Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ballroom Ghosts: Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 at the New York City Ballet

By Mary Sheeran
Women with long, unbound hair sweep through a dark, otherwise deserted ballroom partially hidden by mist. A young man kneels in a pose of grief and loss. One of these ghostly women knows him; their dancing evokes grief and passion. Is she dead? Is he? Are they beloved ghosts the ballroom remembers?
            So begins George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, a four-movement piece with lush Romantic music, a flood of strings, and long phrases with emotional peaks. This New York City Ballet favorite, performed at the company's Feb. 25 matinee and throughout the concluding performances of its winter season, has an interesting history underlying its unique structure. In 1947, Balanchine created a ballet called Theme and Variations for Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater) to the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s score. A thrilling showcase of bravura classical technique, it demanded the best from the best of dancers. Consequently, Theme and Variations quickly became a popular staple in the repertory of most ballet companies. Then, in 1970, with his own company firmly established inside the vast New York State Theater, Balanchine added Tchaikovksy’s other three movements, making the “T&V” section the fourth movement of the ballet that Balanchine typically (for him in 1970) named after the music’s score, “Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3.”
            Those first three sections take place in the darkened ballroom, perhaps after the dancing has ended and the ghosts take over, the women in long, romantic blue skirts. For Theme and Variations, the stage is transformed to a brilliantly lit ballroom, and the dancers shimmer in classical ballet attire.
            The first three sections and “T&V” can feel like two different ballets. Part of the audience’s task is to link these disparate sections – or not. All four movements do, after all, come from the same piece of music, and that may be enough. Or one can see the entire piece as showing how ballet grew here. In 1947, Theme and Variations showed pure classical style to American audiences new to ballet, but by 1970, this was no longer necessary with Balanchine’s audiences. One can also see the ballet in psychological terms, as what is happening beneath the surface of those radiant ballroom figures – or as a foreshadowing of their sad future. Or Balanchine could also be referencing other ballets: For instance, is the first movement, “Élégie,” a variation of a memory from the classic ballet Giselle, where the heroine tries to prevent her spirit companions from harming her grieving lover? (This theme from Giselle inevitably points to Orpheus, one of Balanchine’s signature ballets, whose lyre is the NYCB’s symbol.)
            Or you can just sit back and enjoy it all sweeping over you!
            Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette delivered technically excellent but otherwise chilly performances Saturday in the Theme and Variations movement. I was taken aback by Bouder’s simpering smile, which shocked me more than the stage’s brilliance when the chandeliers dramatically lit up at the beginning of the movement. For his part, Veyette was precision itself and a careful, if distant, partner. Bouder didn’t seem to notice him, alas. The “invisible partner idea” is certainly a Balanchine theme, as well as a motif in classic ballet, but it’s out of place in this glowing ballroom! The classical heritage of the “T&V” section comes from court dance, where one should at least politely acknowledge one’s partner. Bouder’s overall attitude not only influenced the incomplete phrasing of her dancing, but it also diluted the impact of the first three sections, excellently and movingly danced by Teresa Reichlin, Ask La Cour, Rebecca Krohn, Jared Angle, Erica Pereira, and the ever excellent Daniel Ulbricht.
            Balanchine enjoyed making dances to Tchaikovsky’s music. Of Allegro Brillante, the short ballet that opened Saturday’s program, Balanchine said, “It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in thirteen minutes.” Its beginning is a smile from Balanchine - “first the music” and then, after a few moments of our “just” listening, the curtain goes up, and we see eight women circling on a stage that is all for them, along with the backdrop of Balanchine’s blue sky kingdom, the location of so many of his ballets. In a magnificent debut, Sara Mearns once again demonstrated her musicality by the intelligent and sensitive way she listens with her whole body. Want to study phrasing? Watch Sara! Her very nerve fibers must listen. She’s terrific in Allegro Brillante’s final cadenza with her fleet light turns and precise footwork. Every so often, she’d return to her partner (dependable Jared Angle), as if remembering he was there before whirling off again.
            Saturday’s program also included Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free. The best thing about Fancy Free is what it became – the Broadway and film musicals of On the Town – but so much of Fancy Free is dated now. Those three sailors ganging up against a lone woman and mischievously grabbing her purse – even if it’s all just a lark -- fails to elicit the genuine laughter that scene might have elicited in 1944. But, well, Fancy Free stamped the word “American” on ballet, it gave us Jerome Robbins, and the cast was marvelous, with the engaging Sean Suozzi, Robert Fairchild, and Adam Hendrickson. The strong, intelligent performances by Stephanie Chrosniak and Sterling Hyltin helped to ward off some of the egregious, boys will be boys chauvinism.
            As an appetizer to these full-course ballets on Saturday, Peter Martins’ Zakouski proved a delightful showcase for Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz. “Zakouski” means “hors d’oevures” in Russian, and we were treated to tasty selections by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky that the charming dancers enjoyed as much as the audience did.
            The afternoon was a splendid program as NYCB concluded a strong winter season at Lincoln Center. And I would be amiss not to call out the New York City Ballet Orchestra’s excellence and the tiny, fiery Clotilde Otranto, who conducted the Tchaikovsky suite with a joyful intensity.
Allegro Brillante. Music by Peter Tchaikovsky (Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 75). Choreography by George Balanchine. Costumes by Karinska. Lighting by Mark Stanley. Piano Solo: Elaine Chelton. With Sara Mearns, Jared Angle. Premiere: March 1, 1956, City Center of Music and Drama.
Zakouski. Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Peter Tchaikovsky. Choreography by Peter Martins. Costumes by Barbara Matera. Lighting by Mark Stanley. Violin: Arturo Delmoni; Piano: Nancy McDill. With Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. Premiere: Nov. 17, 1992, New York State Theater.
Fancy Free. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Scenery by Oliver Smith. Costumes by Kermit Love. Lighting by Ronald Bates. With Robert Fairchild, Adam Hendrickson, Sean Suozzi, Stephanie Chrosniak, Sterling Hyltin, Amanda Hankes. Premiere: April 18, 1944, Ballet Theater, Metropolitan Opera House. NYCB premiere: Jan. 31, 1980, New York State Theater.
Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3. Music by Peter Tschaikovsky. Choreography by George Balanchine. Scenery and Costumes by Nicolas Benois. Original Lighting by Ronald Bates. Lighting by Mark Stanley. With Teresa Reichlen, Ask La Cour, Rebecca Krohn, Jared Angle, Erica Pereira, Daniel Ulbricht, Ashley Bouder, Andrew Veyette. Premiere: Dec. 3, 1970, New York State Theater.
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era, concerning the effect of the mining on the native tribes. Her CD, "Through the Years," is available on CD Baby.

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