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Guggenheim Museum - Peter P. Lewis Theater
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Works & Process at the Guggenheim - Pacific Northwest Ballet presents and discusses key changes Balanchine made to landmark ballets

by Mindy Aloff
September 10, 2012
Guggenheim Museum - Peter P. Lewis Theater
Works & Process
1071 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10128
212-423-3587

Featured Dance Company:

Pacific Northwest Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet (office)
The Phelps Center
301 Mercer Street
Seattle, WA 98109
206-441-2424
www.pnb.org

Most dance fans know that George Balanchine changed his ballets constantly over time. The New York City Ballet (for efficiency, one presumes), decided, by fiat, upon the choreographer's death, to dance Mr. B's last thoughts on every work in the company's repertory. We now have many of his first thoughts as well, thanks to The Interpreters' Archive project of The George Balanchine Foundation—which films original cast members as they convey to young dancers what Balanchine said to the first-cast principals and what he asked them to do when the dances were being created. Furthermore, Suki Schorer, from the School of American Ballet (sometimes with her SAB colleague Susan Pilarre), has reconstructed Balanchine ballets for the School's annual Workshop in which the choreographer's first thoughts are incorporated. (Schorer has also given many illuminating educational programs on the subject.)

But, although intervening changes made by the choreographer since a work's première have sometimes been quietly folded into these productions, the patient and painstaking identification of exactly what details changed when is only included on the specialized Balanchine Foundation programs, and then only if the coach wishes to include them. And, yet, Balanchine, understandably proprietary about his works, considered those ballets he chose to retain or revive as raw material, to be worked and reworked by him when circumstances (and new casts) required it—rather than as finished products. The mid-lives of his repertory have as much significance to the full identity of his ballets as his last thoughts, certainly—and, in some cases where dramatic changes were made along the way, almost as much significance as first thoughts. During his lifetime, when his ballets were presented as extensions of his mind, his audiences were primarily concerned with the state of his repertory right then. However, nearly 30 years after Balanchine's passing, the more knowledge we have of the changes he effected in all periods enlarges our appreciation of the choreography we see at any given performance and of the choices that stagers and coaches, not to speak of individual dancers, make in preparing to dance them. Furthermore, the next generation of dancers, along with the next generation of audiences, is also hungry to learn much more, despite the high-modernist disdain with which Balanchine went on record to disparage productions prior to the ones he devised for his audiences of the 1970s.

At the second of Pacific Northwest Ballet's two lecture-demonstration evenings in the Works & Process program at the Guggenheim this month, company director Peter Boal, six PNB dancers, and company pianist Christina Siemens presented the first program that I, for one, have ever witnessed in which were discussed key changes Balanchine made to landmark ballets—Apollo, The Four Temperaments, Agon, and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux—over the course of several productions: from huge alterations (such as when, for a Dance in America telecast in the 1970s, Mr. B. definitively rechoreographed the finale of The Four Temperaments, a section of the ballet he had fiddled with for decades) to tiny adjustments (such as an addition of a spectacular grand battement to a phrase of small steps in the "Suzanne Farrell variation" for Apollo's Terpsichore, an addition that dramatically reproportions the phrase; or the very slight expansion of the chest and softly winging port de bras that streams in the dancer's wake, performed, mid-20th century, by the Terpsichore of Diana Adams during a traveling movement in Apollo). Boal, a dancer with NYCB for some 20 years, whose familiarity with the Balanchine repertory—and with the specific, mid-century stagings of former PNB artistic co-director Francia Russell (not only an important dancer for Balanchine but also, for years, one of his ballet mistresses)—convey a mantle of authority, served as the sole moderator of the evening. And, apparently, the chief architect. Sometimes, he called on the same dancer(s) to demonstrate an earlier and a later version of a dance, notably in the Galliard from Agon, for which Russell herself had been one of the original two women. (Stravinsky concluded their dance with a nine-count note, and, although Balanchine originally staged that with subtle understatement, he re-staged it to make each of the nine counts crystal clear to the audience.) At other times, Boal would ask one dancer to perform an earlier version of a dance and a second dancer a later version, and he would then isolate particular revisions in terms of how steps were oriented in space or how the dynamics of movement had been sharpened because of the unique qualities of a later dancer.

We learned the most, it seemed to me, about changes in Apollo over time, and much of what we learned was, to this observer, revelatory. In the title character's first solo—where he has just emerged from the swaddling cloths and is, like a newborn colt, testing his ability to stand, walk, slide, run, and jump—there are stepping moves, where the knee bends sharply, that I'd always thought were related to sports. However, Boal explained that they are abstractions of a biped's efforts to walk. Controlled off-balance maneuvers also have a demi-caractère reference in that solo—again, displaying Apollo's efforts to master his legs. Consequently, Boal pointed out, when Terpsichore, in her solo, performs off-balance phrases, Apollo sees a creature who reminds him of himself, which helps to explain his immediate attraction to her; as Boal explained, in Apollo's second solo, after Terpsichore's, Apollo mimics her off-balance phrases. In the pas de deux for Apollo and Terpsichore, the partnering has changed over the years to accommodate male dancers with more expertise at partnering than the original Apollo, Serge Lifar, enjoyed. And the most memorable lift of the pas de deux, when Terpsichore alights on the kneeling Apollo's back and balances her body on the nape of his neck to give him a "swimming lesson," turns out to have been a later invention. Originally, Boal explained, Apollo's back was almost flat, and Terpsichore's body was as well, like an iron on an ironing board. At one point in his long and celebrated dancing career, Boal worked on an archival project with Maria Tallchief, one of Balanchine's most formidable Terpsichores, and it was from her that he learned there should be no direct gazes between Apollo and Terpsichore; rather, the quality of their relationship is "a feeling of awareness." (Tallchief also emphasized that the positions of the dancers' hands—the vestige of mimetic gesture—must be pronounced. After this demonstration, one understands that embedded in the ballet's high-modernist abstraction is a great deal of character in the theatrical sense.)

Moving from still photographs of historic productions of the ballets (from the collection of Robert Greskovic, who writes on dance for The Wall Street Journal), to live dancing, to explanations ornamented with quotations from dance critics and writers, to sequential or side-by-side comparisons of different versions by live dancers again, Boal and his colleagues offered a treasury of possibilities for each of the masterworks being analyzed. The pièce de résistance was a brilliantly edited film of two historic casts alternating in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, followed, on stage, by the entire work performed by PNB's six dancers, also alternating. The PNB dancers, exquisitely schooled and prepared, gauged their performances beautifully to the Guggenheim's little stage, making it seem a much larger segment of the world of art than it actually is. The dancers were Carla Körbes, Seth Orza, Benjamin Griffiths, Lesley Rausch, Maria Chapman, and Matthew Renko. I loved them all. It was a special treat to see Renko—a dancer of impeccable academic skill with an actor's twist, whom Alastair Macaulay singled out several years ago, after Renko was let go by NYCB and performed in Washington with the Suzanne Farrell ballet. And one luxuriated in the marvel that is Körbes—a lyric Nike of a ballerina, whom Boal had discovered in her native Brazil, when she was 14 years old, and who is still missed by audiences at the New York City Ballet, where she was once on track to inherit the ballerina repertory of Farrell and Maria Calegari. At PNB, she has inherited much of that repertory and more, and she deserves to: She is one of the loveliest ballet dancers of the past fifty years.

According to the Works & Process program, PNB dancers will perform the pas de deux from Carousel (A Dance) by Christopher Wheeldon at New York City Center during Fall for Dance, October 5-6. The full company will return to City Center February 13-16, 2013, with an all-Balanchine program and the evening-length production of Jean-Christophe Maillot's pared-down version of Roméo et Juliette.
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