This year, the annual School of American Ballet Workshop Performances – a showcase for the advanced students of the celebrated academy that feeds into the New York City Ballet – provided no transcendent experiences. Two factors contributed to this disappointment. First, though a slew of uncannily competent pre-professionals strutted their stuff, not one of them combined fine-honed athleticism with the inexplicable poetry essential to memorable dancing. Second, two of the three ballets chosen to display the young performers posed stylistic challenges they’re not yet equipped to meet.
Balanchine’s Danses Concertantes, staged by Susan Pilarre in the revised version created for NYCB in 1972, has twofold peril built right into it. With its staccato tempi, its eccentric twists and turns, its extravagant leg extensions and cat’s-cradle couplings, the intricate choreography poses a challenge even to seasoned technicians. It simply invites mishaps that can’t be concealed. Then there’s the highly wrought style – acerbic, ironic, rich in references to theatrical history – that gives the ballet its distinctive profile. This, too, is beyond the reach of the youngsters – as well as most of their elders these days.
Difficulties with style gravely undermined the dancing-school scene from August Bournonville’s Konservatoriet, the Danish choreographer’s homage to the studios of Paris, where his dance training received a final polish in the 1820s. The distinctive Bournonville style preserves many qualities of French Romantic-period ballet that were abandoned long ago by the French and have increasingly been neglected of late by the Danes themselves. Physically, it requires quicksilver footwork, elevation that’s as buoyant as a soap bubble, and a sculptural use of the head and torso in complement to the lower body. Temperamentally, it requires a relaxed, unaffected demeanor, the performer ingratiating himself with his audience through his apparent joy in dancing and his natural charm. These traits are the antithesis of the sharper, speedier, flatter, and more artificed SAB-NYCB style – as the Workshop rendering of Konservatoriet, despite valiant effort, made all too clear.
Nevertheless, it’s good to see the tradition of grappling with the Danish inheritance continued after the death of Stanley Williams, who was its former guardian at SAB. Balanchine professed himself to be an admirer of Bournonville’s way with step combinations, and the NYCB has had a long history of absorbing the marvelous male dancers Denmark produces – among them Peter Martins, the current artistic director, and company principal Nikolaj Hübbe, who staged this production.
Stars and Stripes, mounted by Suki Schorer, showed the SAB dancers to far greater advantage, being choreographed as an entertainment in Balanchine’s straightforward American Beauty style. Without betraying the basic tenets of classicism, Stars allows its women to be ballerinas, showgirls, and cheerleaders all at once, while their male counterparts are feisty soldiers, cavaliers when need be, but rough and ready, audacious ones. The thirteen-strong guys-alone regiment of the piece, danced with terrific energy, precision, and alacrity, showed off the near-miraculous expansion in numbers and skill of the boys’ and young men’s contingent at SAB, a phenomenon that promises to be of utmost significance in the future of ballet in America.