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Balanchine Centenary: Fall 2004

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The Program

Thursday was opening night of the Fall 2004 Balanchine Centenary Program, which consists of The Four Temperaments, Prodigal Son, and Symphony in C. Francia Russell spoke this past weekend at Elliot Bay Book Store, and I'll describe the things she said then and also comments from Thursday's post-performance Q&A with Russell, Richard Tanner, who staged Prodigal Son, and Jonathan Poretta, who danced the lead and Third Movement of Symphony in C.

Russell said that she chose this program like last season's program: to show the diversity of Balanchine's work, "a study in contrasts," indicative of Balanchine's different approaches to dance." She called 4 T's "spare and intellectual," Prodigal Son "historical, expressionistic, dramatic", and Symphony in C "classical and beautiful" She mentioned that all three opened to bad reviews. Unlike last season's Centernary Program, Brahms-Schoenberg, Agon, and Divertimento No. 15, which were created during the time that Russell and Stowell danced or staged work for NYCB, all of the works in this program were choreographed between 1928 and 1948, before Russell joined the Company in 1956. However, Balanchine re-choreographed the First Theme in Four Temperaments for her after she joined the Company. Given the care with which she cast this movement, and how well the two women in the first performances have danced it, it must be dear to her heart.

Four Temperaments

Russell described the temperaments as "pensive," "confident," "impassive," and "angry." She said that one of the few changes made to the ballet in the 1970's was to the finale for a broadcast where there were no wings; Balanchine said he always wanted to re-choreograph it, because he felt that he "hadn't show the complexity of the music in the original." (However, Melancholic looked like yet another version, different than the one Bart Cook performed on Dance in America and the current NYCB version.) Russell said that generally when choreographers re-choreograph ballets, she thinks they "muck it up," and she told Balanchine that she preferred the original finale, which Stowell likened to "Boeing 747's taking off." Balanchine said, "If you like it dear, you can do it that way." She spoke about the "wonderful dancers" that were in Ballet Society when 4 T's was being created, and mentioned Tallchief, Magallanes, Dollar, Bollender, and "a 16-year old colt, Tanaquil LeClerq." It was a good thing, though, that Balanchine didn't care much for physical possessions: Russell quoted Balanchine as saying that when he had extra money from Broadway shows, his choice was between using it to commission a score -- which turned out to be 4T's -- or to buy a silver cigarette case!

On Thursday Lesley Rausch and Nicholas Ade opened the program as First Theme in, and my notes read: "FEET! FEET! FEET! FEET!!!!!!" Lesley Rausch has amazing feet, which she presented beautifully, and which enhanced her long-lined phrasing of the theme. It's always fun to hear people's reactions to the Second Theme when they hadn't seen the ballet before, and Stacy Lowenberg and Lucien Postlewaite kept the energy up and had fine timing. Maria Chapman's Third Theme with Oleg Gorboulev looked small and studied to me; it didn't sing to me.

Batkhurel Bold was Melancholic. His shoulders and arms were wonderfully expressive in this movement; usually it's his legs and jumps and ballon to which my eye is drawn, but the role is constrained a bit in the lower body, and it was great to focus on the way he moved his upper body. He doesn't have a gumby back like Cook -- if he were a Ladies figure skater, Dick Button would not like his layback position -- and as a taller dancer in the role, the phrasing was different. When he did the runs upstage and downstage at the end of the movement, the phrasing was more like a gymnast doing a floor exercise rather than an extended phrase. The staging seemed to have a lot of glottal stops in it, with shorter, more staccato phrasing, and the most successful performers were those who fought this tendency in the overall arc.

Noelani Pantastico and Casey Herd danced Sanguinic. Pantastico looked grim from the beginning and out of her comfort zone. She had trouble on the diagonal turns in her first solo, and her reaction was like a figure skater whose Lutz has deserted her for no logical reason. She's polished off steps that are equally hard, so the role is not beyond her. It wasn't badly danced, but it was a bit academic. I always remember the joy in original Sanguinic Mary Ellen Moylan's descriptions of dancing the role in Dancing for Mr. B, and the little archival footage shows the same joy in her performances. I have such onorous expectations for Pantastico -- I expect her to "own" every role she tries, because she's made everything look so easy -- but she may need a bit more time for this one. (At her current rate, she's going to need something to look forward to when she's thirty.) Herd "popped" as her partner, with energy and charm, and in his solo, he picked up the entire movement.

Olivier Wevers' Harlequin-like, quirkily charismatic Phlegmatic was full of surprises and wonder and was the high point of the performance, and he was brilliantly supported by Brunson, Dec, Kitchens, and Reid. This movement gelled like no other, from the moment Wevers stepped onstage. Lallone lead Choleric. This movement had more of an arc, building towards the finale. It felt a little late, though, for the performance to try to soar.

Tonight, Kara Zimmerman and Josh Spell danced First Theme, and Zimmerman gave an equally wonderful performance, with superb phrasing and clear shapes of movement. Stacy Lowenberg and Lucien Postlewaite were again terrific in the Second Theme. Kylee Kitchens, dancing with Casey Herd, gave a full-blooded, sensuous performance of the Third Theme, and building on the momentum from the first two Themes.

Jonathan Porretta picked up that momentum as Melancholic. While changing from mood to mood, he never lost the sense of whole. There were a series of movements right before the two women make their entrance which undulated from his shoulders and rippled through his arms and ended at his finger tips, and the moment was spine-tingling. Patricia Barker and Stanko Milov danced Sanguinic. Barker has such command in the role and her and Milov's performances were very vibrant. Jeffrey Stanton danced Phlegmatic classically and elegantly. It was a very different interpretation than Wevers', but was equally valid. Ariana Lallone repeated the role of Choleric, which was remarkable, because she then danced Siren.

Prodigal Son

On Thursday, it was a magical moment the split second that Jonathan Porretta appeared in the doorway of the tent in Prodigal Son, and established a persona immediately. It was another such moment when Otto "Take No Prisoners" Neubert appeared in the same place very soon afterwards, and established a calm, but pervasive authority. That Barker also conveyed her character instantaneously was like hitting the Trifecta. It was a very dramatic performance, but never at the expense of the dancing, which was stunning from both Porretta and Barker. Porretta's shock of dark hair wasn't the only resemblance to Villela: his leaps and turns in the scene of defiance were spectacular while furthering the characterization. Barker was both the snake and the snake charmer. PNB won't do Spartacus, so I don't see an Aegina in her future, but I found myself wishing to see her Madge or Carabosse. The orchestra played this piece beautifully.

I was sitting to the side, and I managed a glimpse of some of the mechanics of Prodigal Son. In the scene where the Prodigal is stripped and "crucified" on the flat side of the table that is set vertically, I watched Barker use the railings on the gate to help pull herself up to be lifted and carried in on the shoulders of one of the troglodytes. Even more remarkable was watching her assume the arm positions slowly and precisely, as if she were doing it in front of an audience. I also watched the trog behind her, who would eventually catch her. He was spotting her very carefully, like a coach watching an athlete doing a difficult skill for the first time without a harness. Russell said that this was the most frightening part of the role. Tanner agreed that this was scary, and said that Barker had no problem with the dancing, but that the hardest thing for her was working with the cape. A cool costume thing: someone asked if the men had shaved their heads bald. Russell said that they used to use rubber caps, but either Russell or Tanner said that the PNB costume shop came up with an alternative: the "bald" heads are actually fabric that extends to under their shirts, and the men use makeup on the fabric.

Someone mentioned that they noticed a "gymnastics quality" to Prodigal Son and wondered where it came from. Tanner replied that it came from Russia, where that type of choreography was very "hot" at the time. He may have meant when Balanchine was still in Russia. Russell spoke on Sunday about how experimental choreography was in Russia during Balanchine's last years there, immediately after the Revolution. Tanner mentioned a reconstruction of La Chatte from photos, and said that the ballet had the same qualities as Prodigal Son.

Russell spoke a lot about Balanchine's life in Europe after Russia and the making of Prodigal Son. She said Balanchine was very poor, and that he always spoke unhappily of that time, except in his admiration of Diaghilev and other dancers, such as Felia Doubrovska. Tanner said the same Thursday: Balanchine disliked Prokofiev immensely, calling him "greedy" and "mean." Tanner explained that it was customary for composers, who received fees and royalties for their music, to throw a little bit to choreographers, who weren't paid for their work, and that Prokofiev refused. Russell said that Balanchine complained that "Prokofiev would speak, but would never answer me." According to Russell, Prokofiev hated Balanchine's choreography, and called it "a cross between a classical ballet and a night club act." Both Russell and Tanner mentioned his distant relationship with Lifar; Russsell said "he never said a kind word about Lifar," and Tanner described Lifar coming backstage and everyone making a big todo, but that Balanchine was cold to Lifar. Russell said that it was all the more remarkable that he was so negative, because Balanchine wasn't critical or "bitchy" in general.

Other notes about Prodigal Son: Russell pointed out that the ballet was not based on the Bible, but on a story by Pushkin called "The Stationmaster," in which the postmaster had three scenes from Prodigal Son hanging in his station office. Also, while it was exciting to have such an "incubator" of artists and musicians under Diaghilev, Balanchine was "interested in discarding the colorful background." It was ironic that he ended up with Seligman's horrific costumes for 4T's. Tanner mentioned that unless Balanchine was interested in the woman dancing the Siren and during the Baryshnikov period, Balanchine didn't pay any attention to the ballet in his later life; it was not one of his favorites. Russell said that the Boat Scene was never rehearsed, and that Balanchine arranged it backstage during the first performance. (One of the men in the boat played his "trumpet" like a jazz musician.)

The original cast list has been updated, but from the Q&A, it sounded like Le Yin was supposed to dance the Prodigal Thursday, and Porretta tonight. Porretta mentioned that Le was injured, and Russell said that he needs knee surgery. Lucien Postlewaite, who's only been with the Company as a corps member for a year or two, was the understudy and has taken on Le's performances, alternating with Porretta in the role. Tonight was Postlewaite's first performance. If Porretta's Prodigal was willful and defiant, and he was impatient with his father's demands, he had lots of energy and was capable of joy, and the Siren was someone to enjoy. Postlewaite's Prodigal needed to leave: he was severely diminished in his father's present, and he was angry. The Siren was like a drug that he needed, even if he knew on some level that it was bad and destructive. While no less moving, after a time, Porretta's Prodigal would have dusted himself off and risen again. Postlewaite's Prodigal would have taken over his father's business and become embittered, a George Bailey whose Clarence would never appear. It the second incredible debut in the role in a row.

Ariana Lallone danced Siren -- what a performance. She was all about power and control, and she physically embodied both. (Poor Postlewaite's Prodigal, from the frying pan [father] into the fire [siren]). Lallone's Siren didn't seem particularly interested in the physical possessions; they were something to use as incentive for the troglodytes. When she snatched the necklace from the Prodigal's neck, it was as if she was taking a souvenir, like mounting a stuffed head on the wall or making a notch in a bedpost. She was so Bad, yet so cool and controlled at the same time. I think this was the finest performance of Siren I've ever seen.

The two servants, Nicholas Ade and Josh Spell, were wonderful tonight: their fight scene started full of piss and vinegar and turned uglier under the influence of all that wine.

Symphony in C

On Sunday Russell mentioned that Symphony in C is "still challenging," "the grandchild of Petipa," and that the dancers now are surprised at how difficult it is. She said that Balanchine cut down the size of the corps for NYCB, whereas he had used the entire resources of the Company when he choreographed its predecessor, Le Palais du Crystal, on Paris Opera Ballet. She was surprised at how new this ballet was to much of the Company -- the last time PNB performed it was over ten years ago -- and one of the soloists said s/he'd never seen any of the three ballets before. She danced corps and soloists in all but the second movement, and Fourth Movement principal, which she said was the only role she ever asked to be taken out of. She explained that it was a lot of difficult dancing that went unrecognized, but Balanchine refused, saying, "it's good for you, dear." She said she agreed, that it made her a lot stronger.

Russell spoke about John Taras, who was gifted the rights to the ballet by Betty Cage, who Russell said, "should go down in history as a heroine of dance in America." Taras refused to join the Trust and insisted on his own version, claiming that he remembered the 1948 version," although he didn't recall it when they tried to revive it when she was affiliated with NYCB. (Russell was quick to point out that he agreed to let Russell stage her version of the Fourth Movement for the opening of McCaw Hall, and he didn't charge for it.) Russell said that she just couldn't do his version. One of the obvious things she pointed out was that in the Fourth Momement, each line does a quick, high develope in succession, while Taras insisted that they all do it together. One thing that should be of interest to NYCB fans: Russell said that Peter Martins told her that Taras insisted on his version for NYCB. Martins said that "all of his dancers were crying," and if they couldn't do the version they all knew and had performed [including the night of Balanchine's death] he would pull the ballet out of the rep. (If there was a "respect" icon, I'd put it here.) As it turned out, Taras died in time for Russell and Stowell to stage the ballet using their version for their final season, for which Taras would not give permission while he was alive. (Theme and Variations replaced it temporarily on the schedule.)

On Thursday Carrie Imler and Stanko Milov danced First Movement. Imler excelled in two signature moves: she had great lift in attitude front and her beats just floated in the air, supported and solo. She has a creamy rather than staccato or sharp quality in her leg movements, but one of the things that makes her dancing so striking is the contrast between this and the way she uses her arms, shoulders, and gaze very precisely to emphasize the shifts of direction and focus.

Usually I know from the bourree entrance whether I'm going to see a great performance of Second Movement. A radiant Louise Nadeau, partnered by Christophe Maraval, entered the stage, and her feet reflected the heartbeat of the music, a pulse she rode through the entire movement. It was a very gentle, lovely performance.

When she first joined PNB, the quality of Kaori Nakamura's dancing was emphatically allegro, and it was both a contrast and an unusual choice when she danced Third Movement gently. Jonathan Porretta was her partner, the second Villella role of the night for him. He said in the Q&A that he asked if he could cut the repeat, because he had unexpectedly danced Prodigal Son just before, but he was turned down. (He looked like he could have done it again, he was so "on.") It would have taken a more vivid performance to register against his: Nakamura was like a pearl in contrast to Porretta's sapphire in more than just costuming. (The men at PNB are dress in deep royal blue, with sparkly stuff around the neck.)

Mara Vinson really popped in Fourth Movement. Kylee Kitchens was wonderful as one of the soloists, and it was hard to decide where to look -- my eyes kept darting back and forth between them! In tonight's performance Vinson, partnered by a very strong Casey Herd, danced First Movement. She's one of the fearless ones; if any role phases her, it doesn't show. Watching her and many of the young women in the Company, it's hard to imagine Balanchine not being pleased, because they really do "Just dance, dear." Leslie Rausch excelled as one of the soloists, with her wonderful feet.

Maria Chapman, partnered by Batkhurel Bold, was not as fearless in her debut in Second Movement; through the first, exposed supported adagio, she was rather subdued. She must have been relieved when this hurdle was cleared, because she brightened up in the allegro section, and in the supported arabesques in plie on pointe that follow, she was the first dancer I've ever seen who pushed up with the same tension and power with which she took the plie in each iteration, and it was really grand.

Noelani Pantastico was "back" in Third Movement, and with no less wattage and spark from Jonathan Porretta, stood her ground. She was even smiling again! Jodie Thomas and Olivier Wevers danced a spirited Fourth Movement, but again my eye was trying to absorb them and Kylee Kitchens and Brittany Reid, the two soloists in the movement. It was a real treat to have four men in the finale -- Herd, Bold, Porretta, and Wevers -- with such easy jumps and ballon. I think the corps was more relaxed and "on" in tonight's performance. It's a remarkable achievement, given how many apprentices and advanced students from the school are in the corps (all six in second and fourth movements, as well as an additional six in the fourth movement to cover the first/third movement women, who did double-duty).

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Thanks again, HF! I especially enjoyed the personal insights you repeat from Russell's talks -- the historical background and gossipy bits.

Kudos to Martins for maintaining the "true" Symphony in C! I do much prefer that version to the one Taras staged at ABT.

So Lifar and Prokofiev were to be avoided at cocktail parties, hmm?

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On Saturday afternoon, there were some role debuts in The Four Temperaments and a mostly new principal cast in Symphony in C. In Second Theme of 4 T's, if Lowenberg had been like a burst of sunshine, Lindsi Dec was like a burst of water, giving a performance with an outpouring of energy, building on Kara Zimmerman's excellent repeat performance. Christophe Maraval was the third new Phlegmatic. His interpretation wasn't as "demi" or bright as Wevers', but its logic and proportion were impeccable, and he has such wonderful line that when he shifts and breaks the classical expectations, he makes a great impact. Lallone danced Choleric for the third performance in a row, and she was just as impressive as in earlier ones: while she eats space laterally, she doesn't just rely on her height and long legs to suggest a vertical plane, but really moves up and out at the same time. This is a wonderful role for her, and with Siren, the two finest things I've seen her do. I'm beginning to think the Sanguinic is an extremely difficult role to capture: with the exception of Barker, the last four women I've seen perform it didn't show much spark until the solos.

The principals in Prodigal Son were a repeat of opening night. It was great to see Porretta's Prodigal again. He has all of the technical tools that any dancer needs, but he doesn't come across as a technical dancer; technique is the means to fulfill the role. My favorite scene is the second-to-last, which starts with the deserted Prodigal slumping upright along the table, and ends with him crawling offstage, and Porretta was so sad in the scene.

While this might not have been Balanchine's favorite ballet, there's one psychological truth that he physicalized that never ceases to grab me: when the Prodigal first meets the Drinking Companions, they are in three rows, and twice they tilt as a whole, and then revert to upright, first to get the skinny on the Prodigal, and second to disconcert him. I can't imagine a better movement to portray shadiness.

I was thrilled for Jodie Thomas that she was cast in First Movement of Symphony in C. She graduated from the school in the same year as Carrie Imler, and in the school performance, while Imler was cast in a modern ballet that made her look like a star, Thomas was given one of those classical roles -- maybe Paquita? -- that are exposed, extremely difficult, and underappreciated, one where the dancer can only "not fail," because most of the audience won't have a clue what has been accomplished. Here she was cast in a white tutu ballet with a crown, but in a part that really moves and shines, and her very clear dancing was nicely offset by Wevers' cheery and focused partnering. She was particularly excellent in the Fourth Movement reprise.

Carrie Imler made her debut in the Third Movement, and, partnered by Batkhurel Bold, took ownership of the role. At NYCB, I saw many performances with the jumpers (primarly Katrina Killian and Melinda Roy), and/or cast mainly with soloists, some of whom retained the part after being promoted to principal. Imler showed what an established dancer can do in the role, through boldness, attack, but also a sense of mastery and not a little royalty.

I've also seen many dancers cast in Fourth Movement, and while not all of them are "perky," many are primarily allegro dancers. Stacy Lowenberg broke the mold with an almost regal performance of the role, partnered by Casey Herd, who's been giving a series of terrific performances everywhere he's been cast in this Program.

After the performance, Louise Nadeau joined Kent Stowell for the Q&A, while Francia Russell tended to an emergency recast for the evening. (She slipped into the audience partway through, but Stowell summoned her to the little stage.) They started out by talking about the Second Movement of Symphony in C, in which Nadeau had given another great performance (with Christophe Maraval). I think it was Stowell who said that it's a role that "everyone loves and hates at the same time." An audience member asked why would a ballerina hate it, and the most common word used for it was "exposed."

Nadeau told a story about how her daughter told her she didn't want to study ballet anymore, because she doesn't like people to watch her, and she gets butterflies in her stomach because of this. Nadeau told her she understood the feeling, because that's how she feels before dancing Second Movement. (Russell, who was Principal in Fourth Movement and was working on Third Movement Principal when she left NYCB, said later that she would have run out of the the room if anyone thought to cast her in it.) She said there's "no getting around the balance," and that the ballerina has to hope that the man doesn't knock her off balance by bumping her tutu. (That certainly explains some of the more circuitous routes I've seen partners take to get to the ballerina's other side.) I would have thought that only dancers whose balances were not secure would be nervous, but it never occured to me that a dancer who can "stick" a balance like Nadeau would have to worry about being knocked off balance. But it's like the balances in the "Rose Adagio" -- no matter what the dancer does for the rest of the ballet, losing the balance is the thing that people remember. (I remember it happening to Maria Calegeri in what I think was her role debut. I would have forgotten about it, except for the phaser-like glare she gave her partner, who I am surprised wasn't turned into a pile of minerals.)

When Russell joined the conversation, she said that at the dress rehearsal, Ballet Master Otto Neubert, watching Nadeau dance, "That's what it means to be a ballerina."

On Symphony in C Stowell (?) said that PNB got permission to dress the men in royal blue, because they felt that black was too harsh. On Thursday night Russell or Tanner talked about how at the Paris Opera, Le Palais de Cristal was dressed in a different color per movement. I don't know how close to the originals the costumes that POB brought to NYC in 1986 were, but they were various shades -- pastel and deeper -- and if I remember correctly, ornamented differently. The finale looked different than when all of the women are dressed alike, but it was still impressive. (I don't remember the men at all.) It makes perfect sense, though, that in a small, cash-strapped Company, Balanchine would dress all of the women the same and all of the men the same: fewer replacement tutus would be needed, and where the cast was doubled up, there wouldn't need to be any costume changes.

Someone asked Russell and Stowell how they would replace themselves, and Stowell joked, "Clones." They described the input/search/final candidate process, and said that there would be an announcement in the next couple of months.

Someone else asked why there were no prima ballerinas in the Company. (He later said, "not that I think that would be a good thing.") Russell is generally imperturbable, so questions like these are the only time we get to see the closest thing to "aghast" that she shows, at least publically. She said that other companies have a ballerina "type," but that they "are proud that their dancers are different," making the Company "richer" and "more interesting." She's also proud that many dancers have chosen to stay with the Company a long time.

In answer to the question of what a typical day was like, Russell said that rehearsal were limited to 12-3pm and 4-7pm, after Company class. In their opinion, dancing for NYCB now is "too physically hard," and that the Company needs to be large because so many are injured at the same time.

Someone asked why only the Principals (Prodigal and Siren) got a curtain call. (The group curtain call that came right before didn't register for a lot of people.) Russell said that Tanner had staged the curtain calls like NYCB's, but that they were going to change this, because they felt that everyone deserved recognition. (I bet the troglodytes get a big howl this week.)

In response to a question, Russell and Stowell talked about how traditionally, ballet was a "secondary element." Even the Maryinski ballet was part of a big institution, and Balanchine did not want to work under the auspices of another big institution.

Francia Russell said that for a dancer like Nadeau, she would only change something if it wasn't working, while for young dancers, she'd be a lot more "hands on." Both she and Stowell talked about how they encourage dancers to watch each other, particularly dancers like Nadeau, who become role models, and to store what they see for the future. (She said that Porretta is now a role model, too.) I think it was Stowell how called ballet "a tribal profession. Kids watch in studios and absorb the art form...recycled from one generation to another." They said that there are costumes at NYCB that still have their names in them, and that ballet is "a really personal art form that can't be duplicated."

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