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NYCB - Square Dance, Bouder's Firebird

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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 June 2001 - 01:11 AM

Like a few of Balanchine’s ballets, Square Dance is a ballet that was made in parts over time. There is the ballet that was created for Patricia Wilde in 1957, a ballet done with an actual square dance caller and with Western costuming. For NYCB’s revival in 1976, Balanchine removed the caller and the costumes and inserted a grave solo for Bart Cook that altered the character of the ballet irrevocably. We may have lost the novelty and some of the raison d’être of the original version by paring the ballet down to its skeleton, but the benefit is a similar one to the removal of costumes from The Four Temperaments. There are no distractions to our focus.

It should come as no surprise (though it does anyway) when one pares away the novel trappings of Square Dance to reveal the skeleton as a classical ballet of purity and mastery. Balanchine dropped the parallels to American folk dance and we see instead the heritage of the music itself, the Italian Renaissance. The ballet is laid out in symmetry as pure and orderly as Palladian Architecture, but pared down. In intent, music and casting (six couples and a lead couple) its resemblance is now to another distillation of the Italian Renaissance, Monumentum pro Gesualdo. The western couples at the grange hall have metamorphosed into a court of young dukes and princesses.

In both ballets, Balanchine keeps the partnerships stable; if a dancer switches partners it is only to return. This stability is part of the unearthly beauty of Square Dance; stability, symmetry and unison. It was Balanchine’s mastery of how to use choreography in unison that impressed me the most in this viewing. Unison is used for effect; it builds excitement through its power and focus. The eye sweeps the stage and sees but one movement, refracted and multiplied. It can have a military effect because of the association with soldiers marching in formation. (Think of the Rockettes) If overused, it seems almost fascistic, recalling the phrase “marching in lockstep.”

Balanchine’s gifts as a choreographer lay in his taste, which was as acute as a chef’s. He knew his seasoning and when enough was enough. Square Dance uses unison not for visceral excitement but for clarity of focus, you get to see the step until you can see the step. But the ballet never becomes dense or monolithic. The vocabulary is kept clear, open and simple; with the exception of the gargouillades that are the centerpiece of the women’s dance, there are few furbelows. Steps are done with a single voice or antiphonally. The leading man or woman dances, then their companions, or the men do a step in unison and the women respond with one of their own. And at the point when you’ve seen the step enough, the stage is split into mirror images on the right and left and the picture changes. What makes Square Dance so viscerally satisfying in your gut is that you can see it. It’s a ballet to train your eyes the same way the Vivaldi or Corelli train your ears. The ballet was given a fine performance on the Saturday matinee. I’m biased, but Peter Boal’s performance in the solo was as good as I’ve ever seen it done.

In another biased opinion, Charles Askegard was a vivid Siegfried in the Balanchine one-act version of Swan Lake. He’s become an heir to Jacques D’Amboise’s repertory, virtuoso but extroverted. It was an afternoon of good performances, Kowroski as Askegard’s Odette, Darci Kistler and Nikolaj Hübbe in yet another momentous Duo Concertant, Alexandra Ansanelli in Christoper Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. My opinion of this work hasn’t changed markedly since my first viewing. It’s got some great moments in it, and Wheeldon knows how to deftly tailor the dance to his dancers, but the parts don’t coalesce into a whole for me.

The biggest shock of the season came the night before with Ashley Bouder’s second hastily scheduled Firebird. I saw Bouder dance at age 11 and she has always been talented, and at 17, I think it’s healthier and kinder to adopt a “wait and see” attitude to any young dancer. That being said, I expected virtuosity and ballon and I got both. Bouder knocked out the turns in her variation and flew through her manège; there was no surprise there. Her sense of drama in the role was a pleasant surprise but also no shock, she’s been projecting on stage (that I’ve seen) since the lead in the SAB Workshop in 2000.

The shock was that in someone that young the last thing I ever expected to see was grandeur. Martins may very well have a new ballerina on his hands, but not a newfangled one. Though she’s not tall, she’s also not small-framed, and this is not a deficiency. She displaces space, you know she’s there. There’s something old-fashioned about Bouder’s physique and the use of her breastbone and it makes her movements grand-scale. You saw it in her pas de deux with Askegard, how she held herself in penché to indicate her nervousness about being touched by him. There was also no unfocused energy in her performance. In someone that young, one expects to see more unnecessary movement, and seeing Bouder loop back to a nearly extinct sort of ballerina makes her seem more mature than her years. If I were looking to cause a sensation, I’d give her a crack at Theme and Variations, a role for an old-fashioned grand ballerina with a technique of steel. If I were looking to cause an even bigger sensation, I’d do it, but also get Monique Meunier and Pascale van Kipnis back onstage, both of whom seem to be missing in action and are as sorely missed as new talent is welcome.

#2 liebs


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Posted 14 June 2001 - 03:27 PM

Leigh, interesting to think of Askegard as an heir to D'Amboise. The other day, I was struck by how much of Luders rep (Davidsbundlertanze, Faust and In Memory Of). Luders and D'Amboise were very different dancers, an indication of Askegard's range or just an indication that a tall guy at NYCB will never lack for repertoire.

I was very impressed by his performance in Swan Lake with Kowrowski. They both seemed passionately involved in the story and had real characters.

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 June 2001 - 04:28 PM

I honestly think it's range. Chuck physically fits Luders' roles and tempermentally fits D'Amboise's. I also think that all he's done since he got to NYCB is improve. Not for everyone, but I've noticed for most people who move "across the plaza" in either direction (Askegard to NYCB, Ethan Steifel and Anna Liceica to ABT) the move is the right one.

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