Guest author Jonathan Gray sees New York City Ballet’s Episodes and Vienna Waltzes in New York.
|Title||All Balanchine II – Episodes / Vienna Waltzes|
|Company||New York City Ballet|
|Venue||David H Koch Theater, New York|
|Date||5 October 2022|
Returning to the David H Koch Theater for a four-week season from 20 September, New York City Ballet (NYCB) offered audiences a wide selection of ballets by George Balanchine for its regular Fall season, as well as revivals of works by Jerome Robbins, Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky. A number of the Balanchine pieces had been seen earlier in the year during NYCB’s Stravinsky Festival, so the real curiosity of the season – for this writer at least – was the double bill, titled All Balanchine II, that consisted of Episodes and Vienna Waltzes. The ballets were completely new to me.
Paired, presumably, because the music for both works originated from composers associated with the Austrian capital – Anton von Webern, Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár and Richard Strauss – Episodes and Vienna Waltzes proved strange bedfellows, with the choreography as unalike as could be, the former displaying Balanchine in his most abstract style, and the latter more akin to dances from a Broadway musical, complete with sets by Rouben Ter-Arutunian and costumes by Karinska. It was a short programme, but one that allowed lots of dancers to appear on stage.
Episodes was originally made as a homage to Webern in 1959 in collaboration with Martha Graham, who contributed a section performed by herself and her company, as well as some NYCB dancers, based around the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. That part of the ballet has long-since disappeared from NYCB’s repertoire, as has the solo Balanchine created on Paul Taylor, then a member of Graham’s company, which is a shame, so all that remains now are the four sections Balanchine choreographed on his own dancers. Dressed in simple leotards and tights, the ballet is in a style similar to the earlier Agon; however, where that work is a choreographic visualisation of Stravinsky’s spiky music, Episodes seems less angular but even more spartan, a distillation of classical dancing to Webern’s 12-tone serialism. The music can be hard work for some listeners, but everyone in the audience is rewarded by Balanchine’s outstanding choreography.
In the first section, danced to Webern’s Symphony, Megan LeCrone, the principal female dancer, is supported by Andrew Veyette and a small ensemble of three couples. Partnering LeCrone in an attitude with a bent supporting knee, Veyette sometimes holds her by her wrists, or turns her upside down in a lift as she crosses her feet in the air. The dancers point their feet or flex them at the ankle, yet the outline of the dancing is clean, pristine, immaculate. In the following spot-lit duet to Five Pieces, Emily Kikta and Preston Chamblee at first edge along the floor on tiptoe like tight-rope walkers before dancing around each other. Later, in a striking moment during their pas de deux, Chamblee suddenly and dramatically lifts Kikta over his shoulders.
Unity Phelan and Harrison Ball led the third section, danced to Concerto, in which they were joined by four female soloists. The women plié on pointe in second position, and in a duet Phelan almost struggles to free herself out of Ball’s arms, her legs flaring out as he lifts her. He courteously offers her his hand before she wraps herself around his body, and he then positions her into strange and unexpected poses. In the final section, to Ricercata in six voices from Bach’s “Musical Offering”, Sara Mearns, along with Adrian Danchig-Waring and an ensemble of 14 women, dance in formal, courtly, rounded movements, with Mearns bringing an almost voluptuous, curvaceous quality to the choreography. She, and the entire cast, contributed tremendously to a ballet that demands precision and clear, strong execution; Episodes is a metaphorical cleansing of the balletic palette – something absolutely essential before the literal excessive helping of full-fat whipped cream that followed after the interval.
First performed in 1977, Vienna Waltzes is Balanchine in full-on show-biz mode, schmaltzy, kitsch, and nostalgic, it harks back to a world that never really existed, and if it did, it was one that would surely have been more stylishly dressed than the unflattering costumes Karinska provides for the ballet. (It remains a mystery to me why Karinska is so highly regarded as a costume designer at NYCB; the cut of her bodices, in particular, manage to make even the slimmest dancer appear thick-set.) The ballet opens with Johann Strauss II’s Tales of the Vienna Woods waltz, in a bosky setting by Ter-Arutunian that sees the dancers waltzing amidst the trees. Led by Ashley Laracey in a full-length pink ballgown and Peter Walker in formal court dress uniform (not something I imagine a courtier would actually wear in a forest), the cast move in circular formations, the women, in heeled shoes, turning within the arms of the men as they rotate around the stage.
Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley, dressed in conventional ballet costumes, then appeared as the central couple in Voices of Spring, their virtuoso choreography showing Balanchine at his most formulaic, and certainly without the insouciance and lightness of touch that Frederick Ashton brought to the same music (and which, coincidentally, he created in the same year for a production of The Royal Opera’s Die Fledermaus). This was followed by Strauss’ Explosions-Polka, headed by Georgina Pazcoguin and Sebastian Villarini-Velez, an almost vaudeville-style comedy number with the men dressed hideously by Karinska as 18th-century “Incroyables”. The dance looked frantic and clumsy, and was messily danced.
A change of scene, now to an Art Nouveau-style café with mirrors at the rear, saw Mira Nadon, dressed all in black like The Merry Widow’s Hanna Glawari, enter mysteriously and capture the attention of Andrew Veyette. He partners her in Lehár’s Gold and Silver waltz, she making deep backbends as the other dancers look on.
The final section – and by far the best – is performed to the suite of waltzes from Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier. Here, Ter-Arutunian’s setting comes into its own, the mirrored ballroom and star-burst chandeliers evoking a true sense of old-world glamour. Couples cross the stage in evening dress and heeled shoes, and then a lone woman, Unity Phelan in the role originally created on Suzanne Farrell, elegantly gestures and extends her arms as if dancing with an invisible partner. That partner eventually takes the form of Tyler Angle and they circle around the ballroom as if in a romantic tryst until they are joined by the entire cast, all identically dressed, their waltzing black and white figures reflected into infinity in the mirrors. It’s a splendid ending to a less than splendid ballet that is thin on distinctive, stimulating choreography. The performers, on the whole, were elegant, but looked as if they were in need of a few lessons in ballroom etiquette. Still, many in the audience appreciated the spectacle, so much so that the theatre ushers had to remind them that the taking photographs or videos with their mobile phones was not allowed. The New York City Ballet Orchestra was conducted with alacrity by Clothilde Otranto, although a little more musical precision would not have come amiss.
New York City Ballet’s Fall Season ends on October 16. Click here to book
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.