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Catching up and looking at the corps - performances 4/30-5/22 with a b

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I’ve been watching much of the repertory this season examining the role of the corps de ballet, how it’s used by each choreographer and the world they create with it. The corps, like the chorus in an opera, presents the society where a dance takes place; it sets it into context. It can present a homogeneous society, like Donizetti Variations, or one with many tiers to it, like Sleeping Beauty where there are both Danses de Cour and Danses des Villageois. But even in a distillation like Ballet Imperial or a complete abstraction (Concerto Barocco or Violin Concerto) there’s something to discover.

Balanchine, Robbins, Tudor, Martins; each uses a corps in a different way, each seems drawn to certain milieu, and it seems a reflection of their own circumstances. Born at the twilight of an Imperial era and raised in the protection of the Czar, Balanchine gives us the most classically and formally structured corps. There is more to them than a depiction of a social order, he also shows the deftest understanding of the meaning of the classical corps de ballet, because the structure of his corps and its meaning are interlocked.

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (or Ballet Imperial) has Balanchine showing us what he learned about the corps de ballet from Petipa and his heritage; it’s right in the original name. Also predictably from the name, his corps de ballet mirrors a monarchic hierarchy with a few interesting twists thrown in. We look at the top of an idealized society from the level of the court up. The court mirrored in the corps is large (16 women, 8 men – two women per man is a favorite Balanchine device in large cast ballets, think of Stars and Stripes or Gounod Symphony for other examples) and above that there are two female demi-soloists, ladies-in-waiting. Two men step out of the corps, but are not linked to them, rather to a ballerina soloist who appears before the principal ballerina, just as a Grand Duchess might appear in a procession before the Queen does. In her first appearance, the corps is an amplification of her authority. She dances alone in front of them and then spins them into motion, rising up and turning from one side to the other and one section at a time, they take up her steps and imitate her until the whole stage is set swirling.

Immediately on the principal ballerina’s first entry, she shows her right to her crown. To solo music for the piano that pauses precipitously and whirls like someone finding footfalls to leap across a rapids rock by rock she does a series of swivels and turns that don’t look nearly as difficult as they are. Mirroring the absence of orchestration, the corps does not dance with her; they stand still and watch. Here, they are her subjects. Her consort, like Victoria’s Albert, probably a prince rather than a king, enters after her solo passage. Unlike the principal ballerina, the second ballerina remains an independent figure; by linking her to the two men from the corps who dance behind her and support her in a pas de trois at the end of the first movement, she’s actually linked to no one. This solo figure will appear many times in the canon; Rubies, La Source, Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet are just a few examples of her repertory.

The two female demi-soloists are interestingly barely attached to the principal ballerina; they either accompany the second ballerina or the man in the second movement; a distillation of Swan Lake. Balanchine divided the female corps in half, tall and short, from their first appearance and uses only the shorter women here, along with the female demi-soloists. Flanking and fanning outward of him on either side, they toss back and forth with him in a reflection of the pathos of the music. The corps changes character again, and Balanchine uses them as Petipa might in a ballet blanc; they take on a remote air of passing beyond flesh and blood to the realm of shades, wilis, sylphs or swans. Balanchine also recalls Petipa’s choral formations here, the women form straight lines at the side of the stage to frame the action, or close in to form a corridor for the ballerina to travel down as she meets the man, and as she backs away in sad retreat at the close of the movement. The corps leaves the stage and the man does a final reverence as he leaves, but the stage never empties; four of the tall women enter to anticipate the start of a new movement.

The character of the third movement alters entirely, and is flavored with character dances (Arlene Croce noted a second parallel to Swan Lake here, where the second movement was the second act, this final movement referenced the national dancing in the third act.) The corps is used in several different ways here, the most striking when they take one side of the stage and the ballerina the other, and then they form into lines behind her and in front of her. As the ballerina begins to turn, they walk side to side in their lines, shifting the space around her so that she becomes the whirling eye of a cyclone. The second ballerina and the demi-soloists reappear for the finale that happens in layers as well. The second ballerina comes forward, then the demi-soloists, then the first line of the corps, then the second and the entire stage begins to move in unison in the sort of finale that was a hallmark of Balanchine, simple steps moving to and fro across the stage to build up excitement to the final tableau. Here, the corps is not merely subsidiary to the soloists; they’re essential to the plan of action. Balanchine is building a finale not on difficulty, but on mass.

The ballet got good performances from both casts of principals, Wendy Whelan with Robert Tewsley (5/16/03) and Miranda Weese with Philip Neal (5/22/03). Teresa Reichlen debuted as the second ballerina with both casts, and it was auspicious. She was young and hungry, and particularly impressive given we’ve barely seen her out of the corps at all. Who knew this pretty beanpole of a young woman had such a lovely jump? I’ve grown to like both Whelan and Tewsley in the roles much more than I did either of them originally; Whelan seems to be finding the grand but controlled sweep in the role and I understand Tewsley’s weightiness better. Traditional princely bearing isn’t as out of place in the ballet as I once thought. I’ve always liked Weese in the role, and she nailed the opening series of turns and sailed through the rest. She’s coloring her roles contralto nowadays; there’s a lower tone and a dusky, slightly sad quality to her dancing that suits the adagio. Philip Neal had an interesting moment at the end of the adagio; the final reverence is to an empty stage, but as he turned to leave he lowered his arms towards the ground as if to sanctify the path on which his beloved had danced. It was barely a gesture, but a gesture that helped explain what had happened before.

Jonathon Stafford danced one of the demi-soloist men and Andrew Veyette and Amar Ramasar divided the other part. Stafford and Ramasar are both stylistically promising, Veyette needs to work on keeping his neck long, his shoulders down and from scowling. Some of the shoulder problems are emphasized by the costume, which is constructed poorly. Given that the choreography has the men carrying their arms en haut so much of the time, why did they not worry about the fact that the necks on the tunics gap very badly when they raise their arms? (Attention: Juliet . . .)

Ballet Imperial gives examples of most traditional ways to use the classical corps de ballet – as amplifications of the leads, a framework for the action, subjects and handmaidens, and as a representation of something beyond human. There are a few additional interesting ways he uses the corps, with some examples outside recent performances. In Emeralds or the “Vienna Woods” section of Vienna Waltzes, watch the intimacy of the sections where the ballerina dances without a partner with the corps. The corps functions almost as a projection of the ballerina; we see her desires and thoughts thrown out to a group of identically dressed women. It’s as if in her own imagination and fantasy, she’s multiplied herself. In Square Dance, the process is distillation; the ballerina does a more complicated step in front of the corps, and the corps does a similar but simpler step behind. Balanchine echoes and amplifies the design, but keeps the complexity at a single focal point for clarity.

We see the structure of court society mirrored in Ballet Imperial, in Donizetti Variations Balanchine shows us the village. Sociological analysis would be on tenuous ground here, the music was premiered in 1843 by an Italian for an opera set in Portugal and performed in Paris. Ethnic accuracy really isn’t a concern; Balanchine uses character steps, but his biggest point of reference is 19th century ballet, not the society around it. Still, it’s amusing to look at Donizetti Variations and think of Napoli. When Bournonville shows us an Italian village, he’s on a sociological expedition. We get folk dances accurately rendered (Bournonville took pride in knowing many versions of the tarantella) and distinct characterization. Balanchine gives us the shorthand of the dance itself.

In performance, (4/30 and 5/16) Yvonne Borree gave a relaxed, pleasant performance. She needs to watch a bit for jutting her head forward when she’s being coquettish, but it’s nice to see her relaxed onstage. Damien Woetzel performed in April, but had been sidelined since, and Hübbe did not look at full strength after his recent surgery at his performance, later appearances on stage show continued improvement.

Donizetti isn’t a great work; it’s one of the second (or even third) tier pieces that round out our picture of Balanchine. Interesting to note though, that Balanchine’s acknowledged masterpieces either tend to represent an idealization of the top of society (if not the court, then the haute bourgeoisie of Liebeslieder Walzer, for instance) or step outside of it entirely. With notable exceptions, his ballets aren’t set in a particular period, and feel “slippery” in time; seeming to reference the era of their creation, of the music’s creation and today as it is being performed all at once.

Balanchine seems so unmoored from time where Jerome Robbins seems so firmly inside it; for me, this is one of the biggest differences between them. Like many of Balanchine’s works, Interplay has no set and non-costumes without period references. Even without the signposts, it still feels like the 1940s to me. It’s in the music, yes, but it’s also in the mannerisms on top of the dancing, the way the dancers slide from side to side and snap their fingers that is derived from social dances like the Lindy Hop in the adagio. I find making connections to the outside world from Balanchine’s ballets interesting, but because of his classical tendency to abstract, his ballets feel self-contained. When I watch Interplay, I feel like I need to know about the ‘40s. I need to know how a man related to a woman at that time, where they went on a Saturday night, how they danced when they went out dancing. Is it just that Balanchine’s “period pieces” have been dropped from repertory (Alma Mater and PAMTGG, anyone?) Does Balanchine deal with contemporary manners differently, or do his “contemporary manners” simply seem more remote and therefore timeless to me? The generation and distance between Balanchine’s youth in Imperial and Revolutionary Russia and with Diaghilev in the Jazz Age and Robbins’ in New York City could be enough. Where Interplay feels like the ‘40s, In G Major doesn’t feel like the Jazz Age, but then again, neither does MacMillan’s Fin du Jour to the same music. Some of it may be the sharp disconnect between the outer movements and the central one; and Robbins drops his period references in the middle movement. I haven’t yet seen an integrated work to this score.

Ives, Songs was notable for the luscious movement of Carla Körbes, who is again rising through the repertory. Burn incense, light candles that she stays healthy and uninjured. And in a return to stage as welcome as any other this season, Ashley Bouder came back as one of the trio of young ladies in rompers. She made an uncredited appearance in Christopher Wheeldon’s new Carnival of the Animals as one of the tropical birds. It’s easy to spot her. She's the one that looks like a tabby cat who slipped on a birdie suit and blasted her way onstage among them. And pretty soon if the others aren't careful, there's going to be nothing on that stage but a pile of feathers and a Cheshire grin.

Ives, Songs is similar in structure to Dances at a Gathering, but adds a corps de ballet, which Robbins uses fleetingly. He’s more interested in the characterizations of the individual dancers, and this is why high classical abstraction seems alien to him. In Western Symphony or Stars and Stripes, Balanchine refashioned the corps de ballet in an American setting; Robbins always tried to show us Americans onstage.

If Balanchine’s milieu tends to the idealized patrician and Robbins’ tends to the idealized plebeian, Tudor has an affinity for the idealized demi-monde. In Judgment of Paris and Offenbach in the Underworld (American Ballet Theatre, 5/8), one is struck by how vividly his can-can dancers and ladies of questionable repute are depicted. Amidst the striking corps, there was Irina Dvorovenko’s Operetta Star. It’s an obvious piece of casting. Her singer is a powder-puff with a core of steel wool, vibrant, energetic and perfectly self-absorbed. (Also notable that night was Jose Manuel Carreño’s stupendous performance partnering Paloma Herrera in the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. His calmly perfect vertical axis and unforced masculinity make him a one-man argument for Cuban ballet training.)

I see Balanchine’s New York even in his abstractions, particularly in Agon. It’s the tempo and pulse of the city, the rushing, dodging and switching places, the casual brilliance of the two pas de trois and the furtive intimacy of the pas de deux. The ballet looks around the level it did in the winter season, although the horn section in the orchestra is unfortunately slipping back to the sour notes we heard with frequency before a period of improvement. Whelan and Maria Kowroski have both taken the leads (4/30 and 5/16 respectively), in both cases Jennie Somogyi stood up to them, particularly aggressively with Kowroski, who towers over her.

I never lived in Balanchine’s New York, (though he makes me I wish I did) but I can tell from Martins’ ballets that I lived in his. His new work to John Adams, Guide to Strange Places (5/20/03), does not have a corps de ballet but recalls the dark and driving emotional landscape of a previous collaboration, Fearful Symmetries. Fearful was from the high 80’s, and looked it; it was propelled along by the music like an infernal machine (an appropriate title for Martins’ work, he finally used it in 2002 for a work to music of the same title by Christopher Rouse.) Propulsion is a key to Martins’ choreography, and to the music he chooses. The piece is set for five couples that materialize out of blackness at the back of the stage and retreat back into it when they are through dancing. The most striking of the pas de deux is for Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, and it’s also the most unsettling. Recalling the “supplicant” role Soto also performs in Fearful, he comes up behind Kistler in a crouch. Reaching around her, he delicately takes the folds of her dress and brings it up over her shoulders as a cape. Fashion and exposure turns to potential asphyxiation as he ties the ends round her neck. No harm is threatened, but the implications are there. As he was with Heather Watts, Martins can be pitiless in exposing Kistler. He’s given her a Sunset Boulevard role, and makes her look faded and not completely there. I found the brooding, obsessive quality of Guide to Strange Places interesting, but I liked Fearful Symmetries for the same reason. I don’t think there’s much Martins wants to say that’s lyric; he’s at his most compelling when he’s at his darkest.

It’s been my theory that Martins learned what he learned about the craft of choreography form the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. In both Violin Concerto and Symphony in Three Movements, Balanchine is experimenting with altering the traditional roles of corps and ballerina. In Symphony there’s a recognizable three-tier hierarchy, but the top is divided among three couples – sort of. One ballerina gets the central duet and it becomes obvious she’s more equal than others. In Violin Concerto, Balanchine has taken a cracked mirror and put it down the center of the stage; two leading couples divide the dance and each take one of the central pas de deux. Balanchine divides the corps de ballet as well, taking half of the women or men at a time and assigning them to each of the principals, then switching the groups off. It’s a vibrant device and Martins borrows it several times in his works. What Symphonic Dances (5/22/03) from 1994 seems to owe to the Festival is the same thing as Fearful or Strange Places, propulsion. Martins uses a static three-tier structure (8 men and 8 women, four demi-soloist couples and the principal couple). My confusion with this one is that he’s used classical music (big, bombastic Rachmaninoff that goes on too long) and Santo Loquasto’s costumes evoke both period and ethnic Slavic detailing, but that’s not the ballet Martins made. It’s a modern ballet in classical dress and the effect is much more disorienting than were it the opposite. In the leads, Janie Taylor and Hübbe are both propulsive dancers, and look very well paired together even if they shouldn’t. In a low-impact Concerto Barocco two days before, Kowroski and Pascale van Kipnis took another split-but-unequal ballerina role and meshed like oil and water. Van Kipnis tried her best to liven up the proceedings, but Kowroski didn’t project. I’m not looking for her to sell Concerto Barocco, but I do need her to create a world onstage.

Among the visions of New York placed on stage during the season, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals (5/22/03) is the most literal and sweet-tempered, however inaccurate. Inspired by a story Wheeldon wrote in his native England when he was a schoolchild and fashioned into a narrative by actor (and children’s book author) John Lithgow, it’s a genteel dream of a New York where the whole city is the Upper East Side via the playing fields of Eton and everyone can afford to go to Dalton or Brearley. A radical Marxist would probably have an aneurysm watching it (would they go to the ballet at all?) but there’s an awful lot that’s sweetly endearing and solidly fashioned about the work. The team of Wheeldon, Lithgow and Jon Morrell for décor have turned the Saint-Saëns score into a story of a schoolboy locked in the Museum of Natural History after hours who discovers the creatures within animated into figures from his life; schoolchild rats and weasels, jackasses in wrestling singlets, a kangaroo librarian who transforms into an Esther Williams mermaid and a Dame Edna Everedge Elephant of a beneficent school nurse played with so much to love by Lithgow himself.

Very much to its credit, as calculated a family entertainment as this is, it never descends to cynicism. There’s imagination, ingenuity and genuine affection throughout, and if it gives City Ballet a family hit, and I hope it does, it’s an honest one. Lithgow is an excellent narrator of his own writing, and Körbes gave a knockout performance as the kangaroo that becomes a Siren.

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Thanks Leigh. After passively watching and enjoying NYCB for ten years I've decided to have a much better understanding of what I have been seeing. Your whole discussion has gven me a lot to think about as well. What great insight. Thank you.

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