Nearly twenty years ago, as George Balanchine’s life was slowly being extinguished by a maverick illness, the question tormenting dance fans was, will the New York City Ballet be able to sustain the master’s incomparable canon of dances without his presence on the scene? The answer turned out to be no. The NYCB’s interpretations of the ballets, while obviously closest to the choreographer’s unique style, have come increasingly to lack precision, energy, commitment, vision. This being so, the crucial question became, can Balanchine’s ballets have a viable life elsewhere? The recent Balanchine Celebration at the Kennedy Center answered that question with a yes of Joycean force.
The event, spread over two weeks in September, comprised four different programs devoted to touchstone works – Mozartiana, Symphony in Three Movements, “Rubies” (from Jewels), Bugaku, Agon, Square Dance, Divertimento No. 15, Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments, Serenade, and The Prodigal Son – and a sprinkling of those brilliant “desserts” that masquerade as sheer entertainment: Tarantella, Western Symphony, and Stars and Stripes. The demand this unremitting presentation of riches made upon the viewer’s capacities – his attention, his intellect, his emotions – was both exhilarating and exhausting. At moments, some of us confessed to one another, we longed for a dollop of the second-rate that would allow us to relax.
The participating troupes were the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (marking its transition from pickup-group status to official companyhood), the Miami City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and members of the Bolshoi Ballet. Though the NYCB wasn’t represented, because of budget limitations, comparisons of the Celebration’s productions and the home team’s were very much in the air.
The effect of the best stagings and performances seen at the Kennedy Center closely resembled the experience one had when Balanchine himself masterminded the show, working with dancers he’d bred to his needs, creating the choreography on them or cannily choosing them to inherit roles, coaching them himself, and simply being there, watching with those hooded eagle’s eyes that seemed to see, at once, the visible and what lay beyond it. Most of the productions appeared to be governed by an inspired, unfaltering idea about the essential nature of that particular ballet. The dancing, lushly musical, poured out of the performers’ bodies like the sound from the orchestral instruments or song from a singer’s throat. The dancers worked with an ardent, at times ecstatic devotion, petty egos submerged in their communal effort to embody Balanchine’s creation. Nothing was mechanical; the best of the work was intensely expressive, conveying moods and epiphany-like insights that words can’t reach.
This is not to say that all the companies were equally successful. The Joffrey Ballet tended to lapse into shallow cuteness where verve was called for. The San Francisco Ballet, perennially a sound Balanchine custodian under Helgi Tomasson’s leadership, ricocheted between showings that have grown stolid, both physically and imaginatively, and an electrifying presentation of Symphony in Three Movements. The Pennsylvania Ballet, meanwhile, is enjoying a welcome renaissance in its understanding of Balanchine. The company demonstrating the most substantial achievement was the Miami City Ballet, led by Edward Villella, with stagings by Maria Calegari, Bart Cook, and Suzanne Farrell. Fresh, bold, and joyous, as lush as it is precise, the troupe’s dancing possesses the extravagant power that was Villella’s trademark as well as an instinct for atmosphere, be it one of high-voltage athletics, witty play, or dangerous erotic desires.
The most memorable performance was Nina Ananiashvili’s in Mozartiana, staged by Farrell on dancers from the Bolshoi. Ananiashvili is an extraordinary technician with an emotive power that serves her well in nineteenth-century classics. In Mozartiana, with no narrative or persona to work with, she was even more eloquent – projecting states of being as intense and ephemeral as summer weather – than she is as Odette or Giselle. This was the freest and most fully resolved work I’ve seen from her, and I’m certain that Farrell’s serving as godmother to it is no coincidence.
Farrell has proved that she can work her wonders with dancers of far more modest gifts than Ananiashvili. Her own small troupe can’t hold a candle to the numbers and depth of talent commanded by, say, the San Francisco and Miami groups, let alone her alma mater, the NYCB. Yet it offered the most ravishing production in the Celebration. Its rendition of Divertimento No. 15 was rapt, lyric, gloriously unified in tone, and filled with moments in which dancers were at thrilling risk, reaching beyond the capabilities they’re certain of to become more than they or we dreamed they might be. It achieved a dimension I can only think of as being spiritual and is surely definitive proof that Farrell has the uncanny ability to transmit her virtues as a performing artist to multiple protégés. What an odd and marvelous thing to realize about one of the twentieth century’s greatest ballerinas – that the most important part of her career may still be ahead of her.
Of course, the companies that were included in the Balanchine Celebration are not the only ones faithfully serving the choreographer’s genius. Abroad, the Bolshoi, the Kirov, and the Paris Opéra Ballet offer worthy renditions, each in its own local accent. Notable in this country are Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, where Francia Russell stages productions that, if overmeticulous, have an admirable purity, and Dance Theatre of Harlem, led by Arthur Mitchell. In a recent two-week engagement at City Center, DTH offered a Four Temperaments staged by Cook and a Serenade staged by Calegari that epitomized the recent revitalization of this company. Subtle, sensitive, magically right in tone – and brilliantly cast – these productions await only continuing advancement in the dancers’ technique to be notable readings. PNB and DTH were unable to participate in the Balanchine Celebration this time round, but I hope – assume, actually – the event will be repeated, perhaps as a biennial. It was an immense popular success, a bracing tonic for those resigned to the NYCB’s lackluster custodianship of the canon, an alluring invitation to new viewers, and an opportunity for veteran Balanchine aficionados to affirm that the beauties they remember are very real.