REVIEW: New York City Ballet’s “Black and White”
In many Balanchine works, the first strains of a Stravinsky score serve as musical nitroglycerin: poised in stable tension, dancers suddenly explode into movement well matched to the music’s complexity and precision.
Such was the case Saturday afternoon in New York City Ballet’s “Black and White” program, which continues the company’s seasonal tribute to one of the last century’s most iconic creative partnerships.
Featuring such masterpieces as “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” the program consists of five works whose minimalist sets and costumes only augment their timeless grandeur. Against a solid azure backdrop, dancers stripped down to black-and-white practice clothes perform solos, duets and large ensemble segments that glorify their own instruments as well as every note of the composition.
It is now the music’s turn to reveal something new about the body; as Balanchine said of the composer, “Stravinsky made time…that worked with the small parts of how our bodies are made.”
One of the works, however, stands out for its more introspective and playful nature, offering a more intimate glimpse into the relationship between choreographer and composer. Rather than exploding into action, the two dancers in “Duo Concertant” begin by simply listening as a pianist and violinist play the entire first movement onstage — demonstrating Balanchine’s belief that one must first hear the music before it can be seen in the steps.
If “Duo” exemplifies Balanchine’s philosophy of dance, Megan Fairchild and Chase Finlay’s performance of it showed that the City Ballet dancers of today are still very much at home in their heritage. Periodically pausing to listen with genuine warmth and reverence, they executed a series of allegro passages with technique so effortless that it appeared they were focused solely on revealing the music — he with his grace and gravitas, she with her alacrity and pluck.
Yet as thrilling as it was to see these two young stars on full display, the part of “Duo” that sticks in the memory is the second half, in which the stage blackens and a spotlight illuminates only parts of the dancers: a hand, then an arm, then a head. It is now the music’s turn to reveal something new about the body; as Balanchine said of the composer, “Stravinsky made time…that worked with the small parts of how our bodies are made.”
If “Duo” puts the body’s “small parts” one at a time under a lonely spotlight, “Violin Concerto” puts them feverishly to work, with arms, legs, head and torso all obeying separate commands from music that is notoriously difficult to count (and at times, this showed).
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But even if the dancing in the large ensemble parts didn’t always live up to the music’s extraordinary demands, the two central duets — danced by principals Janie Taylor with Robert Fairchild, and Rebecca Krohn with Sébastian Marcovici — left a haunting impression. Full of deep backbends, off-balance turns, fractured lines and twisted idioms (for example, the second duet ends with the disturbing image of Fairchild lunging cavalierly, with a hand over Taylor’s face as he pulls her into an uncomfortable back arch), they showcase the ability of both choreographer and composer to critique classicism while remaining firmly rooted in it.
In contrast to the sharp angles and dissonance of “Violin Concerto,” “Monumentum Pro Gesualdo” and “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” show the softer, more lyrical side of Stravinsky and Balanchine — and in the willowy Maria Kowroski, they find an interpreter who could have just as easily been their muse.
These 16 women in white are no dying swans. Instead, they are thoroughly modern women who whip their ponytails with an air of defiant independence, even as they gather in complex, wheel-like formations that make them look more like cogs in a machine.
While the eye cannot help but remain fixed on Kowroski in “Monumentum” and “Movements,” the corps leaves the most memorable impression in “Symphony in Three Movements”. Opening the piece in a confrontational diagonal line, these 16 women in white are no dying swans. Instead, they are thoroughly modern women who whip their ponytails with an air of defiant independence, even as they gather in complex, wheel-like formations that make them look more like cogs in a machine.
Featured couples Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht, Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, and Savannah Lowery and Adrian Danchig-Waring turned in powerful, effervescent performances in a work that generally has more spring in its heel than the other pieces in the program (the exception being the melancholy pas de deux in the middle, in which Hyltin surprised with a weighty sensuality not typical of the tiny ballerina).
The last image the audience sees is the women in white back in their diagonal, a vision that is quintessentially Balanchine.
Walking out of the theater, however, I had the strong feeling that what I had seen in the performance was actually the work of the composer — which in turn allowed me to hear the choreographer in a whole new way.