported arabesques and lifts of the opening scene, and the turns and other details of the following solo, beautiful and effective in her own style (which Verdy used to characterize enthusiastically as “so legal!”). In La Source Kay Mazzo performed prettily, which was not enough for anyone who had seen Verdy’s performance. And concerning Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux I willreport now what I forgot to report a year ago: that after having been danced for years by Melissa Hayden and Patricia McBride with little more than the necessary technical virtuosity that excited audiences, it was transformed into something overwhelmingly grand by the flow of Suzanne Farrell’s large movements and the similar movements of Peter Martins’s new solo.

Because of injuries Villella was another of the company’s older great dancers whose performances of his roles in Balanchine’s ballets were not seen this past year, and may never be seen on the stage again. As it happened, Helgi Tomasson was a handsome Oberon in A Midsummer Night s Dream who danced the solo to Mendelssohn’s Scherzo with his elegance and clarity; and Robert Weiss danced it with his exciting elevation; but what both lacked was Villella’s power of presence on the stage and power of spacious movement in the air. Merely to do the difficult and taxing steps of the Villella role in Rubies as well as Peter Schaufuss and Weiss did them was an impressive achievement; but what they did not achieve was the additional effect of those steps—not just the vigorous ones but the occasional delicate twisting movements—being done by Villella’s powerful body. Nor did Schaufuss and Weiss achieve Villella’s humor at certain points: not only in the episode of his sly misleading and eluding of the pursuing boys near the end of the last movement, but in his return to the stage in the middle of the slow movement—the manner of his debonair high-stepping past McBride with an unseeing glance, his sudden stop and double-take, and his dash to her for the resumption of their pas de deux.

Of the other two older greats of the company Allegra Kent, in one of her rare appearances, again created in Bugaku the image she maintains of a remote figure going through a ritual of passion that no one else—neither McBride nor Mazzo nor even Farrell—achieves. And Jacques d’Amboise astounded one with several of his dazzling performances in Union Jack and Who Cares?—after which Adam Luders did the steps in Union Jack and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous and Martins demonstrated the inability of an impassioned Frenchman or an elegant Dane to look and dance like an American musical-show hoofer in Who Cares?

Nor could either of the young dancers who were substituted for Francisco Moncion in the extraordinary walking pas de deux in Emeralds make of his part what his powerful presence and dramatic mask used to make of it. However it was the company’s numerous gifted young dancers who produced superb performances of several great Balanchine classics: The Four Temperaments with Bart Cook in the Melancholic Variation, Ashley and Daniel Duell in the Sanguinic, Bonnefous in the Phlegmatic, Karin von Aroldingen in the Choleric; Symphony in C with Collean Neary in the firstmovement, Ashley in the second,Heather Watts and Schaufuss in thethird, Kyra Nichols in the fourth;Divertimento No. 15 with Ashley, Neary, Nichols and Maria Caligari in addition toFarrell and Martins. And it was theyoung dancers who astounded one inBournonville Divertissements—the onenew work of the winter season shortenedby the orchestra’s strike.

Bournonville Divertissements was astaging of five numbers from ballets ofthe 19th-century Danish dancer,teacher and choreographer whose teachings, and the ballets in which heused what he taught, are preserved as the basic tradition of the Royal Danish Ballet. The numbers were a ballabile from Napoli, danced by Nichol Hlinka and Daniel Duell with a group of the corps; a pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges, danced by McBride and Tomasson; a pas de trois from La Ventana, danced by Ashley, Nichols and Weiss; the well-known pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano, dancedby Farrell and Martins; and a pas de sept from A Folk Tale, danced by Neary, Luders, Victor Castelli, Muriel Aasen, Wilhelmina Frankfort, Watts and Jean-Pierre Frohlich. They were chosen and staged by Stanley Williams, a former soloist of the Royal Danish Ballet who teaches in the School of American Ballet, and whose coaching of the young Americans resulted in performances which not only gave to the virtuoso showpieces an exciting life and charm that the recent Ballet Theater performance of the pas de trois from La Ventana had lacked, but enabled me even before I read Svend Kragh-Jacobsen’s program note—to recognize in the difficult movements simpler forms of what I had been seeing in Balanchine’s work. (It was not merely a matter of Balanchine’s coming into direct contact with the Bournonville style, as Jacobsen mentions, when he came to the Royal Danish Ballet as guest choreographer in 1929: what he had learned years earlier in the imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg had been a blending of the Bournonville style, taught in the school by his pupil Christian Johannson, with “the Italian virtuosity that was added…when Cecchetti was appointed dancer and teacher in 1890.”)

The spring season’s new ballet, Balanchine’s Wiener Walzer, had scenery, costumes and waltzes to music of Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar and Richard Strauss that made it suitable for the festive atmosphere of the annual gala benefit at which it was given a preview. The waltzes were of course skillfully contrived and orchestrated on the stage, and therefore pleasant to look at; but they were not a creative achievement on the level of Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer. Two pieces of invention rose above the rest: the humorous steps of the fast perpetuum mobile to Johann Strauss’s Explosions Polka; and the episode in the final scene in which Farrell, alone on the stage in a low-cut long white ball dress, displayed the beauty of her body and its movement in a slow walk to stage center, where she stopped, bowed low to an imagined partner, and began to move and turn with arms circling above her head, joined after a few moments by Bonnefous and then by other dancing couples for the final waltz.

 

After Glen Tetley’s Sargasso, a monstrosity of modern-dance-style contortion and distortion that American Ballet Theatre presented some years ago, one thought the company would want no further works of his; but in the past year it offered two more. One, Le Sacre du Printemps, was a perpetuum mobile of frenetic writhing, leaping and worse that misused Stravinsky’s score and the unfortunate dancers; the other, Voluntaries, was a quiet perpetuum) mobile of ballet movements—to Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion—whose sequences and groupings were uninteresting from first to last. Thinking of the succession of worthless new works that Ballet Theatre had been presenting, I remembered the awful works of De Valois, Helpmann, MacMillan and others presented by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in its early visits, which had been occasions to point out that the company’s service to us was not its offerings of contemporary English works—except for Ashton’s comic masterpieces Façade and A Wedding Bouquet—but the opportunities it provided to see authentic and effective productions of the classics of the past—notably Nicolai Sergeyev’s staging of The Sleeping Beauty, with Oliver Messel’s beautifully imagined scenery and costumes, the dancing of the well trained and rehearsed company, and Margot Fonteyn’s enchanting Aurora. One could say the same of Ballet Theatre, even though it had presented a poorly designed Giselle in which Makarova had been free to make damaging changes in the choreography of the second act, and a poorly designed Swan Lake in which she dictated damaging tempos for her slow-motion performance. And for this year’s Sleeping Beauty the company was having Mary Skeaping reproduce the Sergeyev staging and Messel duplicate his scenery and costumes for it. I looked forward, therefore, to seeing again the reality and totality of what my mind retained as a few dimly remembered fragments; and I was shocked by costumes whose garish colors I knew I had not seen years ago; a backdrop of a palace that I knew had not looked as drab as it did now; choreography that was less effective, not only because of the changes but because it was not executed as well; a lack of the over-all distinction that I remembered—to say nothing of the interpolation of the scene in La Sylphide in which Madge and the other witches brew their mischief, in place of the three sinister old women knitting that I saw in the first act years ago.

As it happened, these impressions were confirmed and accounted for by two pieces in the latest issue of Ballet Review—an interview with Skeaping and a review by David Vaughan. Skeaping said she had been unable to complete her task because of Ballet Theatre’s inability to provide the necessary rehearsal time; Vaughan said, specifically, that in the limited rehearsal time she “could just about teach the dancers the steps, but could hardly begin to teach them how to dance them.” This was because the company hasn’t “a recognizable classic style shared by all the dancers,” whereas “when the then Vic-Wells Ballet first began to dance Beauty in 1939…a style was already in the process of being formed on the basis of the nineteenth century classics as produced by Sergeyev”—the style that, by the time Sadler’s Wells first performed The Sleeping Beauty here in 1949, gave the dancing the effectiveness, and the performance the over-all distinction that I remembered. Vaughan considered the company’s eclectic repertory-building policy “not conducive to homogeneity of style, particularly when there is apparently no one in authority who will say no to dancers who change choreography to suit their whims”—by whom he meant Makarova, who “in Beauty on opening night performed various passages according to the Kirov version she was used to.” In the much later performance I saw, Cynthia Gregory performed the prescribed movements of the Rose Adagio and the final pas de deux with impressive security and perfection, though she presented the image of a serenely mature woman instead of an impulsive young girl.     Paradoxically it was the ruthless will of the Makarova who introduced Kirov movements into the Sergeyev-Skeaping Sleeping Beauty that enabled her to get the girls slowly coming down the ramp, at the beginning of La Bayadére, to exhibit in their succession of arabesques a style shared by all that was beautiful and exciting to see not only in this sequence but in what followed. In the first performance I saw Makarova danced with her exquisite fluidity, and Fernando Bujones soared into space with his contained elegance; in the second Gelsey Kirkland exhibited her sharply defining clarity of configuration, and Mikhail Baryshnikov not only added personal warmth and spontaneity to his virtuosity but demonstrated again that to do the phenomenal things he does on the stage is as natural for him as swimming is for a fish.

The new Nutcracker was not a new staging of the original Petipa-Tchaikovsky ballet, nor even, like Balanchine’s, an invention of new choreography for the original Petipa scenario and the music Tchaikovsky fitted to it. Baryshnikov used the music for a scenario of his own that is unsuited to it. Tchaikovsky’s score is a marvelous evocation of a child’s real world, seen in the first-act Christmas party, and a child’s imagined world, seen in the dream of little Clara that follows the party—the dream of the two children’s visit to the Kingdom of Sweets, in which the divertissements for their entertainment culminate in the pas de deux ofthe Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier with its impassioned supported adagio. Baryshnikov’s Clara, a grown-up young girl, dreams of being taken by her grown-up young Nutcracker-Prince to his palace, where it is they who dance the impassioned supported adagio that is interfered with by a Drosselmeyer attempting unsuccessfully to take Clara away from her Prince. And after the final waltz all the characters disappear, leaving Clara alone in the morning sunlight that streams into her room. As one watches all this one is aware that the music is incompatible with it; and I find it hard to understand Baryshnikov’s not being aware of it. The performance I saw had Makarova and Bujones dancing the little they were given to dance very beautifully.

One must be grateful to Ballet Theatre for the opportunity to see two historic Diaghilev classics, Firebird and Petrushka.The Firebird was as nearly as possible the original Fokine version fitted to Stravinsky’s spacious and luxuriantly orchestrated 1910 score— which is to say that it was this version as restaged in 1920 with scenery by Natalie Gontcharova, as restored by Serge Grigoriev and Lubov Tchernicheva for the Royal Ballet, which presented it here and as duplicated now by Christopher Newton. As in 1955, I liked the general effect of greater amplitude in music and story line, and found the pas de deux of the captured bird struggling to free itself from Ivan Tsarevitch as impressively original, imaginative and effective as when I first saw it in 1916; and in the expanded scene involving Kostchei and his subjects it was interesting to see what had been impressively imaginative in 1910 even if it was less effective today. The Firebird’s animated entrance solo called for what Gregory’s technique could give it; and she was impressive also in the pus de deux.

The Petrushka was Yurek Lazovsky’s reproduction of the last Fokine version that Ballet Theatre presented in the ‘40s with Lazovsky’s great performance in the title role; and the choreographed portions were identical with those Lazovsky had reproduced for the Joffrey Ballet; but the production including even the unchoreographed milling about of the crowd—looked better spaced out on the large Metropolitan Opera stage than squeezed onto the stage of the City Center. With Marcos Paredes’s Blackamoor and Karen Brock’s Dancer, both good, I was fortunate in seeing Erik Bruhn’s Petrushka — interesting in its casting off the traditional mask of chalk-white face with zigzag black mouth, so that one saw a human face with the puppet’s movements. The combination of the choreographed portions with Stravinsky’s music struck me again as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century ballet that should be in the repertory of every ballet company.

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