Vintage Balanchine

VAI has released an absolutely essential DVD for all ballet and dance lovers -- vintage performances of two of Balanchine's most important works, Orpheus and Serenade, danced by Balanchine's legendary "first generation" of New York City Ballet dancers.

These films were made in 1957 (Serenade) and 1960 (Orpheus) but the first thing you notice is how absolutely no caveat needs to be made about when these films were made. The dancers and move in a completely modern manner. When Balanchine was alive there was criticism that he preferred "pinheads" -- tall, thin women with small sleek heads. A cursory view of both films shows that this was a fallacy. Violette Verdy (Eurydice) had a rather womanly figure, and the corps de ballet of Serenade also shows a sea of unexpected curves.


What is absolutely true is that Balanchine demanded a style of dancers and dancing that was ahead of its time. You can see it in the sleek, toned muscles of all the dancers' arms and legs, in their fast footwork, in the effortless leap onto pointe (as opposed to the more old-fashioned rolling onto pointe). Balanchine's choreography also emphasized flexibility of the hips and spine. Balanchine pushed the conventional aesthetics of classical ballet. Nowadays, dancers from the Mariinsky to the Royal Ballet have the 180 degree penchee arabesques and hip flexibility of Balanchine's dancers from over 50 years ago. Balanchine was even ahead of his time in the way he preferred women's hair -- the sleek ballerina buns that contrasted with the more voluminous curls of, say, Margot Fonteyn.

This release comes at an important time because the two ballets highlighted (Serenade and Orpheus) are two of the ballets the current New York City Ballet has trouble casting and presenting, despite its talented, deep roster. Balanchine made some changes to Serenade in his later career that made the ballet more melodramatic. An example is how the hair comes undone for the ladies late in the ballet -- in 1957, this hair business had not been implemented. The NYCB nowadays has a tendency to make Serenade a "story" piece, casting the Waltz Ballerina with dancers known for their dramatic qualities and (I hate to say it, but it is true), the quality of their blond tresses. Janie Taylor and Darci Kistler both were prominent Waltz Ballerinas and both were not very strong technicians but they did have beautiful blond hair. There's also a tendency to give Russian Ballerina to short, allegro technicians like Megan Fairchild or Ashley Bouder, who are dazzlingly quick but also sometimes grin their way through the ballet.

It's therefore refreshing to see Serenade danced as an abstract piece, with the cooly confident Diana Adams leading the sisterhood of women, and an equally remote Patricia Wilde zipping through the Russian Ballerina's part. This is not to say the 1957 film of Serenade has no feeling. But the feeling is sustained by the dancing, and Tchaikovsky's music, rather than outward expression. The mysterious sisterhood operates by its own self-contained society, and we're allowed a peek in, but only a peek. If I can think of a similar ballet, it's Concerto Barocco, which also seems to be a mysterious sisterhood that's at times competitive (the answer/retort of the First and Second Violin ballerinas) and other times tender (the linking of the hands of the 8 women). City Ballet nowadays has no trouble sustaining this kind of aloof but alluring sisterhood mood for Concerto Barocco, but Serenade often disintegrates into mugging. The 1957 video is a useful palliative in showing what this ballet used to be like.

The revelation, however, was Orpheus. Orpheus was obviously inspired by the modern dance craze of the time (it was created in 1948), and everything about it (from the Greek myth storyline to the Noguchi sets and costumes) make the piece seem dated, especially when danced by the City Ballet today. However, when you see the video with its creators Nicholas Magallanes (Orpheus) and Francisco Moncion (The Dark Angel) the piece makes sense. First of all, the two male dancers resemble modern dancers, with their bulkier build and lack of perfect classical turnout. Secondly, they don't look embarrassed performing the piece -- they embrace the stylized modern dance dramaturgy. Violette Verdy is genuinely sexy as Eurydice -- small and curvy, she positively sizzles in her duet with Orpheus. Balanchine's choreography still doesn't seem like what we'd think of as "Balanchine choreography" but you get what the fuss is all about.

As a contrast the BBC recently rebroadcast an abridged Sleeping Beauty that was filmed in 1959 with Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. Whereas the NYCB dancers of the 1950's look like they could go onstage today, the Royal Ballet film hasn't aged well. There are things to admire -- for one, even with all the abridgment it's clear that Dame Ninette de Valois took pains to preserve the mime and notation of Nicholas Sergeyev, Petipa's assistant. You can also see why Margot Fonteyn was a sensation as Aurora -- she's 40 years old, but still radiates serenity and sweetness, and her legendary Rose Adagio balances are awe-inspiring. It's always wonderful to see Antoinette Sibley (as Princess Florine), even if her part is cut to shreds. But the overall dancing seems terribly dated. First of all there's all that simpering in the face and flopping of the arms and hands that led Balanchine to famously sniff that the Brits "dance from their waist up." Then there's the overall primness of the dancing -- the women are seemingly not allowed, or trained, to jump at all, and an arabesque that reaches 90 degrees is even rarer. And the male dancers (including the ever-stolid Michael Somes) have LESS personality than Jacque d'Amboise (Serenade) or Nicholas Magallanes. They're expected to stand and support the ballerina, and not much else.

The Royal Ballet used to tour the United States often and their shows were sold out sensations. Audiences swallowed up their lavishly costumed full-length Petipa classics and later, Kenneth MacMillan's melodramatic three act story ballets. They played on big stages (the Metropolitan Opera) while the NYCB made do on the tiny City Center stage. And Balanchine was firm about his "no-star" system, insisting that the audiences watch the dances, not the dancers. But more than a half century later, it's the Balanchine style that has been adopted by ballet schools the world over. Dancers are expected nowadays to have sleek, taut muscles in the arms and legs, spinal and hip flexibility, and strong pointe work to even be accepted into a major company.

This valuable release shows just how timeless both the Balanchine ballets and his technique remain today.

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