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Mr. B …and the A.B.T.

ABT, Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, Los Angeles, July 11-14, 2013

Apollo

Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

The American Ballet Theatre, based in New York City, mounts an eight-week season of dance performances each spring at Lincoln Center. The balance of the company’s year is largely spent touring the U.S. and the world.  Los Angeles was one of their stop-overs recently—July 11-14, 2013, at the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center. Four of ABT’s five performances featured one of the very first ballets—“Le Corsaire.” This 3-act extravaganza is replete with pirates and slave girls, poisoned roses, Turkish pashas, music by Adolphe Adam, Leo Delibes and three more composers and a ship that sinks in a violent storm. Critic Laura Bleiberg praised the production but in her first sentence called it “the ballet equivalent of the movie matinee adventure tale.  Alas, Thursday night’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion performance featured ABT’s more sedate opening night mixed-bill: Apollo”, “Chamber Symphony” and Symphony in C” with music by, respectively, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Bizet…with nary a pirate in sight.

A few words, first, about the choreographer of “Apollo” and “Symphony in C”, the great George Balanchine. His importance to the world of ballet cannot be overstated; his influence on every major dance company, from the 1920’s until now, has been profound;  his ideas—dancers shown as athletes, bodies used as abstract puzzle pieces—continue to enrich the fine art of ballet. Born in Russia in 1904, he was studying dance, music and acting at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theatre School by age 9, graduating with honors in 1921, he subsequently joined the Maryinsky (later the Kirov) Ballet at 17. Balanchine left Russia in 1924—in the post-Revolution chaos of the newly-formed Soviet Union—and was an immediate sensation all over Europe. Serge Diaghilev saw him perform in London and engaged him for his famous Ballet Russes. Soon, Diaghilev made the 21-year old Balanchine his principal choreographer. In this exalted position, young George worked with Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Satie, as well as the best dancers, designers and artists of the era, creating a dozen ballets (including “Apollo”).

Diaghilev’s death in 1929 brought an end to Ballet Russes, but its greatest stars, especially Balanchine, were in demand on every continent. Diaghilev’s troupe evolved into the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, which engaged Balanchine for 3 or 4 years. He worked elsewhere, in Paris, Copenhagen, at the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden and with the company he later helped form, Les Ballets.  The new venture lasted only a single season (1933) but it allowed Balanchine to become more “modern”, to widen his scope, to work with Brecht and Weill on “The Seven Deadly Sins” and—most importantly—to meet a young man from Boston named Lincoln Kirstein.   This graduate of Harvard and patron of the arts would change Balanchine’s life and have a strong but quiet influence on American culture for years to come.

The next fifteen years of Balanchine’s life and the concurrent birth, disbanding, and re-birth of ballet companies around the world, requires extensive graphing, but the seminal turning point occurred in 1933. “Lincoln Kirstein…harbored a dream: to establish a ballet company in America, filled with American dancers and not dependent on repertory from Europe. This he outlined to Balanchine and how he thought he was essential to it.  Deciding quickly in favor of a new start, Balanchine agreed to come to the United States and arrived in New York in October, 1933. ‘But first, a school,’ he is famously reported to have said. Kirstein was prepared to support the idea and the first product of their collaboration was…the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934…Within a year, Balanchine and Kirstein had created a professional company, the American Ballet.”

That troupe became the resident dance company at the Metropolitan Opera but the association was to last only three years. In 1938, Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Ballet left the Met and went to Hollywood, then South America, then back to the U.S.  World War II brought about a two-year disbanding, during which Balanchine worked all over Europe.  In New York in 1946, the company re-emerged as Ballet Society and high critical praise followed its every offering. The final incarnation came in 1948: the formation of  New York City Ballet. For the next 35 years, in addition to Broadway shows, Hollywood movies, live and eventually taped television performances, Balanchine choreographed virtually all of New York City Ballet’s productions. He was the greatest ballet master in the world and brought his creative, fresh techniques to many ballet companies until his death in 1983.

The remaining question is what happened to the “American Ballet” moniker after Balanchine and Kirstein dropped it? And for that we need to look to Moscow, Russia, December 9, 1880, and the birth of Mikhail Mordkin—twenty-five years before Balanchine took his first step. Mordkin was a gifted dance prodigy who graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet School at 19 and was immediately appointed a ballet master. Within a decade  he was Diaghilev’s premier danseur, later partnered with the great Anna Pavlova in Paris, formed his own company then toured the United States in 1911-1912. He was the director of the Bolshoi in 1917 but departed Russia after the Revolution and ended up in America again in 1924. He founded the Mordkin Ballet and mounted the first full-length “Swan Lake” ever performed in the United States. Alas, his company folded and Mikhail returned to Europe where he taught dance and shared the stage with many outstanding artists. In 1937, he came back to New York for the final time with the re-born “Mordkin Ballet”. Two years later, his leading ballerina and brightest student, Lucia Chase, used her own considerable wealth to support the struggling company. Mordkin, whose early life and career presaged Balanchine’s, was considered “old school”. He’d lost his sheen. The troupe’s name was changed to Ballet Theatre and Chase would guide it for the next four decades. Mordkin was out.  He died in 1944.

Lucia Chase envisioned a company that would feature “a gallery of dance rather than the vision of a single choreographer.” At Rockefeller Center, in its initial season, Ballet Theatre used a variety of dance world stars—some still up-and-coming, some venerable—to create sparkling, new ballets. Antony Tudor came from England and never went home; Bronislava Nijinska was there; Fokine, Dolin, Agnes de Mille. Soon Jerome Robbins and, of course, George Balanchine (Theme and Variations). After a few more fiscal tides, in 1957 the Ballet Theater officially gained it’s current title the “American Ballet Theater.” Twenty-three years later, when Mikhail Baryshnikov took the reins of the company, the array of choreographers was bolder still: Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Mark Morris. From the 1940’s “Fancy Free” and “Pillar of Fire’ onward, first-rate productions brought the best dancers to our attention: Natalia Makarova, Fernando  Bujones, Gelsey Kirkland, Erik Bruhn, Cynthia Gregory.  Later with Julie Kent and  Jose Manuel Carreno, American Ballet Theatre focused on the older classics but created new classics of its own. The ballets are clean and crisp and memorable; the dancers are tall, strong, long-limbed, well-trained.  They embark on world tours.  They are one of the true jewels in the ballet world’s crown. You’ll probably take your kid to see them perform “The Nutcracker” next winter.

Opening ABT’s July 11th performance was “Apollo”, the first ballet Balanchine choreographed to music by Igor Stravinsky, which premiered in 1928 with the Ballet Russe.  It’s hard to believe the score is 85 years old. Stravinsky’s “neoclassical” sound is lovely—fresh, modern chords in a classic structure, befitting this piece based on Greek mythology. Apollo, “the leader of all Muses”, was portrayed powerfully by Marcello Gomes. Balanchine loved patterns of three and, in this scenario, Apollo interacts with three of the nine Muses: Terpsichore (Paloma Herrera), Polyhymna (Devon Teuscher) and Calliope (Melanie Hamrick). Superlative dancing all around, from the pure simplicity of measured movements to a complex four-person “chain” that undulated across the stage. Balanchine called this ballet “the turning point of my life. In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation.  It seemed to tell me that I could dare not use everything, that I, too, could eliminate.”  

Chamber Symphony”, in my opinion, was the wrong ballet to have as the centerpiece between two famous Balanchine offerings. The Shostakovich score, like so many of his compositions, is dark, angst-filled, heavy Russian. This great composer should have escaped Soviet rule when he had the chance, instead of writing conflicted music for most of his life. But it wasn’t the music that seemed out-of-place; it was the choreography of ABT’s “Artist in Residence”, Alexi Ratmansky. Dance critic Lewis Segal said Ratmansky is “best known for slick, empty remakes of solid-gold titles.” He’s right. Although the dancers (James Whiteside, Isabella Boylston, Yuriko Kajiya, Julie Kent and about a dozen of the corps de ballet) were all quite polished, what they were doing just seemed muddled—Balanchine-lite. The lighting was rather muted and literally hanging over all of this gloom was George Tsypin’s backdrop of anguished faces. The company should have left this one back in New York.

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Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Symphony in C” did not feature the 1940 Stravinsky score of the same name; it was written a century earlier, by George Bizet. I couldn’t recall a note of it until the curtain rose and then it was instantly familiar. Any fan of classical music will have heard this delightful work’s four movements. As for the ballet, it was a glorious explosion of Balanchine at his best. Again, his patterns of three kept re-appearing, and then compounding in multiples—groups of nine dancers or 27 or 36. Virtually the entire ABT company—too many even to name the soloists here—filled the stage by the finale. The large stage could have done without the side curtain “wings” to allow even more room for the ensemble. Balanchine choreography can be better studied and enjoyed in smaller packages, no doubt, but this rousing celebration of music and dance was fun to see. And when the stage was full, it was easy to appreciate the relative uniformity of body sizes and the precision of the ABT dancers.

The orchestra, composed of local musicians for this engagement, sounded surprisingly first-rate. Charles Barker conducted the first ballet and the second and third offerings were led by Ormsby Wilkins.

Footnote to ballet history:  almost exactly 40 years ago, as an ex-pat living in London, I treated myself to a perfect seat at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. The evening featured four scores by Stravinsky, two of which were choreographed by Balanchine. My seat was in Row B on the Grand Tier, on the same level and not too far from The Royal Box. (The Queen was not in attendance that night, however.) The sightlines were wonderful and the cost of the ticket was a mere 4 pounds, 45 pence (about $11 U.S. then). It was a thrilling night and featured such brilliant dancers as Anthony Dowell, Georgina Parkinson, David Wall (who died this past June) and Ann Jenner.

Since the ABT was presenting “Apollo” and I had seen the same ballet at Covent Garden, I decided to splurge on a similar seat. My choice was in the Founders Circle at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was comfortable and provided excellent viewing of the performance. Cost of the seat, with a small handling charge, was $113. My old seat at Covent Garden is going for 93 pounds these days, just over $140 U.S.. It may not be cheap to see grand ballet any more, but Balanchine and Stravinsky and the ABT are worth any price.

Comments

  1. Once again, I enjoyed this insightful review by Sean Hughes. That he places it in a historical perspective makes it all the more rewarding to read.

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