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Balanchine: The City Center Years — up close and personal

Balanchine: The City Center Years — up close and personal

November 03
18:35 2018

It may be its 75th birthday, but City Center needs no excuse to celebrate its early alliance with Balanchine.

By 1948, when the municipal theatre offered his shaky Ballet Society a home as New York City Ballet, the Russian émigré had been freelancing for 15 years — on Broadway, for touring companies and in Hollywood. He was as tough as a potato, he said, but even a potato prefers certain soils. Until 1964, when NYCB upgraded to a vast, custom-built stage at Lincoln Center, City Center provided those digs. Balanchine rewarded it with some 60 creations in every imaginable and yet-to-be-imagined mode.

Balanchine: The City Center Years hardly does justice to that breadth or even to the spiky modernism and kitschy Americana peculiar to the era. With an international roster of major companies, the five-day, six-programme extravaganza emphasises instead the choreographer’s now-global reach.

Yet it only took the lights to dim and the curtain to rise on the opening dance for history to cast its spell. The Miami City Ballet dancers rushing from one wing, then another, in Serenade impressed on us how bodily Balanchine made this ethereal art. The relatively small City Center stage rests high enough above the orchestra seats that movement at Balanchine’s velocity and density pulls you under like a giant wave. How shocking the dance must have been on first encounter there. How startling still. Serenade suddenly seemed the choreographer’s answer to The Rite of Spring.

Being close to the stage, you could hear the dancers’ breathing over the sumptuous NYCB orchestra and catch their expressions. NYCB principal Sara Mearns’ impassivity, for example, as she dived backward in Symphony in C’s long unwinding adagio, infused the daring move with stoical grace.

New York City Ballet in Balanchine’s ‘Symphony in C’ © Paul Kolnik

From close up, the neatly contained be-tutued ballet became a forest of legs. The feet flicked and swiped, weight shifting, while the upper body floated above, capacious and slow. Precisely placed arms such as the Mariinsky’s Viktoria Tereshkina displayed in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux look merely fussy in Balanchine, who reserves constant recalibration for the lower legs and feet (and, in pas de deux, the clasp of hands).

The sheer number of these calibrations occurred to me on the second night — seated just as close but now above, on the mezzanine overhang. For Concerto Barocco, the NYCB corps finessed a gazillion steps, linked one after another in an unforced cadenza of musical meaning.

Without the complex musicality, Balanchine seems wooden, pointless. No surprise, then, that the companies on the first two programmes most steeped in his work were the ones that most illuminated it. The revelation was the difference the stage made. This experiment in perspective is worth repeating regularly, and why not in other unlikely spaces as well? Lofts, parks, theatres in the round — wherever Balanchine might strike us anew.


To November 4,

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