Balanchine’s America at Ballet West
reviewed by Alexa Gamble
It is easy to watch Balanchine. His choreography is visually engaging and active. His ballets rarely have a narrative, focusing instead on the abstract ideas of pure movement, space, musicality and emotion. One of the twentieth century’s foremost choreographers, George Balanchine preferred to let “dance and music be the star of the show.”
On Friday April 9th 2010, Ballet West opened Balanchine’s America, a suite of works showcasing the choreographer’s talents. Capitol Theatre stirred with excitement and anticipation. Artistic director Adam Sklute selected each piece in the show, Serenade, Agon, and Stars & Stripes, because the works are, “in unique and wonderful ways, some of his most American of creations.” When the lights lowered and the dramatic strings of the violins began, it was obvious that what was to come would be enjoyed.
Serenade, one of Balanchine’s first works created in America, in 1934, is choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s sweeping Serenade for Strings. Within the first few moments after the curtain opens it is quickly evident that Balanchine was a master of musicality and the enlivening and defining of space. The stage is a awash in a soft blue light, the dancers wear mere wisps of blue tulle allowing for the drama and sustaining quality of a romantic tutu without hiding the body. Serenade is the kind of piece dancers love to dance; it moves, pirouettes, and sweeps across the stage. It is classical and challenging but there is playfulness and a lighthearted spirit that gives the dance its deep sense of breath and fluidity. Challenging patterns are balanced with moments of utter simplicity, emphasizing the most basic of ballet steps; turning out to first position, closing to fifth position, executing a tendue, and balancing in sous sous. While Serenade is without a narrative, the relationship between the dancers tantalizes the imagination enough to tease an ephemeral moment of understanding.
Agon, one of Balanchine’s most famous “black and white” ballets, is a stark contrast to Serenade. A collaborative project between Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky, it was choreographed in 1957. While Serenade appears to celebrate the feminine and beautiful, Agon commands with power and terseness. Contrary to Serenade, Agon showcases the male dancer in a role of strength and agility. Agon reveals the art in physicality. The piece is ripe with Balanchine’s keen eye for emphasizing space and lines of the body. Balanchine’s musicality in Agon frequently reveals the degree to which every note of the music can be visually represented on stage. Agon dangles on the edge between overwhelming the viewer with complex layers of movement and music, and relieving them with familiar repetition. Agon’s choreography relishes the body; the angles it creates, the power and agility it is capable of achieving. Legs flash into the air with clear intent, feet weave in and out of turn out and parallel, the torso leaves its upright standing to contract and hunch over. These qualities, along with Balanchine’s iconic movement of the pelvis, demonstrate the boundaries and definitions of ballet that Balanchine so boldly redefined.
The tone of Agon is complicated. Agon is Greek for debate, conflict or contest. These ideas pervade the whole piece but nowhere are more clearly seen than in the Pas de Deux. Christiana Bennett and Beau Pearson danced this challenging choreography with stunning strength. The two dancers weave in and out of each other in a seamless twisting of legs and arms. Both dancers captured the subtle sense of power and contention. Their bodylines showed the strain, pull and tension in the sparse and at times discordant music. Their relationship on stage was one of understated challenge. While the response from the crowd was mostly one of abundant applause, I was surprised during the intermission to hear patrons voicing their uncertainty and discomfort. One woman sitting next to me stated, “I don’t know, it was kind of funky, kind of scary, but I think I liked it.” Even though Agon was choreographed over fifty years ago, it still challenges traditional ideals of ballet.
Stars & Stripes certainly offered no challenge to the audience. Using music adapted from John Philip Sousa, this piece is Balanchine’s most obvious tribute to America. Stars & Stripes is more or less an Independence Day parade unfolding on stage. The costumes are bright and colorful, and are inspired by patriotic and military ideas. The atmosphere is one of exuberance, joy, and smiles. The dancing is challenging and often results in a friendly competition of showmanship. “The Fourth Campaign: Liberty Bell and El Capitan” danced by Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Ruud was a sentimental and whimsical interlude amongst the bravado. Both dancers performed with such playfully flirtatious and light-hearted spirit that when Ruud swept Lawrence off the stage the audience uttered an audible sigh. During “Fifth Campaign: Stars and Stripes,” the mood in the theater was so encouraged and joyful that people began clapping and humming along to the well-known tune. While it was a piece that flourished in what many would call exaggerated and embellished clichés of American patriotism, one has to admit that Stars & Stripes is entertaining and rousing.
Balanchine’s American runs April 9, 10 & 14-17, 2010
For more information and tickets visit www.balletwest.org
photo: Christiana Bennett in Serenade.