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Crafty Bastards

The New York City Ballet performed at the Kennedy Center Opera House this week showcasing works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon and Peter Martins. NYCB was created as a vehicle for George Balanchine’s movement preference for abstract black and white ballets (so called because of the stark costumes of black/white tights and unitards). Balanchine is considered a pioneer for ushering in ballet from the romantic story ballets into an era where movement was prized for its own sake–and the company he founded reminded us about the beauty in the physicality of ballet.

The evening’s program opened with Balanchine’s Mozartiana from 1981 with music by Tchaikovsky. The ballet is a study of Balanchine at his quintessential–each section showcasing the physicality of the dancers, and a keen surgical understanding and execution of musical phrases. Wendy Whelan, Daniel Ulbricht and Jared Angle danced the lead roles with technical brilliance. Ulbricht dazzled us with his lightning fast feet, and chameleon like ability to be aloft and stretched in one moment only to become a weighted lightning bolt–all angles and grounded the next. Whelan’s sections explore the more subtle phrasings in the music with a very mature understanding. While all the dancers performed with a sharp precision, I would have willingly sacrificed some of it for breath, some softness once in a while or a more expressive torso. Balanchine’s preference for machine like physicality definitely helped ballet move into a new era, but has shorn his company of anything that may allude to its romantic beginnings. His genius in his craft is clearly evident throughout the ballet–almost like a magician drawing attention to the fact that something is about to be pulled out of a hat–coming to a highpoint in the theme and variation section where the musical phrases are explored in myriad ways.

The highlight of the evening, Dances at a Gathering by Jerome Robbins (1969), followed, and oh what a contrast it was! Set to Chopin’s sensitive music, the ballet is lush and rushes through the stage like tumbling leaves on a windy day. The ballet begins with a man walking on as if remembering something and we immediately sense a person as opposed to a dancer on stage. A series of dances follow: solos, duets, trios, group work, most are playful and flirty, but all are so generous where the previous work seems severe at times. Robbins explores the swing in the body, the angles are balanced with flowing curves, the focus is used sparingly and effectively, intriguing lifts come out of nowhere, there is a healthy dose of humor–perhaps even camp, and and who knew running or jumping backwards could look like so much fun? Benjamin Millepied and Adrian Danchig-Waring stood out for their galloping strength tempered with a soft upper body. There is teasing bit in which Maria Kowroski dances the diagonals of the stage with a different man simply walking with her on each diagonal–we wait impatiently for someone to join in with her bubbly dancing. Robbins’ keeps us tantalized and all we get in unison are three simple steps together, just enough to make us dream of the possibility but not satisfying it. When we expect the usual extravagant finale, the piece surprises us with a softer ending, with dancers looking around themselves, remembering and searching for something longingly. Slowly they pair of, but as the curtain drops, they are still searching for the elusive memory of the dance that was.

The evening closed with Balanchine’s Stravinksy Violin Concerto (1972), another black and white ballet. Since music clearly drives Balanchine’s work, Stravinsky’s quirky and intelligent compositions lend a layer of depth to the dance. The two Arias are particularly interesting with Amar Ramasar and Robert Fairchild lingering in your minds long after the piece is over. This was another Balanchine standard with a lot of bravura dancing. But really when it comes down to it, the ballet is simply music visualization like most of his black and white ballets.

The difference between Balanchine and Robbins’ approach seems to be that in Balanchine’s work, I was always, but always, aware of his craft. Whereas in Robbin’s work, the craft is secondary to the art. In Robbins’ ballets, the musical sensitivity and the clever use of the body, space, patterns, and focus are all there, but they are always subservient to something human. Clearly, for Robbins, dance is not about technique but about the art. I never get the sense that there is person behind the dancer in Balanchine’s surgically precise but just as sterile choreography. Purely subjective of course, but there it is.

Daniel Phoenix Singh