Balanchine's NY City Ballet
There have been countless times that I have seen the opening sequence of George Balanchine's Serenade on screen; being his first original ballet done in the US and one of the most recognized ballet pieces ever, Serenade is considered a turning point in ballet and dance history. Most dancers know the historical background behind this ballet - the piece begins as a stage technique class for the dancers evolving with beautiful, typical Balanchine canon effects of luscious port de bras and intertwining and puzzle-like limbs. Leaps across the floor and beautiful, crisp "Mr. B" arabesques executed by the New York City Ballet company dancers filled the space of the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. But what made this piece the mother of contemporary ballet repertoire is the beautiful way in which the simplicity of the movements create such a dramatic effect, as well as the integration of mishaps that actually happened during the rehearsals with NYCB's founder: I've heard the legendary recount of how a dancer ran in late to a rehearsal, running to her spot during the middle of a run with the ballet master, and Balanchine decided to keep the abrupt and jarring interruption in the final choreography. This was the first time I was seeing the ballet live, and to be honest, it was a little overwhelming for me. I can only compare it to my experience I had in being fascinated with Claude Monet my entire life and then finally seeing his The Water-Lily Pond at The National Gallery in London. I was hit with a mercurial wall of beauty and was floored, literally, at the sight of the painting; I had to sit at the gallery's bench in front of the piece in order to take it all in. Watching the dancers in Serenade float on stage with the highly documented long-tooled skirts, I was overcome with nostalgia and memories of looking through my ballet books as a small child. I could picture Mr. B watching the girls from downstage right, correcting their lines, giving them direction, and magically my memory changed the stage's scene from a cool blue hue to a classic black and white photo. A little known fact, the recognizable opening position of the dancers with right arms outstretched was modified as the atrocities happening during World War II became public. The piece premiered in 1934, and originally Balanchine choreographed the opening sequence with the dancers' hand extended fully. Once Hitler's reign became stronger in the following years, Balanchine changed the outstretched hands to flexed hands so that audiences would not associate his choreography to resemble a salute to the Nazi movement.
Last week marked the opening of NYCB's spring 2012 season, and along with the Balanchine-Tchaikovsky classic Serenade, the more modern Firebird ballet, though short, burst on stage as the concise and lively vignette piece. With Igor Stravinsky's music driving the quirky, staccato choreography, artist Marc Chagall's set designs and his inspired costumes executed by Madame Karinska come together to make a powerhouse of early modernist mediums colliding. To be honest, as I was watching both Balanchine pieces, the technicality of the pieces was a high-caliber, but the emotion and passion was a bit lacking. If Mr. B had been watching his dancers, I don't know what his reaction could have been. I'm sure if these ladies were dancing for the legend, their response to his presence would have had an effect on their performance.
But the Christopher Wheeldon piece, DGV: Danse Á Grande Vitesse, woke up the energy in the entire theater. Wendy Whelan, a NYCB favorite, stole the performance with her stage presence and her physical athleticism. Multiple sliding maneuvers and full body lifts sans arms for both parties, this outer-space-future-alien-metallic-frozen-in-time piece put the rest of the evening to shame, reminding me that watching the New York City Ballet does not mean I have to just watch a demonstration of beautiful technique. There is emotion in ballet, and I do hope to see that emotion come out stronger as the season continues, if not for me but for the memory of Balanchine himself.
THE BARE FEET™ FIVE: 1. Spring 2012 Season: The New York City Ballet season continues with more ballets from Balanchine, his choreographing partner Jerome Robbins, and much more! For tickets and information, go to NYCBallet.com. 2. Ballet classes: The School of American Ballet was also founded by Balanchine and fosters his technique to students of all ages in preparation for a professional career in ballet. For more information on classes, go to SAB.org. 3. Dancing for Mr. B: Can't get enough Balanchine? Dancing for Mr. B, a documentary of six of Balanchine's dancers and their life as his ballerinas, is a must-see for any ballet fanatic. Available on Netflix! 4. Ballet for Beginners: Never taken a ballet class before but inspired by Balanchine and his dancers? The Ailey Extension offers a variety of ballet classes in all levels for adults and children. For more information, go to AlvinAiley.org. 5. Ballet in the Movies: First Position, a critically acclaimed documentary, follows the journey of six young dancers competing in the most prestigious youth ballet competitions - in theaters now!