Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Balanchine in the balance

Rie Ichikawa, Melanie Atkins, Heather Myers, and Lia Cirio in Ballo Della Regina.

After a superb program of new works earlier this spring, Boston Ballet unexpectedly foundered (slightly) with last week's Classic Balanchine, and I've been pondering for some time exactly why this was so. Part of the problem was that the program didn't quite hang together: the three Balanchine works selected (Ballo della Regina, La Valse and The Four Temperaments) were presented in reverse chronological order (although the dates of the accompanying music moved in the opposite direction), but this arrangement revealed little, if any, sense of Balanchine's development. Instead the idea simply seemed to be to convey the breadth of the master's aesthetic; a worthy goal, perhaps, but in practice, the results were slightly diffuse. This impression was reinforced, I'm afraid, by the performances (at least on opening night). The corps, as usual, wasn't quite up to the cut-glass precision of Mr. B's grouped synchronicities. And Lorna Feijóo, the expected centerpiece of Ballo, was sidelined by illness, and the company's other stars - Larissa Ponomarenko and Yury Yanowsky - were either in bit parts or absent altogether. The dancers on the rise who filled their toe shoes were, I'm happy to report, fully up to the technical challenge of this demanding choreographer; but their ability to project their personalities through dance is not yet on the same level as the company's customary headliners.

Balanchine himself famously groused that all the "acting" a dancer needed to perform his choreography was to be found in the steps; but of course he was wrong about that - indeed, he often designed works with individual dancers and their personal charisma in mind, and so should have known better than to disparage what he was in fact exploiting (Ballo, for instance, was designed specifically for Merrill Ashley). In the lead role of the dance (which is an abstracted version of a Verdi ballet about a fisher and a pearl) Erica Cornejo, Feijóo's last-minute replacement, caught fire in her later variations after a rather blurry start (she may have been inspired by glittering turns from Lia Cirio and Melanie Atkins), but still her brilliance felt slightly blank, as if she were simply thrilled to be successfully leaping through a series of ever-higher hoops. There was also little connection between her and her gleaming consort, the technically dazzling James Whiteside, who has the looks (and legs) of Apollo but not yet quite his presence. And alas, the corps of sea nymphs around the central cavorting couple did indeed seem occasionally at sea.

The corps did better in La Valse, Balanchine's elegant rumination on Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales of 1911 and La valse of 1920, which straddle the cataclysm of World War I in their doomy, sinister romance. Here Mr. B seems to have set his sights on evoking a cotillion at the Gates of Hell, a kind of deadpan "Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of Europe" party - or at least that's how the Boston version played. Refugees from Last Year at Marienbad - including a trio of gowned witches (or Fates?) - disported themselves in a high-society danse macabre before "The Girl in White" (Karine Seneca) - the virgin/debutante at the ball - was drawn from her partner to the arms of Death himself (Carlos Molina). Somehow, however, there was little suspense to this particular decline and fall; as with Cornejo's brilliance, Seneca's porcelain beauty was slightly unmoving, although once she comprehended her own impending end (in a mirror Mr. D thoughtfully provided, along with diamonds and dead flowers), she threw herself into her death throes with frightening conviction, and so almost brought off her final apotheosis.

After these two oddly opposed suites - one of which adores the ballerina, while the other destroys her - the Ballet essayed The Four Temperaments (1946), and yet another Balanchinean mode, that of stripped-down modernism. Here, against a repurposed score by Paul Hindemith, Balanchine worked through - and beyond - the break between modern dance and ballet (in the dance's opening moments, the performers stretch their feet gracefully into classic ballet position, then flex them into odd, blocked, awkward shapes). The look is spare (tights and rehearsal clothes), and the feeling is protean, even if the "book" of the ballet (which does present the four temperaments of yore - Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, and Choleric) is a bit hokey in its nod to classicism. On opening night, John Lam was a strikingly passionate Melancholic, and Larissa Ponomarenko and Nelson Madrigal performed the subtlest, most attentive dancing of the evening as the "Sanguinic" couple. Carlos Molina, as "Phlegmatic," and Kathleen Breen Combes, in the brief flare that was "Choleric," both had their moments, but once again their best efforts were undermined by an indistinct corps - and precision is everything in the harsh landscape of Balanchine and Hindemith. Indeed, The Four Temperaments is probably most memorable in its delineation of a choreographic language appropriate to this composer - the score is strong enough to stand on its own, and Jonathan McPhee and the Ballet Orchestra, despite a slightly lagging string section, gave a good account of it in the pit (they were at their lustrous best, btw, in the Ravel).

Still, as the curtain fell, a certain sense of missed opportunity haunted the theatre. What's missing first from the Ballet's attack was a clear commitment to its corps - Balanchine isn't star driven, and many of his structures depend on an almost ingrained precision, which to date in the company's Balanchine evenings has been missing. Then there's the subtler problem of personality, and the way it always informs even the coldest, clearest stretches of this romantic modernist. The Ballet's younger stars have the legs for classic Balanchine; but do they have the hearts?


  1. A good, thoughtful review (as usual...)

    Having seen the Sat. PM performance, I agree about Ballo, although I had attributed the shakiness of the corps to the cast substitutions. However, I thought that the corps was pretty good in The Four Temperaments. Assuming major ballet companies have roughly equivalent rehearsal periods for any given performance, I wonder if the difference between a very good corps (i.e. Boston Ballet) and a great corps (i.e., San Francisco Ballet) is whether they can "nail it" in the standard rehearsal period.

    It's also interesting that, unlike theatre and modern dance, you don't really get to see a piece stay in a ballet company's repertory and deepen over time (the only exception being the inevitable Nutcracker).

  2. Perhaps the added performances between Thursday and Saturday eve. helped pull Temperaments together? (Even on Thursday the corps was a little wobblier in Ballo.)

    And I agree wholeheartedly about the repertory problem - Temperaments in particular would only deepen over time. Alas, the programming (and perhaps the audience) of the Boston Ballet doesn't allow for that kind of long-term commitment from the company.