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Jack Reed

Balanchine's Square Dance, Agon, Western Symphony; 11-14 May 2017

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Thursday Evening, 11th May


Square Dance

This might have been a particularly good choice to lead some of the audience into the second-place Agon, because this is the later version in simpler, more minimal costumes like Agon and very clearly and openly laid out on the stage like Agon, too, though contrasting the second ballet in other ways, musical and movement style.  The dancing had somewhat smaller effect than I would have liked, though, a little on the perfunctory side, not that I like overstatement, but very legibly performed with appropriate bounce by these dancers (in near break-leg tempos) in the fast movements.


In contrast, the tempo of the pas de deux with Jillian Barrell was unusally slow; and her partner, Helio Lima, gave a somewhat understated performance of the the famous male variation Balanchine added when he revived and revised this ballet in 1976.


The first performance of a new program can have a few glitches, and tonight the absence of an orchestra with a conductor contributed to a missed cue, when the second pas de trois cast entered to silence, several counts ahead of their music, which is recorded at these performances.  Repeating some steps for a moment until the music caught up, they soon had their dance back together.


Generally the dancing in Agon, staged by Richard Tanner, seemed to me to make a larger effect than it had in Square Dance, staged by Ben Huys, though the contrast between the two wasn't so much as it was a year ago between Symphony in Three Movements, also staged by Huys, and the Apollo, staged by BA's AD, Ib Andersen, which followed it on that program.


But much greater largeness of effect was to come in the central pas de deux, danced by Jillian Barrell and Helio Lima; not only was their dancing "large" in strength of clearly legible shapes made instant by instant, but it gained cumulative effect from these instants appearing in a continuous flow of movement punctuated by the isolated sounds of Stravinsky's music.


And more than that:  When that music becomes aggressive, choppy, and rough-textured for a short section, their dancing also acquired some violent flavor.  This section begins downstage audience left, where the ballerina's partner grabs her by the wrist of the arm she has extended extended back toward him; he hauls her toward him, and they dance in a new manner we haven't seen in Agon before and don't see afterward.   It's part of what I like best about dancing, when it happens:  I like to see what I hear.  Balanchine makes that possible more than most, and good coaching and listening dancers realize the possibility.  As here.  Very, very good.


Not the least of my fun here is that I came to Phoenix hoping to see Natalia Magnicaballi and Kenna Draxton, in particular in Agon and the "Rondo" of Western Symphony, where they are in fact cast over this weekend, because I had enjoyed watching them in the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Washington, DC.  I hadn't known about Barrell and Lima, and so they were another surprise, a happy one, like the appearances of Tzu-Chia Huang two years ago, in addition to four other ballerinas I had enjoyed watching in TSFB.  With 30 dancers (listed alphabetically in the program, incidentally), BA is not a huge company, but experiences like these lead me to agree with Alastair Macaulay's praise for this troupe as one of the most significant among the Balanchine "diaspora."

Western Symphony

This is the three-movement version we usually see nowadays, the old third-movement "Scherzo" not having been seen anywhere since 1960, apparently, until its revival by Edward Villella's Miami City Ballet in 2011.  Again, this staging by Huys also tended a little toward the perfunctory, though much of the humor was nonetheless clear enough to the audience - like the last moments of the "Adagio," though not, this time, the references to Giselle - no laughs for those; and Kenna Draxton brought some of the right coy wit and sparkle to Le Clercq's role in the final "Rondo."      

Edited by Jack Reed

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It gets better!


Friday Evening 12th May


I cannot account for it, because the principal cast was the same, the recordings were surely the same, and I sat not far from where I sat last night, but most of the issues and reservations I had with last night's show were resolved by this evening. 


I had a better appreciation of Barrell and Lima in Square Dance, both in their pas de deux, which didn't seem too slow this evening, and in his variation, which seemed more continuous and expansive tonight, and the tempos in the fast movements seemed rightly brisk tonight, not driven, as I may have implied about last night. 


That the second pas de trois in Agon went off without a problem - indeed most of the group dances in Agon were better than merely problem-free tonight, if not on quite the scale I have sometimes seen them elsewhere, in the past - should probably go without saying, but I'll say it anyway.  Just a little of Part One was a little wild - and these were unforgiving tempos, but, again, not driving.  And Barrell and Lima made the pas de deux if anything, yet more effective.


Likewise, the ensembles in Western Symphony were vivid except the - what shall I call them? - the representational moves and gestures in it which are not part of the academic vocabulary but give this ballet its color, character - or should I say characters? - and humor.


And the sound was better, clearer, although a little louder (which in some situations makes more distortion) throughout the evening.


The differences were so great I'm tempted to think it was me, somehow - but maybe it's a case of, what a difference a day makes! 



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Thanks for the reports, Jack – it's a pleasure reading about these ballets and performances and reconstructing them in your mind's eye. 

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Thanks for the encouragement, both of you!  But who was it who said, "I write so slowly that if I had to do it for a living, I couldn't make enough money to buy a tin cup"?


Meanwhile, I've posted a little item abut this run in another forum:




Edited by Jack Reed

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