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Balanchine & Stravinsky and a farewell to Jean-Lucien Massot

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A week ago the RDB launched a programme that highlights the almost lifelong artistique collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky: Apollon (1928), Agon (1957)and Symphony in 3 movements (1972). The first two they created together, the latter Balanchine created for the Stravinsky Festival in 1972, commemorating the death of Stravinsky the year before.

Personally I could do fine without Apollon (it seems to pop up whenever Nikolaj Hübbe is involved, but I can’t really warm up to it) so I was happy when I saw that they had made this programme a vehicle for Jean-Lucien Massot’s farewell performance by skipping Apollon and replacing it with Petr Zuska’s Les Bras de Mer and the final pas de deux from Cranko’s Onegin , two ballets which have been central in Massot’s carrier.

The unifying idea of the programme, though, somehow got lost by this manoeuvre, and it took some mental work to prepare one self for Tjachovskij’s music and the passionate ending of Cranko’s Onegin after having watched Symphony in 3 Movements to minutes earlier. Neither was Agon the ideal preparation for enjoying Zuska’s Les Bras de Mer. I was very impressed by Les Bras de Mer, when the RDB presented it on their summer tour a couple of years ago (with Massot and Caroline Cavallo), but seeing it immediately after Agon I couldn’t help finding the choreography a bit clumsy and ordinary, which is a pity and not fair to it. Maybe I liked it better with Caroline Cavallo, because she had more edge and brouhgt more tension to the drama than Gitte Lindstrøm, who is a more placid character.

It is a pity they couldn’t offer Massot a full-lenght ballet like Onegin as a farewell performance. It would have been more fair to him instead of this patchwork, and it would have displayed his ability to build up a convincing character, which is one of his strong cards and one that will be greatly missed. Actually I can’t see anyone in the company who can replace him, not only do they not have anyone of his type, which can be described as powerful and elegant in a very masculine and straightforward way, they also soon will have no male dancer over 35 with his bravura ability. Who is the next Onegin for example?

At least this programme had the advantage of demonstrating the versatility of his talent, though it might have been a difficult task to prepare himself for so many different ways of dancing at the same evening. He seemed a bit tense and not at ease in the first half of Agon, but fortunately that seemed to disappear when he reached the pas de deux in the third part, which he did brilliantly and with his wellknown intensity.

His partner in the Agon pas de deux was J’aime Crandall (whom he also partners in private life), and they suited each other very well, she being an ideal Balanchine dancer with an extremely bendable back and high extensions and, it seems, an iron strength. Also her looks has the coolness you see in many Balanchine ballerinas. Massot has the same strength and is a very safe haven for a ballerina. His minimalistic way of partnering always impresses me, it is like he knows exactly when to support them and when to keep his hands off them and let them unfold on their own. In this pas de deux there is some very tough mutual partnering going on, with lots of moments where a missed hand can be crucial. It is simply an acrobatic act, only it shouldn’t look like it – and it didn’t! Their pas de deux also had the right sincere, almost austere, expression, which made it the natural center and climax of the ballet. The rest of the ballet was danced in a very light and playful manner – and even with humour – which was a huge contrast to the way I remember it performed by the NYCB on tour in Copenhagen some years ago. One aspect of Agon is a kind of combat or competition, but with the RDB it is certainly a more friendly one. If it is the right way to do it or whether Balanchine would have liked it, I don’t know, but it is interesting that the same steps can be interpreted in so many different ways. In my opinion it speaks for the quality of the steps. And talking about steps, I keep marvel at the sheer richness of invention in this ballet!

The same can be said about Symphony in 3 Movements, which also bubbles with ideas, though the focus here is more on group formations and speediness. It was also the only ballet Massot didn’t paticipate in. There were some other men, though, who are worth looking out for. Especially Charles Andersen impressed me. He is a very clear dancer of fine proportions, whíth a clean technique and a focused energy, and it looks like he is developing at high speed at the moment. An other promising dancer is Alexander Bozinoff, a recent canadian import into the company, and only 22 years old. As the third male soloist it was good to see Nicolai Hansen doing great. He brought some elegance into the picture.

And now we are talking about the male dancers of the company I simply have to mention Alban Lendorf, who was the male lead of the first pas de trois in Agon. I haven’t seen him for about a year, and I must say that he has developed from an extremly promising rising star to a fullblown mature star. Completely in control and with an unerringly precision but at the same time with a total smoothness, like he was made of rubber.

The last scene of Onegin ended the evening, and Massot and Gudrun Bojesen gave a heartbreaking performance of these two broken characters who faces lifelong misery when the curtain falls. It was almost too sad a finale, and it took some time to collect oneself again and take part in the standing ovations for a fine dancer, who will be greatly missed and not so easily replaced. We don’t have many mature dancers left in the company who have BOTH his virtuosity AND his stage personality. We have many refined and beautiful dancers, and many with a strong technique, but none of them have this touch of slightly animalistic roughness beneath the surface, which made so many of Massot’s characters exciting.

I hope we will see him back some day as a character dancer!

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Many thanks for your impressions, Anne!

If Massot is still interested in dancing, I hope he gets guest gigs. ABT could certainly use him.

I am not the Hubbe fan that many here are. I thought he bordered on crude as James, substituting for Lund in his own RDB production of "La Sylphide" mad.gif , and I was not impressed with his Apollo when he performed it with Ballet Arizona in 2004, finding it broad and lacking detail. (I would have much rather have seen a second performance by Zejnati.)

It's hard for most ballets to follow "Agon."

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Thank you so much for this, Anne - I've been longing to know how the evening went. I agree with you that there is no-one currently who can replace him for his particular type of presence and strength.

I'm glad that he ended with Onegin as I think it's probably the best thing I saw him do (though of course I've only seen him in the last six years or so).

Carling Talcott put a photo on Twitter of one of his final curtain calls, taken from the stage - I think it gives a wonderful feeling for how it must be to see a whole audience (including the Queen - in the box on the right) standing to applaud you!

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I am not the Hubbe fan that many here are. I thought he bordered on crude as James, substituting for Lund in his own RDB production of "La Sylphide" mad.gif , and I was not impressed with his Apollo when he performed it with Ballet Arizona in 2004, finding it broad and lacking detail. (I would have much rather have seen a second performance by Zejnati.)

I just want to make sure, that what I wrote about Hübbe - that Apollo "seems to pop up whenever Nikolaj Hübbe is involved" - doesn't indicate, that he himself is dancing Apollo (sometimes writing in a foreign language makes one involuntarily write something which means exactly the opposite of what one intends to). He has never done so after his retirement, at least not to my knowledge, and surely not while being a balletmaster with the RDB. But Apollo seems to be a ballet he treasures very much, since he puts it on the programme whenever he sees his chance.

I liked his Apollo, though. It is more the ballet itself I think is a bit overrated or at least not to my taste...

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