Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mr. Balanchine's 107th Birthday

On January 22, the New York City Ballet hosted a celebration in honor of the late George Balanchine's birthday with a full day of performances, lectures, and open classes at the glorious State Theatre in Lincoln Center.  This year would have been the founder of NYCB and School of American Ballet's 107th birthday and decades after its inception, one of the most prominent ballet companies in the world still has a lot to celebrate.  If I may just say it, Balanchine is still genius.  Much like Mozart, Renoir, and Prince (trust me on this one), his work was so ahead of its time that it is, has, and always will be timeless.  Of course, my dancer buddy Erin Bomboy (who, incidentally, is a fabulous ballroom teacher and is working on her masters at NYU) was on hand to accompany me to a day of celebration of this ballet virtuoso.

Of course, the celebratory birthday matinee was sold out, so we entered the gilded theatre and smooshed past innumerable older folks to find our seats high in the third balcony.  I looked around and realized that this was, as many theatre folk would call it, a genuine Q-tip matinee.  Meaning, there were more than the usual allotment of white-haired attendees.  Which made me wonder: why?  Without question, ballet (and not just NYCB) is an art that is mainly enjoyed by the over 60 crowd and the under 18 crowd.  What happened/is happening to the me-aged folks?  Don't they like ballet?  They see bands and Broadway and sports?  Why not ballet?  Who knows.  Anyway, we settled in for an interesting conglomeration of brilliant Balanchine ballets.  As with any genius, Mr. B (as most people called him) had his shining apexes of artistry and his not-so-shining choreographically-kind-of uninteresting works.   Our program included a little of both, but the sum of the afternoon's four ballets encompassed the influence, cultural heritage, and scope of Balanchine's works.

The program started with the flurry of long hair and purple chiffon that is Walpurgisnacht.  I, personally, enjoyed the increasingly free-flowing tour jetes of the large group of women (and the lone obligatory male forklift - hey, nobody said the man who coined the phrase, "Ballet is woman" wasn't a little choreographically sexist).  Bomboy wasn't a fan.  I understand that it was a little repetitive, but I didn't mind it - I was successfully lulled into the strings' and dancers' pas de chat-ing trance.  The second piece, in stark contrast to the first, was Duo Concertant.  My kingdom for a horse to take me back in time to sit in on a Stravinsky/Balanchine/Mazzo/Peter Martins jam session.  Genius soup.  Incidentally, I wonder if they knew back then . . .  Anyway, this ballet is the epitome of collaboration.  A male and female dancer, pianist, and violinist share the stage.  The dancers take turns silently listening to the music and dancing alongside their fellow artists.  I was mesmerized.  Much like the infamous "choreographically silent" ending of Balanchine's Firebird, the dancers are still and listen to the music when we, the audience, must also listen.  They don't dance to the music, they ARE the music.  It was enlightening.

During the first intermission, to honor Balanchine's rich Russian heritage, the audience members of the State Theatre were given shots of vodka to toast to Mr. B's memory.  We all received our small cups of liquid and stood awkwardly around.  Eventually, a random Russian patron on the first balcony got everyone's attention, raised a glass, and offered the appropriate sentiment, "Za vashe zdorovye".  We all echoed his Russian "cheers" and took our (I must say, disgusting) shot of straight cheap vodka.  A communion in pointe shoes.  I felt very lucky to be a part of the celebration.

The crown jewel of New York City Ballet's repertory was, by far, my favorite piece of the afternoon.  A ballet that is the most pure form of collaborative artistry that I have ever experienced: The Four Temperaments.  Now, I consider myself to be a pretty fair writer, but I will not venture to even attempt to describe this piece of genius.  If you haven't seen this ballet, you MUST go see it right now.  See it at City Ballet.  See it on video.  See it on Youtube.  Just do not go to the grave without seeing this ballet.  I know, it sounds dramatic.  Maybe I'm a little passionate about ballet, but Four Temperaments is the most intricate melding of music and dance that has ever existed.  Hands down.  It is a half hour of "what are they going to do next"?  It is a cat's cradle of black leotards, pointe shoes, and Hindemith and you should see it before you see the Sistine Chapel (it's cheaper and closer to home!).  The end.

An unfortunate final piece, Cortege Hongrois, was a tribute to Mr. B's Russian heritage, but fell flat after the greatness that preceded it.  Oh well.  Mr. B's ballets are like chocolate.  If they're not all that fabulous, it's still a good situation.  Bad Balanchine, like chocolate, is still good.  Thanks to Bomboy, we stayed after the show for a Q and A with Peter Martins and a few dancers after the show and then watched the advanced level of School of American Ballet's class.  I could write a novel on what I think about both events.  I won't bore you with details, but I will say that oftentimes, ballet dancers should be seen and not heard.  Also, there are a few different ballet techniques and people are very vehement about which technique they prefer or, in some opinions, think is "right".  I am one of those people.  And I have a lot to say about it.  If you ever see me in person, ask me about it.  Otherwise, I would say that the class we watched was very enlightening as to how Mr. Balanchine trained his dancers to perform his ballets.  And his technique was very specific.  And those SAB folks definitely think they're "right".  All's I'm saying about that.

All in all, it was a brilliant full day of ballet.  Just me, Bomboy, the ten-year-old trina bunheads, and the old folks.  So, here's my challenge to you, readers of the blog.  Most of you are over 18 and under 60, so I challenge you all to go to one live performance of dance in 2011.  Like, just dance.  Preferably ballet.  And if you are feeling specific, see something by Mr. Balanchine because he was truly a genius.  Go see a ballet and I'll dare you to not want to go back for more.  Ochyen Harasho.

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