Balanchine’s Black and White at New York City Ballet

A few weeks ago I went to see a performance by the New York City Ballet of some pieces by Balanchine. I’ve been to NYCB before, but seeing Balanchine was a first for me. Of course I recognize the name (and not just from the fact that it’s attached to 66th St., at least on the West Side). A friend recommended this program as she thought it would appeal to me (and it did).1

There were two questions or themes that came up for me as I watched the performance: originally the works were presented alongside some pieces by Martha Graham,2 and it was suggestive to compare the pieces’ reception then to what it might be now, if we could see the ballets with fresh eyes. The second major theme was the music. Some music is written to accompany dance, and some is meant to stand alone (just as some dance is written, if that’s the right word, to accompany music and some is written to stand alone). A part of the program was set to Bach, who seems to me an odd choice to accompany ballet; his music already seems very full, and accompanying him would present a number of problems. But real art loves a challenge, and Balanchine answers the question beautifully.

As mentioned above, the program was composed of pieces originally staged in 1959, at an event that brought together Balanchine and Martha Graham. For her part of the program, Graham choreographed the struggle between Elizabeth the First and Mary Queen of Scots, using the conceit of a tennis match between the two rival monarchs. Apparently the costumes were sumptuous (and hard to dance in), and the story was non-linear, though it did imply Mary’s ultimate fate by showing one of her dresses empty on the stage as the piece ended. While the piece was received well, the Balanchine sections got more attention at the time; the dance community thought they were more forward looking, while Graham’s didn’t advance the art.3 Alas at this performance we only got to see the Balanchine sections (known as black and white because of the costumes that are usually worn with while performing it), and I had to imagine two ballerinas dancing tennis with one another on stage.

I imagine that one reason that GB’s contribution got so much attention was the music. The first selection was set to selections by Anton von Webern, a thoroughly Modern composer.4 And boy, was modern: not quite aleatoric but jagged and unfamiliar as a haunted house.5,6 The dancers moved in pairs and brought to mind geometric figures,7 in a way that was interesting but not emotionally powerful; I had the sensation that I was observing an intricate, abstract clock.

The first set took an unexpected but interesting turn when the music switched from Webern and GB’s geometric accompaniment to Bach, whose work is often described as having mathematical beauty,8 and it does seem to come from some cold, celestial realm.9 The “Musical Offering” was an odd companion for music so intentionally unfamiliar as Webern’s, though of course it may have been his intent to show Bach in a different light; if this was indeed GB’s intent I I don’t think he succeeded, at least not in the first set.

After the first intermission we returned for the Concerto Barocco, a ballet set to Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor. In the concerto Barocco, two dancers (here Maria Kowroski and Sara Mearns) represented the two violins of Bach’s music, and the connection was perfectly, beautifully clear.10 As I watched the ballet unfold, I couldn’t help but get away from the beautiful mathematics of the music. The motion on the stage, the choreographers and the dancers, drew out some of the motion emotion that was in the music; they gave it more depth and wrested it from the cold.11 Perhaps that is why it was more successful than the sections set to Webern—it tugged against my preëxisting idea of the music and that gave it more tension. The Webern, by contrast, felt like more of a direct expression of the composer’s intent.

The last of the three sets was “The Four temperaments,” with music by Paul Hindemith. Here the four temperaments refer to the temperaments defined by Hippocrates of Greece: Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, and Choleric. The choreography was abstract here as well, and were it not for the program guide I may have had trouble deciding which dance represented which temperament. Nevertheless, that itself is a suggestive idea, as I felt the dance was no worse off for it—in fact it was better for the fact that GB was using the temperaments as a jumping off point rather than a constraint.

During the intermissions my friend paraphrased some interesting quotes from Stravinsky about GB; apparently he said something to the effect that he, as a composer, was an architect: he designed the overall space, and it was the choreographer who would fill that space. GB carried the artistic work a little further on toward the audience and so helped complete it.

All that being said, I felt that the first and third sets, Webern and and Hindemith, were less exciting to watch than the others; they were full of interesting ideas that were well executed (by Balanchine and by the current corps), but they lacked the vital, entrancing spark of the Concerto Barocco. All it all it reminded me of a quote from Picasso. Someone presented him with several possible forgeries of his works and asked the artist to verify if they were his work. Picasso said they were both fake. The friend, presumably hoping the trap the artist, reported that he’d seen Picasso himself paint one of the works. Picasso replied, “I can paint fake Picassos as well as anyone!”12

1 She also pointed out that choosing the right program for someone is of vital importance; the wrong piece could sour an outsider on a particular composer/genre/or era. Going to see ballet (or any art) performed live risks the same effect, likely because the perceived cost is higher than, say, going to a movie or buying a book, and so we want to stick with what we know. I’m lucky enough to have a few friends involved in ballet, and think that there’s a gap between the practitioners/scenesters and a potential audience that isn’t being crossed. As to why this is so, I’m not sure; it might be the new media, it might be cultural changes that have been going on for more years than the internet, or it could be something else entirely.

2 Martha Graham is one of the other Big Names of dance in the latter half of the 20th century. The third is Merce Cunningham.

3 My friend noted that this is a little ironic in retrospect, as certain of the works contributed by Balanchine are dated; she wondered whether a production of the dances by Graham would have something more to offer a current audience.

4 If you’re curious about Webern, here is a link to “Five Pieces,” Op. 10, one of the selections from the first part of the performance.

5 AMB just wrote me an email in which he observed the following: “The disconnect between reading about all of a composer’s intricate, infinitely complex theories on art and composition while listening to the work in question—which may well sound like a chorus of farting or an orchestra having a mass seizure—is frequently kind of funny.” I should note that he is reading about these theories in New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise.

6 At one point, during “Five Pieces,” dancer Ask la Cour1 flipped his counterpart Teresa Reichlen and held her such that her legs were splayed in the air on either side of his shoulders like horns while her head dangled between his knees. The effect was unsettling, like seeing a chimera for the first time,2 and I interpreted it to mean that people are not meant to be truly unified with some Platonic lover, no matter what they may want. As it turned out, Balanchine wanted the audience to laugh.3 If nothing else it underscores the connection between horror and comedy.

1 A perfectly Joycean name, and far my favorite name from the program.

2 I recall a radio interview with Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, in which he said that, if you ask a young child to draw a monster, the first thing they often do is show a human who’s appendages or features are in the wrong place.

3 If the crowd at New York City Ballet did in fact find the move funny, they didn’t make their merriment known; this might indicate something about how NYCB is received in the current age.

7 Apparently I wasn’t the first person to describe them this way; if even someone as untrained as I can see what GB was going for, these ballets were clearly not very nuanced; in fact, my friend informed me that GB himself regarded them as immature works.

8 I am just now perhaps beginning to appreciate this description; the first time I heard it I was listening to someone describe an LSD experience while I partook of a two dollar bottle of wine from Trader Joe’s Portland. If memory faithfully serves (and, given the circumstances I’m describing, I have every reason to think it doesn’t), the bottle was from a winery called Caravaggio and featured a portrait of a haggard artistic type looking unsteadily from the label, a look that I sported when I looked in the mirror the morning afterward.

9 Geometry and math were so close as to be practically synonymous for many years; it tickles me that the geometric parts of the ballet were so, so different from the mathematical parts of the ballets.

10 You can also watch dancer Francia Russell talk about the ballet here; she says that Balanchine attains a “complete marriage of movement and music,” which is an easy enough compliment to grasp, but which I found notable. In cinema directors try very much to avoid synchronizing the music with the action on screen; if they become too close it’s called “cartooning,” as it is a technique often used in cartoons or in vaudeville and other low theater. My explanation for this is that cartooning calls attention to the artificial nature of the cinematic experience; a movie must keep its spell intact in order to work. Ballet, on the other hand, can openly acknowledge that it is a theatrical medium without risking our commitment and response to it. It doesn’t need to pretend to be a real experience because its bond with the audience (if it manages to create one) operates on an inherently deeper level than that of cinema. Or something like that.

What really got me going, however, was when I started thinking of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film is famous for using classical music to accompany a procession of celestial images.1 There’s a certain appealing tension between the music and the movie as they compete for your attention, and maybe Kubrick can claim that he’s solved a problem just as big as Balanchine’s.

1 And, if you’ve seen it, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life does much the same, though he is using Brahms I believe. For my part I could help but think of the overture from Das Rheingold while watching Malick’s creation story.

11 Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations do something similar; apparently many jazz musicians consider Gould’s work highly.

12 If you want to see a truly amazing film about forgery, Orson Welles’ F for Fake is in a class all by itself. The trailer might be the perfect intro the Welles’ persona.

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