Matthew Paluch sees the New York City Ballet in Masters at Work: Balanchine & Robbins II
The second Spring Season programme, Masters at Work: Balanchine & Robbins II was a longer bill than All Balanchine, with both familiar and new works (for me).
George Balanchine's Square Dance opened the bill, and I'm always a very happy bunhead when basking in its originality. The 1957 work feels as fresh as ever, and the Vivaldi and Corelli score is, of course, timeless. The corps always seem to be having a blast when they dance this piece, and the principals revel in the challenge of the choreography, technically and atmospherically, from playful group dances with question-and-answer structuring to epic pas de deux. Erica Pereira as the female lead was more than capable, but didn't bring anything, shall we say, monumental (à la Ashley Bouder) to the table, whereas Taylor Stanley has taken the male lead role to another level. The solo, added in 1976, is a perfect vehicle for Stanley's gravitas, where he alludes to the dizzying heights of Apollo in his interpretation, a mix of physical exploration and philosophical stature shown through cool stillness and endless eye projection. I must include a quick mention to all the ladies for the ‘four échappé' phrase executed at the speed of light as we're basically talking dancing verging on the unfathomable.
Next followed Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun (1953), and I'll say it quickly and painlessly… this isn't a favourite of mine. However, the cast – Joseph Gordon and Unity Phelan – were stunning. But stunning at what? Gorgeous for the sake of being gorgeous it seems. I'm not going to do a big historical analysis here as that information is already widely available, and at a much higher level, so I'll just say this: love the set, love the female dancer's entrance and exit (an otherworldly clipped walk sur la pointe), and love the luxe hair element she also brings to the party/studio – a prerequisite in casting, one imagines. But do these aspects create a full piece? A seminal work? The Debussy score perhaps, but elsewhere it mostly feels like an exercise in vanity, and dancers and the ballet world don't need it, as there's already too much of the counterproductive stuff flying around.
Though hold those presses momentarily! As the Sunday matinee cast of Dominika Afanasenkov (debuting, and what a name!) and Christopher Grant, and their even more apparent gorgeousness seemed to bring added, superficial value to the event. Not a deepening necessarily, but rather a new proposition, a more ‘take it for what it is' perspective. This in turn allows one to suppose, why the hell not? Why shouldn't I just sit back, and let this metanarrative sojourn of vacuous beauty wash all over me?
Second new favourite ballet alert [see All Balanchine programme review]: Balanchine's Haieff Divertimento (1947). I don't know any other works that feature Haieff's music… and I'm seriously thinking why not? In Divertimento we get the perfect NYCB style score: jazz inflections, minor key gravitas and (overall) transcendental ambiance. The principal pas de deux is the aforementioned description personified, and also features the female lead executing 18 consecutive frappés. Yes, 18. Who else could get away with that? NO ONE. Balanchine lets the score, the spatial tension of the movement (six sets of three in four-beat phrases, so each third frappé is elongated both physically and dynamically), and the couple's proximity, do all the talking – subsequently, little more is needed than a simple danse d'école movement, repeated for emphasis, steeped in suspense. I'd love to see this work more and more, as you just know it's going to keep on giving – both choreographically and spiritually. Indiana Woodward and Harrison Ball were a very glamorous, empowered lead couple. Ball retires this season at the age of 29 and he'll be missed indeed. A February Instagram post confirmed his reasoning as “a response to physical injuries that disable me from performing my duties as a dancer” – a brutal reality of the career. I read elsewhere he's going into acting and choreography… so we may not have to miss him for too long.
And to the closing work, Balanchine's: Donizetti Variations (1960). What a romp – helped no end by the colossal, heavy on the brass and percussion (or so it feels), score taken from Donizetti's opera Don Sebastien (1843). The work is a mix of virtuosic dance and comedic-level drama. Balanchine created the piece as an antidote to a bill that featured two other ‘on the heavy side' works – and he succeeded, though if anyone was brave enough at NYCB, it could do with an ickle bit of editing here and there.
The corps was super, offering big, generous, energised dancing. And then we had the soubrette couple of ALL soubrette couples: Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley, both total pocket rockets. Fairchild IS a dancer – joy abounds, as does assured confidence and technique. And the way her dancing covers space is a marvel. Huxley is, without doubt, one of my favourite male dancers of the current epoch. He has an allegro style more reminiscent of Copenhagen, but the way he applies it to Balanchine repertoire – understated and suave – is pure heaven. They're both celebrated by the committed audience and rightly so, as what they offer is the highest level of rigorous entertainment on any given night. And the audience additionally celebrates the orchestra, as when given the opportunity to applaud by the conductor, the house tends to go even more berserk than for the dancers! Such education and appreciation are wonderful to witness.
Also important to note is an unscheduled cast change on the Sunday matinee due to injury. Major kudos to Indiana Woodward who danced Haieff Divertimento, had a 20-minute interval, and then led Donizetti Variations. And what a rendition she gave – such ease and exuberance, making it feel like it was actually choreographed on her. She's a stunningly natural (in presentation), and capable dancer.
But back to the audience momentarily, which always tends to be full and mixed – in all possible ways. NYCB is clearly doing something right, as this is the kind of audience other opera houses are currently only dreaming of. So what's the secret? I'd say it's inherent in the city's cultural makeup. New Yorkers that don't go to Lincoln Center are the odd ones out. Whereas when you tell people in London you're going to the theatre, it's often reacted to with a “Ooh, get her!” retort. Disappointing. Furthermore, the current, UK astronomical ticket prices don't help. You can sit in the stalls for $38 at NYCB [at occasional performances] – so it's little wonder the house is full of loyal New Yorkers!
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.