International Festival of Balanchine

In 1948 George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein finally managed to get a fledgling company off the ground. This was of course New York City Ballet. They made their debut at New York City Center, an old theater with weird sight lines and a tiny stage. Nevertheless City Center was their home until 1965, when New York City Ballet made the move to Lincoln Center. It was at City Center that many of Balanchine's most iconic ballets debuted, and to honor that City Center made an International Festival. Five days, eight companies. Spotted in the audience: a who's who of the ballet world.

Festivals like these are useful to take a pulse of how well Balanchine ballets are being preserved thirty five years after his death. Not just at his home company, or some offshoot companies (Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet) but around the world. The Royal, Joffrey, Mariinsky, Paris Opera Ballet, and the like do not dance Balanchine consistently and are not trained in the company style. I saw the first three programs.

Program I: Serenade (Miami City Ballet)/Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Mariinsky)/Tarantella (Royal Ballet)/Symphony in C (NYCB)

Program II: Apollo (Mariinsky)/Concerto Barocco (NYCB)/Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Royal Ballet)/Divertimento #15 (San Francisco Ballet)

Program III: Scotch Symphony (San Francisco Ballet)/Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Mariinsky)/Midsummer's Night Dream Pas de Deux (Paris Opera Ballet)/Four Temperaments (Joffrey Ballet)

Symphony in C, photo @ Andrea Mohin
First things first: the festival demonstrated why the move to a larger theater was necessary. Mr. B said that even when the dancers were dancing on such a tiny stage, he was always designing ballets meant to be danced on a large stage. And indeed, Balanchine "style" is Olympian: faster, higher, stronger. Many of the dancers in the festival seemed visibly constrained by the lack of space. This was painfully apparent in the dizzying finale of Symphony in C (danced by NYCB). Usually this finale is an explosion of joy. But with the dancers in such tight corners their was an uncharacteristic hesitancy to the performance.

In fact, as much as I'd like to say that NYCB showed the rest of the world How It's Done the two performances they gave were not representative of the company at their best. As I mentioned Symphony in C suffered from spacing issues as well as an unusually tense, brittle adagio from Sara Mearns. She took a stumble early in the adagio and never regained her confidence. That famous developpé balance to penchée sequence was shaky. Anthony Huxley and Ashley Bouder probably gave the strongest performances -- both of them flew like cannonballs in the third movement. Concerto Barocco was also very average. Maria Kowroski, Abi Stafford and Russell Janzen gave a careful and correct performance but it didn't take you to a new plane.

Tereshkina and Kim in a grand but not very idiomatic Tchai pas
However despite the aforementioned spacing problems in the larger corps ballets many Balanchine ballets were clearly designed for a smaller space and watching those ballets at City Center was revelatory. Example #1: Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. We got dueling interpretations -- one from the Mariinsky pair of Viktoria Tereshkina and Kimin Kim, the other from Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé of the Royal Ballet. On paper Tereshkina/Kim are the superior dancers: Kim in particular has this magnificent elevation and ballon. His jumps hover in the air and cleave through space like a cheetah. However their very grand, mannered interpretation was all wrong for this 9 minute showstopper. Their habit of stopping for lengthy applause breaks broke the momentum, and Tereshkina ignored many of the smaller steps of this ballet including the gargouillades and the pas de chat that begins the coda solo. Kim's solos were jaw-dropping but his partnering was less impressive -- the final lift into the wings looked labored.

O'Sullivan and Sambé, photo @ Andrea Mohin
On the other hand O'Sullivan and Sambé looked born to dance on the City Center stage. Their more restrained British style was perfect, and the smaller stage brought out details in this warhorse that are missing from NYCB performances I've seen lately. One example: in the female variation the ballerina does a series of backwards traveling arabesques. Tereshkina did about four of them, got to about mid-stage, and stopped. City Ballet dancers like Tiler Peck usually do about seven or eight, travel about three quarters across the stage diagonal, and stop. O'Sullivan did all ten backwards traveling arabesques and crossed the entire diagonal of the stage. It was such an "aha" moment. All of a sudden I could see how Mr. B originally designed this variation to travel across space.

O'Sullivan and Sambé oddly gave the most scrupulous performances of the festival. (I say odd because I don't usually associate Royal Ballet with dancing Balanchine). Their Tarantella was a bit slower than I'm used to seeing but it was cute and all the steps were there and done well. O'Sullivan even did those deep squatting pliés that many non-Balanchine-trained dancers struggle with. Their Tschaikovsky Pas was maybe the finest dancing I saw the entire festival: all the steps were there (both big and small), and so was the spirit, the musicality, the charm. And yes, they did do the big leaping fishdives (something Tereshkina/Kim also eschewed).

Miami City Ballet's Serenade
There were some surprises: you'd think the companies that are associated with dancing a lot of Balanchine in their rep would give very fine performances, right? Well ... not exactly. MCB's Serenade was ... okay. Just okay. It didn't have the moonlit elegance I associate with this ballet, and the Waltz Girl (Simone Messmer), Russian Girl (Jeannette Delgado) and Dark Angel (Emily Bromberg) were individually fine dancers but did not look like part of a mysterious sisterhood. The corps was also ragged and one girl took a tumble.

Even worse was San Francisco Ballet's grim Divertimento #15. The men (Benjamin Freemantle, Angelo Greco, and Lonnie Weeks) were fine -- elegant and unassuming cavalier types. The women however were a real let-down. Balanchine designed this ballet on five magnificent Ballerinas (Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Tanaquil LeClercq, and Patricia Wilde). The five San Francisco ballerinas were the definition of forgettable. They didn't do anything particularly wrong, but their was no personality to their dancing. It was like tasting matzo crackers without any sauce. And can none of the women do bourrées? This was painfully apparent in the sublime adagio when ideally all five women glide seamlessly on and offstage. It's not so smooth when their bourrées are so bumpy, awkward, and effortful. Two of the girls also slipped and fell. Balanchine should never be so small-scale.

SFB in Scotch Symphony
However just because their Divertimento #15 was disappointing didn't mean San Francisco Ballet was disappointing. The next night their Scotch Symphony was just lovely -- Mathilde Froustey in the role created for Maria Tallchief had both the grace and the authority, and Joseph Walsh was an elegant partner. The only thing I missed was the huge dives into the arms of Andrei Egelevsky that Maria did in this video. For whatever reason Scotch Symphony is considered minor Balanchine but I don't agree with this assessment. I think it's a joyous celebration of a Scottish wedding, and the fact that the men wear old fashioned kilts is just part of the charm. There must be a slippery spot in the City Center stage because a corps girl took a nasty fall in Scotch Symphony, which made for five falls in three programs.

Comparing sunbursts: the Mariinsky sunburst (bottom right) looks .... weird
An Apollo by the Mariinsky was an odd duck. The trio of muses (Maria Khoreva, Anastasia Nuikina, Daria Ionova) are all recent graduates of the Vaganova Academy and they were lovely.  Not idiomatic but they had enough to offer that their foreign accent didn't bother me that much. They eschewed much of the audience-facing smiling that I have seen in videos of the Mariinsky muses of the past and impressed with their beautiful lines and grace. Maria Khoreva (Terpischore) is already being touted as the Next Big Thing and you can see why -- besides having an arresting face that catches light in all the right ways she dances with a maturity and purpose beyond her years. I saw some snippets of her Terp over the summer and she's already a more authoritative, less smiley muse.  The trio of muses did not have a god that matched their talent. Xander Parish as Apollo looked like a million bucks ... and that was about it. He was repeatedly off the music. In the opening lute solo his arm movements were completely disconnected from the accelerating melody. The "soccer" solo had a real distortion of the choreography as he started with two grand battements so exaggeratedly high that all sense of athleticism was lost. His partnering was also weak. The "swimming" motion in the pas de deux was shaky. And the final sunburst tableau was grotesque -- instead of the three legs being placed like a sundial, the three legs were like a clock. One leg was 12 o'clock, another was 10 o'clock, and the third leg was 9:00? The muses' heads also were pitched so far forward that they peeped out from under Parish's body and thus kind of ruined the image of Apollo as The Sun. I'm going to guess this is a coaching issue?

Christine Rocas and Dylan Gutierrez in Sanguinic. Why is she smiling?
The Joffrey Ballet also gave a performance of Four Temperaments that mixed some excellent dancing (Victoria Jaiani with her long spidery arms and legs as Choleric, Yoshihisa Arai with a flexible back and expressive arms as Melancholic) with some awful dancing (Christine Rocas inexplicably simpering her way through Sanguinic and dancing it as this was the Giselle Act One variation). The company doesn't really have the strength to make the most of the thrilling ending. The army of girls doing their grand battements lacked the tension and menace that are usually present in 4T's, and those iconic split leg lifts looked labored. Still, it was a respectable attempt at a difficult ballet that NYCB itself sometimes gets wrong.

There was no performance that was actually unacceptable except the Paris Opera Ballet's Midsummer's Night Dream Pas de Deux. On paper this seems like a good fit for the POB -- it's one of Balanchine's most classical pieces, and the POB has always prided themselves on their austere if slightly constipated classicism. Uh, not anymore? Because Sae-Eun Park and Hugo Marchand gave the single most graceless, ugly performance of this pas that I've ever seen. This pas's hallmark is the way the cavalier gently glides the female into different arm positions and the pas ends with that famous face forward dive that's an expression of trust. Marchand jerked Park around from position to position as if this were Mayerling, and Park seemed to think she was dancing Agon (the other piece the POB is scheduled to perform). All sharp angles and sudden attack. The constant grimace on her face didn't help. Their was zero lyricism and poetry. It was horrific. (Edit: I have since watched a video of Sae-Eun Park dance this pas de deux with Karl Paquette and it is MUCH better than the performance I saw. So I'm willing to chalk this up to a bad day.)

But Balanchine knew that after his death his ballets would continue to be danced by other companies, and they would change and evolve. That was a price he was willing to pay so his ballets could belong to the whole world. As he said, "I don't have a past. I have a continuous present. The past is part of the present, just as the future is. We exist in time." And so this festival is the continuous present of his ballets, where the excellent, the good, the mediocre, the bizarre, and the just plain awful co-exist all at once.


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