Serenade, the first ballet George Balanchine made in America, is different every time I see it. It’s a shape-shifter, not only because its geometry is constantly in flux but also because it combines styles. At one performance, I might focus on its formal qualities: the recurring, breathtaking arrangement of 17 women, its sculptural poses, or the way complex arrangements of dancers manage to pass through each other like phantoms. Another evening, I’m gripped by the hints of narrative in the parts of the three soloists, who evoke love, death, and resurrection in an order that defies conventional chronological storytelling.
During the first two weeks of New York City Ballet’s four-week Tschaikovsky Celebration, yet another side of Serenade revealed itself: the ways it echoes Giselle, the famous, quintessentially Romantic French ballet later reworked by Marius Petipa. It’s likely that many dance fans notice the relationship between the two works immediately, but Balanchine served as my entry point to ballet. Only after seeing dozens of his works did I first see Giselle and other 19th-century classics, whose imprint, as this Tchaikovsky festival shows, can be seen in other Balanchine ballets as well. One doesn’t need to be familiar with story ballets to appreciate Balanchine’s neo-Romantic works, but it certainly makes them richer.
The quotations in Serenade are many. Its corps, for instance, dances the Wilis’ famous sequence of hopping arabesques, and, as a highly observant balletomane pointed out to me, both of the principal men in Balanchine’s work reenact Albrecht’s second-act entrance, adding another layer to an already mysterious ballet. (Are Serenade’s women, in fact, dead?) Other Romantic moments, however, are pure Balanchine, such as the closing tableau, in which the Waltz Girl, lifted by three men and flanked by tiptoeing women on either side, arches her back and spreads her arms as though offering herself to the heavens.
Though the corps are key to appreciating Serenade as a whole, the soloists add their own personalities to the ballet, and must do so without breaking its flow. With Sara Mearns, Ashley Bouder, and Megan LeCrone dancing the soloist parts on January 16, the ballet was the best I’d seen it. Each dancer brought her own distinctive perfume to her role: Mearns a passionate Waltz Girl, Bouder’s Russian Girl smart and daring, and LeCrone a regal Dark Angel. Their interpretations (both Mearns and LeCrone debuted this season) keep this nearly 80-year-old masterpiece fresh.
Balanchine’s one-act Swan Lake (1951) demonstrates another way the choreographer modernized Romanticism: elimination. Although this version is set entirely at the lake and the music derives only from the second and fourth acts of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Balanchine’s version (based primarily on Lev Ivanov’s original 1895 choreography) brilliantly captures the ballet’s essential love story while adding several satisfying dances for the corps.
The most arresting change in this heavily abridged production, ironically, is a sartorial one: The corps wears black tutus instead of the standard white, distancing Odette from her fellow swans. A program note suggests (unconvincingly) that Balanchine had planned it this way, having ordered a staggering amount of black tulle in 1981, but though they were never realized until after his death, the costumes somehow work. As Odette and Siegfried cling to their last moments together and the swan corps swirl around them in a black storm, the dark costumes are a reminder that they are under the spell of Von Rothbart, attempting to separate the lovers.
The quality of the dancing in Balanchine’s Swan Lake has varied. Maria Kowroski, on January 17, made an impression with her elegant line, but her performance lacked drama. A few days later, Mearns brought drama and more. Not only is she musical, but she makes clear her ambivalent feelings for Siegfried. Her dramatic supported penchées are an expression of her vulnerability: She is wild at heart, but she needs him.
“Élégie,” the opening movement of Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, also depicts impossible love. It opens in a dimly lit ballroom. The lone man (Ask Le Cour) gazes into space as if pondering a memory as a line of nine women dressed identically in soft purple tutus, their hair down, emerges from the shadows as though summoned by his thoughts. The woman at the center (Teresa Reichlen) steps forward and with Le Cour dances a tense, intermittent duet. He is often in pursuit. When they do make contact, it’s often their backs that touch.
Reichlen is marvelous in “Élégie.” I admire her most in her steeliest Balanchine roles (Rubies and “Choleric” in The Four Temperaments), but it’s remarkable how she unleashes her powers of expression when the occasion demands. (See also: the first movement of Vienna Waltzes.)
As the spotlight on Reichlen fades, Le Cour searches for her, but the women’s identical costuming renders the ballroom a Romantic house of mirrors. In a moment that brings to mind the Wilis of Giselle (not to mention the swans in Balanchine’s own Swan Lake), the other women form a barrier around Reichlen, keeping her out of reach. (It’s worth noting that this work was the first Balanchine made after Suzanne Farrell, legendary in loose-hair roles, abruptly left the company in 1970.)
Other ballets showcased in the Tschaikovsky Celebration demonstrated a purely classical approach to the composer’s music. Allegro Brillante dazzles with its economy; one can hardly believe there are only 10 dancers. They eat up space with leaps and lifts, and Balanchine often arranges the steps in rippling canons that reverberate like shockwaves. (My favorite of these moments is in the finale, when the four corps women step one by one onto arabesque, pointing toward stage right as the ballerina is carried away.)
The corps in this miniature masterpiece are consistently strong, but on January 17 the spotlight was on Tiler Peck. She handles the technically tricky steps with ease, and her dancing, like the music, plays with contrasts as smoothly as a volume dial. The former jazz dancer once confessed to being terrified by classical roles; now Allegro Brillante is the perfect showcase for her talents.
The scale and grandeur of Balanchine’s 1941 Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (formerly known as Ballet Imperial) can be overwhelming, at least to the first-time viewer. The mood is courtly, evoking Petipa’s Imperial style, but its most memorable moments have no precedent. In the second movement, the cavalier (Tyler Angle) gently whips chains of five women into waves. He spies his ballerina though a tunnel formed of two lines of women, which fragments minutes later as she disappears.
Mozartiana, Balanchine’s last complete ballet, is more puzzling. On January 16, Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay made promising debuts despite a few flubs, and Anthony Huxley’s jaunty “Gigue” solo was the high point. Still, the ballet’s sprightly, somber, and spiritual components didn’t coalesce. Mozartiana doesn’t have the immediate impact of a ballet like Serenade, but perhaps, reflecting the experience of its creator, it requires a maturity that only comes with time.