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Washington, DC, 3-7 March, 2010

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I've been looking for the music for and some description and commentary on Haieff Divertimento as preparation to see this rarely-performed ballet for the first time. Neither of the recordings made of of the music around 1960 are currently available as far as I can find, nor are they available to hear in libraries here, nor can I find print music to borrow either. Farrell helpfully provides some of the basic outline and some insight in her ongoing "Notes from the ballet" series on the Kennedy Center web site:


Anna Kisselgoff saw the 1993 NYCB revival and included some details in her review of the whole program in The New York Times for May 11 that year:

On first viewing, this engaging 15-minute piece does not come across as major Balanchine, possibly because it is burdened with a whiff of a sentimental "outsider" motif. Nonetheless, this anecdotal pretext does not detract from the formal, quirky invention that runs through the choreography. Balanchine meets the Russian-born American composer, Alexei Haieff, on the same poetic, playful ground.

"Divertimento," as the work was originally called, can be seen as one of the choreographer's experimental ballets to contemporary music, but it is also close to being a showcase for classical footwork like the 1957 "Square Dance."

The City Ballet revival by Richard Tanner, based on Francisco Moncion's staging in Kansas City, is danced with straightforward zip and charm. The opening "Prelude" has four couples (Arch Higgins and Zippora Karz, Alexander Ritter and Kathleen Tracey, Robert Wersinger and Catherine Ryan, Russell Kaiser and Yvonne Borree) bowing. Nilas Martins, the loner, reaches out to an invisible partner.

The ebullient dancing starts and stops after Wendy Whelan, in Holly Hynes's white tunic (the others are in turquoise and gray), begins the "Aria," essentially a duet with Mr. Martins. It is full of twisted, sculptured swoons and splayed fingers thrust toward a partner. The "Scherzo" features male solos and the meat comes in the ballerina's solo in the "Lullaby," with Miss Whelan's superlative rendering of the choreography's angular contours. In the "Finale," she perches, two feet parallel, on Mr. Martins's lap, only to disappear. The ballet is lighthearted: the hero will recover.

Well, better a hasty sketch than nothing at all!  And I'm glad "The hero will recover"! Maybe we'll see what that means.

Edwin Denby liked the original. Writing in Spring of 1947, he said:

Divertimento is quick and sharp. It has a hint of juvenile romance, a curiously tender, very novel pas de deux, a virtuoso girl's solo that looks all simple and dewy, and a wonderful ending.

Robert Garis recollected in the late '90s that it had been

the first ballet with a distinctly erotic perfume I had encountered, which featured the rare, exotic pairing of Maria Tallchief and Francisco Moncion (it did not come to life for me in the revival during the 1993 Balanchine celebration)

Arlene Croce, writing about that "celebration" just afterward, complained, consistently with Garis's later comment, that

... the Haieff Divertimento, a relic of 1947, was danced in a style more appropriate to a Martins ballet...

In Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, this ballet is not described, but in an interview in the back of the book, the choreographer happens to choose it as an example of one way he would sometimes work:

There is always music that I wish to arrange dances to. Sometimes I make the ballets right away, if this is possible. One night, some years ago, the composer Alexei Haieff played me some pieces of his on the piano. I liked the music, but I didn't think of producing a ballet. Several days later, when this music kept running through my head, I wanted very badly to make dances to it. The result was Divertimento. If I were a poet, I'd probably have written a poem about what this music sounded like and looked like; but I am a choreographer, a dancer, and only in dancing do I express myself naturally...

"What this music... looked like." Ah, yes. As usual, when I expect to watch a good performances of a Balanchine ballet, I'm keenly anticipating seeing what the music looks like to Mr. B...

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Does anyone happen to know why the Haieff Divertimento fell out of repertory? It sound delightful. Also, it seems like it was one of the first ballets Balanchine made retaining the composer's name in the title. a practice that became more pronounced in the 60's and 70's.

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Does anyone happen to know why the Haieff Divertimento fell out of repertory?

That must have been very early, because Nancy Reynolds' Repertory in Review lists only one cast for it, with Mary Ellen Moylan and Francisco Moncion as the principals. Moylan left NYCB for Ballet Theater in 1950.

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Well, Reynolds herself, writing in the mid-seventies (Repertory in Review is copyright 1977), has something to say about that, as well as providing a little more description than we have so far in this thread. Here's how she begins her entry on this ballet:

Haieff's Divertimento is a ballet much talked about but little seen, a perfect chamber work for a leading couple and four supporting couples, with all the parts taken by soloists. It is reputed to have been extremely beautiful, and there have been many suggestions that Balanchine revive it. He always refuses, claiming that he has forgotten every step, and that, anyway, even if he could remember them, he wouldn't remount it, because he has used all the movements one way or another in his subsequent ballets and people would see that he has merely been cribbing from himself over the course of the past thirty years.

Not the most logically consistent remarks -- can't remember anything but knows he's re-used all of it -- but he tended to be indirect, I think. He didn't want to! "Been there, done that"? The spirit moved him -- "this music kept running through my head" -- and then it didn't. Or something else did. Or maybe not: Somewhere he says he couldn't wait for inspiration, especially on union time.

But most of his repertory was revival, he couldn't fill a schedule out of premieres. He sometimes described his work as like running a restaurant -- "If I didn't cook, we wouldn't eat!" (Nice double meaning there!) -- which needed a menu of complementary dishes, or like tending a garden -- he had an "actual" one, roses, I think, on Long Island -- and he may have had a sense of when something had lived long enough. Or he simply forgot. (That's how Divertimento No. 15 came to replace Caracole, only a few years after it.)

Anyway, notice what he says about how he came to make it. Outwardly mild and soft-spoken, he was moved by inner passions. Thank God!

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The Catalogue of Balanchine works published in the early 1980s lists only that original set of 1947 performances and a single cast. I guess it was tracked down and dusted off for the Balanchine Celebration in 1993, working on what Moncion, a member of the original cast, revived earlier for Kansas City.

What in the world could Croce have meant by the following?:

... the Haieff Divertimento, a relic of 1947, was danced in a style more appropriate to a Martins ballet...

Tallchief/Moncion and Whelan/Martins strike me as partnerships which have very little in common, which may explain the difference in effect. The George Platt Lynes photo of Moncion and Tallchief in Rep in Review almost qualifies as "hot," as classical ballet poses go. So I can understand Robert Garis's youthful reaction. :excl:

Neither Rep in Review nor the Catalogue list Tallchief -- who joined Balanchine's company that year -- as performing in this work. She must have replaced Moylan after the Jan., 1947, premiere, but she didn't join the company until the fall season later on.

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Kirstein in Thirty Years/The New York City Ballet, referring to Ballet Society, calls Haieff Divertimento "one of the genuine triumphs of our first season." Later in the book, he describes it, Roma, Gounod Symphony, Caracole and Bayou, as "losses regretted by those who prize delicacy of texture or quiet sweetness of expression."

Editing to add: In The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein Martin Duberman writes that Lucia Chase asked Balanchine to stage Divertimento for her. Replying through Kirstein Balanchine said he wanted to be paid handsomely to actually work with the company, but gave permission for Chase to put on Divertimento. Apparently nothing came of it.

In 1950, Duberman writes, Kirstein held a ball at the Waldorf-Astoria "to raise money for new costumes" for six ballets. Haieff Divertimento was one of the works whose costumes were looking "pretty desperately shabby."

Here is a previous Ballet Talk thread on the ballet.

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I just checked Robert Garis (quoted by Jack, above). He didn't start attending NYCB until 1948. If he saw Moncion and Tallchief dancing in Divertimento, it must have been revived, with the new cast, after the premiere season.

Re the Kirstein quote: Quite a bit seems to have been lost or discarded from that period, not only ballets of delicacy and sweetness. Of the premieres given in the spring 1947 season, only Cunningham's The Seasons, seems to have survived.

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perky, the original title was just Divertimento; there's no indication in Reynolds of the later one used by 1993, but there had been that staging in Kansas City in between.

bart, Reynolds quotes a review from the The Times of London which praises Tallchief in it in August 1950. In fact she's all that reviewer, whose name I can't find, praises about it.

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I saw the 1983 revival by NYCB. I did not see the Kansas City Ballet reconstruction. I felt that it was a lovely ballet but that the leads (who did the entire run, I believe) were miscast. They were Nilas Martins and Wendy Whelan. Both performed it from very abstractly, no perfume (for lack of a better word). It's quite jazzy yet sophisticated. It's adult, not Interplay. I had always hoped it would be revived in the late 90s for somebody like Ringer. I'm eager to see it this weekend.

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(from Washington, DC) I'm just back after the first performance of the first program; this afternoon I saw the open rehearsal, with some cast rotations, as well. In the evening performance, I must say I found Haieff Divertiemento and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II pas de deux the most satisfying so far; Afternoon of a Faun, with Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook, well played and clear-sounding from the pit, could have made its points about dancers' vanity more clearly, I think, though I enjoyed it as well as did the rest of the audience. But Apollo, for all its wonderful detailed activity needed a bolder rendition (more inflected and a little faster) in the pit, I felt, although the concertmaster (presumably the one playing the solos) had the right idea. (Nevertheless, Violeta Angelova's "Polyhymnia" as well as Magnicaballi's "Terpsichore" and Micheal Cook's "Apollo" deserved the hands they got, along the way and after.)

Haieff's music turns out to be a little perverse in the best sense, in other words, for fun: In the opening ensemble part, in which Kirk Henning, in light gray, wishes for a partner on a stage lightly populated with cheery couples in green, some accented passages chug along briefly only to stop for an instant and then proceed; strings are scored way up the scale sometimes, like Haieff's friend Copland (who turned up with the happily smiling young Haieff and a third man at the piano in a picture so old Copland's hair was still dark, which I found while looking for details of the score for this ballet).

The tone of the little suite of movements is pretty upbeat right through, in a pastoral sense, the energy level varying with the tempos as in the outline above. The adagio is much more connected and flowing, as one would expect, but the droll quirkiness continues, reflected on stage for instance in the partners -- Elisabeth Holowchuk, in similar color, just walks on to populate Henning's -- reverie? -- who, for example, relate face-to-face by laying straight arms across each others' shoulders while she, on toe on one foot, intermittently draws circles in the air a little behind her with her other pointe, as though exactly in description of what she hears. (Balanchine has been cribbing from this little suite for years after? Uh, huh. I think he just said that to throw people off. He could be as elusive as Farrell herself.)

The number for the five boys* in unison and in quick solos is satisfying in itself and as a setup for Holowchuk's solo number, which is hard to see as well as the rest of this ballet because J. Russel Sandifer has chosen to dim her light. Pity, because what we can see of her dancing in this (and in her Faun rehearsal earlier) is big, clear, and strong in effect, and we want to have more of it!

In the ending ensemble, she and Henning have another lively duet, and then she just walks out on him like she walked in, while he is unaware.

The Midsummer pas was beautifully danced by Violeta Angelova and Momchil Mladenov; the choreography answers at every moment to Mendelssohn's thought in the adagio music from one of his early string symphonies, as though waking up wasn't such a bad thing after all, the events of the night having been as wonderful as they were.

*Whoops! I did it again! It's four boys' solos, then four couples. Apologies all around.

Edited by Jack Reed
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Thanks for the report, Jack! I also wish that the current trend toward murky lighting wasn't so pervasive......

Looking forward to seeing performances this weekend........

heard that the Haieff costumes are a glorious teal while the center couple are in light green.....with beautiful designs by Holly Hynes, it is unfortunate that they are lit to read a pallid grey......

oh well....looking forward to the dancing!

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(from Washington, DC) The main couple must be in very light green, then. But overall, the stage picture (except for the dim solo) suits the upbeat tone of the piece very well, and the costumes look good in themselves. (I still remember the lavender costumes for Divertimento No. 15 with some regret.) So it's not really so bad as I seem to have led you to think.

On the other hand, the Midsummer pas -- it's just the adagio, although I remember there being some more of the more usual four parts, not that I'm complaining abut that, what we got being so lovely -- began and ended somewhat dimly. It looks as though lighting designers today feel the need to interpret for us, or display their interpretation, rather than just let the performers perform.

Another detail from my notes for the Divertimento adagio I was too tired to type up last night was a series of big lifts in arcs across the stage, facing downstage, with her legs well open. So far this sounds like something we've seen elsewhere, right? But here, instead of looking where she's going, say, she watches something else, invisible to us, describe arcs high over her arcs. This ballet is like that -- the familiar and the surprising mingle and support each other continually, playfully.

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(from Washington, DC) In Haieff, the leads are in very pale green; this is apparent from two rows closer, while last night it looked more like they were not only in a different color from the others but their fabric looked a bit frosty, as though it might have some metal threads in it, or something. It's just an even more delicate shade than the corps.

The ballet itself is even more appealing on further familiarity. The woman next to me tonight enjoyed it very much, as she did the Midsummer adagio, agreeing that it would have been nice to see its last moments better. (Last night's neighbors were surprised to enjoy Haieff and Faun. What led them to other expectations I don't know.)

As for Apollo, it seems to me the orchestra sang out more tonight. I don't know the acoustics of this theatre very well, and I don't know whether two rows closer to the pit would make that much difference.

No cast changes yet, though Holowchuk cracked a smile in the later ensembles of Haieff I didn't notice opening night. Earlier in the piece she tends to wear a slightly forlorn look, as though she were caught up in something beyond her control. (This is not entirely out of keeping with the light-hearted tone of the ballet, as I take it. Nothing wrong with an air of mystery -- "white" mystery, good mystery -- in ballet, as far as I'm concerned. That some of the participants are slightly mystified too is a nice, light touch.)

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In Haieff, the leads are in very pale green; this is apparent from two rows closer, while last night it looked more like they were not only in a different color from the others but their fabric looked a bit frosty, as though it might have some metal threads in it, or something. It's just an even more delicate shade than the corps.

Sarah Kaufman's rave review of Divertimento in today's Washington Post is accompanied by photos of that ballet and of Afternoon of a Faun.

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(from Washington, DC) There have been some good, trenchant reviews of opening night. George Jackson, on danceviewtimes, faulted the performances generally for being "muted", and Sarah Kaufman in today's "Washington Post", for needing polishing and for looking tentative, especially "Apollo" with Michael Cook, whom she faulted for lacking precision and presence, and I think they have a point or two. I didn't use the word "subdued" in my own remarks, but I could have, though not applying them equally to everyone. I think the performances will get more of the tutelage from Farrell that Kaufman thinks they need.

I think part of Cook's problem is that he has, in "Apollo", taken on a huge role. He certainly gives it energy, but his movement remains wild and clipped -- not inappropriate for the newborn Apollo -- and we don't see dancing so well when things happen so fast. In sleight-of-hand magic, "the hand is quicker than the eye", and things appear in mid-air, from the magician's sleeve; but in dance, things disappear if we don't get a chance to "read" them. It's not a matter of tempo; this Apollo is not too fast, if anything the opposite, though Thursday night I thought it was in better health musically than Wednesday. It's a matter of phrasing and inflection in dance movement.

Kaufman finds something basic to like: Writing about Faun, she finds it "clean, airy, and alive. No phoniness. (Come to think of it, this could be the tag line for Farrell's company.)" ... [Farrell] "doesn't have the cast she needs. Back in 1947" [the year of Divertimento] "Balanchine didn't yet have a full-time company, either. What a difference it made once he got one." This sense of possibility and of great potential on view echoes my own. Kaufman stops short of the m-word, which wouldn't be appropriate here, but I thank her very much all the same.

(She was sitting in the row in front of mine opening night. Notice she calls Kirk Henning's costume color "silver", which is the word I needed but didn't find. Not so pallid. Subtle color, depends on where you sit!)

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(from Washington, DC) Briefly, as the hour is late and I'm "fading", but the second program went on for the first time, and the pas de deux in Agon was very effective. In contrast to some renditions I've seen, where there are many moments where you wonder whether they're going to lose it, tonight Natalia Magnicaballi and Momchil Mladenov had more control than they needed, and so they could dance the whole time, and I don't mean a performance of a performance, either; as Kaufman said, there's no phoniness in this company.

For instance, at the moment where he is partnering her standing, facing her, and turns under her arm to lie on his back on the floor, maintaining their grip, it has sometimes happened elsewhere (but not here) that she has to come down off pointe early because she is losing her balance, or something; here, she could have stayed up for some time longer than the music provided. Their control enabled them to take this well beyond mere mechanical execution, and give it presence and projection. The audience gave it a good hand at the time, which they scarcely acknowledged, in keeping with the character of the ballet, which used to get applause exactly twice in my first experience of it, in the early '70s: After this pas de deux, and at the end. (Tonight the pas de trois casts took their applause on finishing, too.)

Most of the rest of the ballet was also clean and certainly alive, as was the opening Donizetti Variations, if a little -- subdued? But beautifully detailed, not didactically, or over-etched, as though to demonstrate something, but to enliven. Kendra Mitchell and Momchil Mladenov led it beautifully; I could fault only the trumpet-solo "joke" for being less effective than sometimes, other places.

Faun had Elisabeth Holowchuk's large-scale dancing and strongly effective flow-through, with Kirk Henning's able partnering; the Midsummer adagio got a grander, maybe darker, rendition tonight from Natalia Magnicaballi with Michael Cook (subbing for Ted Seymour) than the brighter one by Violeta Angelova, with Mladenov, which I thought was the loveliest thing up to that point on the other program. That audience seemed to agree.

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(from Washington, DC) It's not been unusual in the past with this troupe that they continue to improve as the run goes on, and that may account for my sense that I saw Michael Cook's rendition of "Apollo" much better this evening (Friday 5th March) and so, enjoyed it quite a lot this time. It seemed more controlled without losing any energy, and so, clarified. And there were stretches of music that were much better realized than before, too, it seemed to me this evening, including a turbulent passage with changing rhythms in Apollo which is not played clearly even on the composer's last recording, although the composer's tempos are faster.

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(from Washington, DC) Another entry in the it-just-keeps-getting-better category: Elisabeth Holowchuk's solo in Haieff Divertimento was well lit this afternoon! Overall, the stage remained dim and cool, but she had the benefit this time of a soft-edged follow spot and a little warm-toned side lighting, so her figure was not only brighter but rounded. Holowchuk, not incidentally, is the shortest of the five women in this, as we see when they're all in a line across the stage, but when she moves, she's taller, and has more reach. Not by a lot; but it's the trick -- or accidental result -- of her line(s) seeming to run off her fingers and toes into her space. Anyway, this number -- her last performance of it Washington -- was specially enjoyable this time.

Momchil Mladenov subbed for Kirk Henning in Faun, with Natalia Magnicaballi, so we had the major treat we'd had before. Everything he does makes kinetic sense, for especial instance the second of the short sequences of moving his bent arms around close to his head, downstage on our right, glancing up for an instant, before he moves audience left to show us his desire to caress his partner's hair. Both he and Cook have the same time to do this, but Cook seems to rush it, and it doesn't "read", although there is much else to enjoy from Cook in this.

Henning turned up subbing for Mladenov in the Midsummer adagio, ably partnering Angelova as before; and I found this maybe a bit brighter too, in terms of lighting, and as rich in its bright way, as Magnicaballi's in its "darker" way. I happen slightly to prefer Angelova in this. If Magnicaballi senses a deeper something in it, she hasn't quite shown it, or I haven't caught it.

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(from Washington, DC) I might have added to the above post that the level of musical performance also belongs in the it-just-keeps-getting-better category: Nearly everything sounded more clarified, nuanced, more bold as appropriate in places. In this evening's Agon, though some perspective was achieved, it left the most room for improvement; but this is probably the most difficult piece to play in the run, by some margin.

Kendra Mitchell led Donizetti Variations with Momchil Mladenov this evening, and I felt she didn't quite rise to her own previous level, though overall it was a great opener, inspiring the lady next to me to some enthusiasm: "That was a fine start!" or something like that. (A few days ago, after Haieff Divertimento, I heard some one next to me remark to her companion, "I didn't think I'd like that," but the following discussion showed they both had been pleasantly surprised. Similar remarks came after Faun. In general, people like what they saw, sometimes surprising themselves, and the matinees were very well attended, at least on the main floor.)

Faun was led by Holowchuk with Kirk Henning (subbing for Michael Cook), who gave a good, legible performance which suffered a little by comparison with Mladenov's, however. It's a little late in the game, but I think a line in the program identifying the place where the ballet takes place as "a room with a mirror" as we used to read years ago would be an easy improvement next time; I remember taking some pleasure in realizing the dancers aren't staring at us, but at themselves.

Cook subbed for Mladenov (these are all announced by slips in the programs, not by public address, and without explanation) in the Midsummer adagio with Natalia Magnicaballi, and it was another fine, if slightly mysterious or shadowed rendition.

Then the last Agon, and, like most of the others, a very fine one it was, featuring not only a strong pas de deux by Magnicaballi and Mladenov but distinguished dancing in the rest of it. I thought Elisabeth Holowchuk was subtly outstanding in the first pas de trois and Violeta Angelova quite distinguished in the second. The attentive audience, not quite so large as in the afternoon, was warm to it, including the humorous moments.

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