It is quite a challenge, this opening of the season: a gala performance and three ballets, each with a big cast. But Best of Balanchine, a triple bill of Balanchine ballets, is a resounding success for the Dutch National Ballet. Number III, this programme is called, since there have been earlier editions – DNB has more than twenty works by Mr. B to choose from, or rather, they have performed more than twenty in the past, some of which are sadly performed only rarely these days. It is a beautiful evening, a well-chosen mix of works that showcases not only a very versatile Balanchine, but also a company that is up to the challenge.
The programme starts, of course, with Ballet Imperial (1941), Balanchine’s evocation of the imperial ballet that he witnessed as a young ballet student in Leningrad. Or, to be precise, an evocation of the ballets created by Marius Petipa (and Tchaikovsky; Balanchine used his Piano Concerto Nr. 2 here), and of these, specifically The Sleeping Beauty, with its prince and princess, a fairy (golden here, instead of ‘lilac’) and its court of fairies/attendants. In his new costume design, Francois-Noël Cherpin goes a little over the top with baby pinks and blues for the women, posing a threat to your dental work and making you wonder if Balanchine’s choice of simpler leotards wouldn’t have been the wiser option. Then again, considering the original idea of an ‘ode to Petipa’, historicizing costumes are logical, too.
In the first part, the ensemble is introduced in beautiful, symmetric groupings, while the soloists perform intricate variations. Maia Makhateli and Artur Shesterikov make a lovely couple, with impeccable synchronous timing and phrasing, and Riho Sakamoto is the lightest of fairies. The opening is an avalanche of small steps, hops and jumps that require this lightness, and the ensemble delivers.
In what follows, Makhateli and Shesterikov are a joy to watch in their sweet embraces and the exact placement in their partnering. Equally pretty and very, very Balanchinesque, although probably hard to swallow for harnessed feminists, is Shesterikov steering two lines of dancers (needless to say: female) into pretty lines and curves, like decorative garlands. The finale is a joy, with more complex combinations of fast, small steps, performed with wonderful lightness. How great that these dancers have been instilled, so to speak, with the spirit of Mr. B, thanks to their coach Patricia Neary, one of the last dancers to work with the great ‘ballet master’.
Then: on to Balanchine-the-innovator. Symphony in Three Movements was created for the Stravinsky Festival in 1972, alongside – it’s incredible – the Violin Concerto, Duo Concertant and Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée. In Symphony in Three Movements, set to Stravinsky’s eponymous music, the ensemble wears the simple leotards the choreographer liked so much. They fit perfectly alongside the sporty, sometimes slightly naughty character of the steps which defy the laws of the classical ballet with flexed feet, crooked limbs and jazzy thrusts of the hips. In the first part, Young Gyu Choi and Qian Liu’s answer to the syncopations of the music are ‘everyday’ jumps, feet together, creating strong accents, while the corps de ballet hops around like circus horses, tails swinging.
After the playful and exiting opening, Anna Tsygankova and James Stout perform a marvellous duet. Their partnering offers a surprising richness of forms, such as a high lift of the woman in an embryonic pose, oriental gestures or an intriguing arm routine, in which the dancers, the woman in front, the man behind, hold their arms aloft and alternately spread and fold them, while slowly rising and descending. The finale is a feast that sees the trotting lady horses return in a flurry of playful, sporty energy, topped off with a slowly emerging ‘Mondrian’ tableau.
Who Cares? (1970) is Balanchine’s ode to Broadway’s George Gershwin, and his seemingly phlegmatic response to the marriage of his ultimate muse, Suzanne Farrell, and her subsequent departure from NYCB. It is a bubbly, light-hearted piece, very American, with that ‘je ne sais quoi’ mix of offhand, yet eager virtuosity, slightly ironic and what not.
As most of Balanchine’s ‘Americana’, Who Cares? is best performed by Americans. When danced by other companies, it tends to look slightly tacky. However, coached by Balanchine’s former soloists Maria Calegari and Bart Cook, the Dutch National Ballet dancers deliver a sweeping show, with an Astaire-like male group (Edo Wijnen especially stands out) and the female ensemble with that superior, teasing air of the mannequin. In a languorous duet with the excellent Constantine Allen, Igone de Jongh stretches her never-ending legs to the max. Seemingly giving in to the man, in the end she remains beyond his reach, just like Maia Makhateli turns away her head to avoid a kiss after a more playful duet.
The sequence of Gershwin songs is perhaps a little too long, and the new sets by Paul Gallis (movable, iconic New York buildings) a bit on the heavy side, but danced at high speed (thanks to Het Balletorkest) Who Cares? is a perfect ending to an excellent evening of both ballets and dancers.
Seen: September 13, OperaBallet, Amsterdam