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January 10, 2004

TT: Both ends of the telescope

New York City Ballet is celebrating the centennial of the birth of George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, with two full seasons' worth of Balanchine-heavy programs. I'm in the process of writing a brief life of Balanchine for Harcourt, so I expect to be going to NYCB two or three times a week throughout the next couple of months. I just returned from my first performance of the winter season, an all-Balanchine triple bill of Prodigal Son, Serenade, and Scotch Symphony, two masterpieces and a lesser but nonetheless delightful effort. I brought with me a jazz musician who'd never seen any of Balanchine's choreography, and was eager to find out what she'd been missing.

Most serious balletgoers (if not all) have felt for some time now that NYCB was in decline, and tonight's performance did little to prove them wrong. I don't need to go into particulars, since Tobi Tobias nailed all the myriad deficiencies of the current staging of Scotch Symphony in a posting on "Seeing Things," her artsjournal.com blog:

I had been looking forward to my favorite Scotch Symphony moment. Two of the kilts lift the Sylphide high--she seems to be standing on air--and toss her, still vertical, into her ardent suitor's arms. "She sails forward as if the air were her natural home," Walter Terry wrote in 1957, "and [her partner] catches her high on his chest as if she were without weight." I recall the exquisitely gentle Diana Adams in that moment. For two unforgettable seconds, she seemed to be not falling but floating--softly, lazily, serenely, swept crosswise by an idle breeze. It didn't happen last night. They didn't even attempt it. I wonder if whoever is setting the ballet even knows that moment existed. Or cares.

I was one year old in 1957, but anyone who's seen the old Bell Telephone Hour video of Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky performing the slow movement of Scotch Symphony in 1959 will know at once that Tobi's detailed recollections of how it was danced 40 years ago are more than rosy-eyed nostalgia. This is one Balanchine ballet that definitely doesn't look the way it used to.

On the other hand, it's also worth reporting that my guest was stunned--the only possible word--by her first encounter with Balanchine's choreography. I gave her a discreet glance at the end of Serenade and saw that she was crying softly. That's just as it should be: Balanchine's greatest ballets are sturdy enough to make their effect even in unfocused, infirm performances. I wouldn't have dreamed of telling her that last night's Serenade, for all its virtues, was far removed from the way that immortal masterpiece looks when lovingly set by a first-string repetiteur on a meticulously rehearsed company. For her, the only thing that matters is that she's just discovered a new world of beauty whose existence she never even suspected. I envy her.

In 1987, I went to Lincoln Center to watch New York City Ballet dance Concerto Barocco, set to Bach's Two-Violin Concerto. I knew the music well, having played one of the solo parts in high school, but except for an isolated Nutcracker seen on a college trip to New York, Barocco (as balletomanes call it) was my first Balanchine ballet. Indeed, I hadn't seen very many ballets of any kind, nor was I much impressed with the ones I had seen. So far as I could tell, ballet consisted for the most part of thin women in white skirts pretending to be birds, fluttering through elaborately costumed pantomime shows whose quaint plots were too silly to take seriously. I knew next to nothing about George Balanchine, but I'd just seen a TV documentary about him which led me to believe that his dances were different, so I decided to give Barocco a try, in much the same spirit of adventure that might have led another person to go to the Museum of Modern Art, or to a jazz club.

At four minutes past eight, the house lights dimmed, the curtain flew up, and I saw eight young women standing before a sky-blue blackdrop. The scrappy little band in the pit snapped to attention, the conductor gave the downbeat, and the women started to move, now in time with the driving beat, now cutting sharply against its grain. As the solo violinists made their separate entrances, two more women came running out from the wings and began to dance at center stage. Their steps were crisp, exact, almost jazzy. For a moment I was confused. The stage was completely bare, and the dancers' simple, unadorned costumes offered no clue as to who they were or what they were doing. Had I failed to grasp something crucial? What was the story? Then it hit me: the music was the story. The dancers were mirroring its complex events, not in a sing-songy, naïvely imitative way but with the utmost sophistication and grace. This was no dumb show, no mere pantomime, but sound made visible, written in the air like fireworks glittering in the night sky. When it was all over, 15 breathless minutes later, the audience broke into friendly but routine applause, seemingly unaware that they had just beheld a miracle. Rooted in my seat, eyes wide with astonishment, I asked myself, Why hasn't anybody ever told me about this?

Seventeen years have come and gone, and I can still tell you exactly how I felt on that never-to-be-forgotten January night. Which is why I persist in taking new friends to see their first Balanchine ballets. Things may not be what they used to be at New York City Ballet, but Barocco and Serenade and Apollo can still make a first-timer shiver and weep, even when the steps are fuzzy around the edges and the orchestra sounds like it forgot to tune up (and boy, did it ever sound awful in Scotch Symphony!). Those of us whose business it is to notice and report what goes wrong on the stage of the New York State Theater should always keep that miraculous fact firmly in mind.

Posted January 10, 2004 12:27 PM

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