New York City Ballet’s greatest strengths are the size and richness of its repertory, and for that it has George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, its two founding choreographers, to thank. For years, the two men worked side by side in the same office at City Ballet’s home theater and they deeply respected each other’s work, but their approaches to ballet are unmistakably distinct.
Balanchine was most famous for his abstract, plotless ballets performed with minimal sets and simple costumes (even though he also produced a few important narrative works). Robbins, who earned greater fame by directing and choreographing a number of iconic Broadway musicals, is best known for his theatricality. Balanchine often presents his dancers as people, while Robbins fashions them into characters.
To explore these and other differences, New York City Ballet presented one of its free on-stage demonstrations on Saturday, May 5. These demonstration events, full of anecdotes about bygone eras, are always a thrill for the company’s biggest fans, and this one was no different. Peter Martins, New York City Ballet’s ballet master in chief, was joined by former City Ballet dancer Kyra Nichols, one of the company’s most beloved ballerinas, for an hour of discussion and excerpts performed by company dancers. And there were ample opportunities to see what made Robbins and Balanchine unique artists in the first two weeks of the company’s spring season, particularly at that Saturday’s all-Robbins matinee and all-Balanchine evening performance.
The most valuable point that Martins and Nichols made was about these choreographers’ use of music. Without saying it outright, Nichols suggested that Balanchine responded directly to a score when laying out a ballet, while Robbins started with his emotional response to the music.
After watching Robbins’ ballet In G Major, however, I wondered whether Robbins also sometimes forced a score on a predetermined theatrical scenario. The 1975 ballet’s score is Ravel’s jazzy, Gershwin-inflected Concerto in G Major, which lends itself easily to the atmosphere Robbins attempts to create: a sunny holiday on the French Riviera. What it doesn’t always lend itself to is choreography. Rhythms overlap, change abruptly, or fall apart entirely, and during these passages Robbins seems almost confused. Dancers soldier through the steps, but such transitions can be disorienting. He succeeds brilliantly in the third movement, when a series of trios burst into canon, but most of the ballet feels too beholden to the music or too apart from it.
Ravel’s score slows — and becomes far more adaptable to dance — in the second movement, which Robbins uses to create a poignant pas de deux. The tenderness and the sad, romantic strains of the music perfectly complement the duet, which finds the ballerina alternately pulling away from her partner and surrendering to him completely. (At the Saturday matinee, Maria Kowroski danced the female lead. In the first movement, she passed through a half-dozen partners aloofly, as if she doesn’t notice them, making the fragility she showed in her duet with Tyler Angle all the more heartbreaking.)
In The Cage, an early Robbins ballet about a tribe of insect-like women who ritualistically kill men who wander into their realm, the music can be similarly problematic. The ballet is entertaining enough, and the Saturday matinee performance proved that it could be an excellent vehicle for Teresa Reichlen, whose cool style and long legs make her a perfect fit for the role of the merciless queen. Yet there’s a noticeable discrepancy between the score, Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra, and Robbins’ dramatically charged plot. There are ominous chords in the Stravinsky, but Robbins exaggerates any horror to be found in them. (There is also ample evidence in Robert Garis’ illuminating 1995 book Following Balanchine that Stravinsky objected to the score being used in this context.)
Balanchine, on the other hand, approached his scores almost scientifically, which also Nichols pointed out in her comments during the demonstration. All of Balanchine’s ballets are highly musical creations, but none makes me personally see the music more than his Concerto Barocco, which he created in just a few weeks for American Ballet Caravan’s 1941 tour of South America, and which we saw later in the day that Saturday. The ballet’s steps, particularly in the first and third movements, are tied heavily to its score, Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, but this doesn’t prevent Balanchine from injecting it with his own touches of imagination, as several recent performances by New York City Ballet showed. A friend intelligently remarked on how well Balanchine uses space in Barocco. Familiar steps for the corps de ballet recur in different patterns (squares, crosses, diagonal lines), and the direction these formations face changes constantly.
Interestingly, the company programmed these performances of Barocco with Kammermusik No. 2, a late Balanchine work set to Hindemith’s score of the same name. The two ballets share a number of similarities: Both use canon heavily and have a corps of eight and two ballerinas. (Kammermusik, however, adds two partners for the women.) Yet it’s far easier to notice why this work is unique. The corps in Kammermusik is composed entirely of men — a highly irregular choice on Balanchine’s part — and many of its steps are far from classical. The women’s spins are wild; feet, when kicked, are often unpointed.
Kammermusik responds its score intelligently and its angular steps have a coherent formal logic, but I don’t find it particularly enjoyable to watch. One senses that witnessing Teresa Reichlen and Sara Mearns perform the ballet with a strong corps, as they did on the opening night of New York City Ballet’s spring season, is to see the work clearly, but in many ways Kammermusik resembles a machine: perpetual, relentless, something less than human. Nevertheless, the company deserves praise for reviving this controversial work. It shows a different side of Balanchine’s musicality, and his willingness to experiment with his own standards.
Another fascinating point that Martins and Nichols made about the Balanchine and Robbins styles concerned differences in partnering. In Robbins’ dances, the woman generally depends heavily on her partner. “With Mr. B’s ballets,” Martins said, “the woman does the work and the boy comes in to stop her.”
Examples of Balanchine’s approach abound in his Tschaikovsky Pas De Deux, a demanding, eight-minute duet made in 1960 on Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow. Nearly all of the impressive steps in the opening adagio fall to the woman; her cavalier holds her to protect her from the effects of gravity. During the on-stage demonstration, Gonzalo Garcia and Ana Sophia Scheller performed a passage that has the cavalier support his partner mid-way through a series of pirouettes. Martins gently scolded Garcia, repeating, “Don’t touch,” as he reached for Scheller too early. It made one realize how risky this style of partnering can be. At the evening performance following the demonstration, Garcia seemed nervous about letting Scheller spin alone for so long, and reverted slightly to his old ways.
Then compare the Balanchine partnering of Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux to the Robbins partnering of in In the Night, which opened the matinee on Saturday. The work opens with three pas de deux, all varied in character. In the first pas de deux at the excellently danced Saturday matinee performance, Robert Fairchild held Sterling Hyltin’s arms while she shifted her weight to the side and balanced on point. The second duet found Andrew Veyette holding Maria Kowroski (replacing Sara Mearns) upside-down. The women’s dependence on their partners here is clearly romantically charged.
In the Night contains another memorable moment that one can’t fathom finding in the Balanchine oeuvre: In the third duet, a tumultuous game of cat-and-mouse between Wendy Whelan and Sebastien Markovici, Whelan gently touched her partner’s body and fell at his feet in complete submission, perhaps to apologize for her earlier ambivalence. It brought to light another critical difference. Robbins presented women — and men — as vulnerable and humanized. To Balanchine, who famously put ballerinas on a pedestal in his ballets, woman was much more. She was powerful, independent, transcendent.