The dancers call them leotard ballets, an apt if understated moniker for George Balanchine's abstract masterpieces in black and white that defined the style and soul of the Company he created. In these inimitable compositions, Balanchine zeroed in on the raw essentials: music and dance: stripping away fancy costumes and scenery along with a host of accepted ideas of what constitutes a ballet.
He began early. In 1928 a 24-year-old Balanchine created Apollon Musagte (today's Apollo), a distillation of the young god and three of his muses danced to a refined score for strings by Igor Stravinsky. The disciplined orchestration inspired Balanchine that he "could dare to not use everything," as he later wrote. Throughout the rest of his career he circled back to this minimalist aesthetic, following a tutu ballet, a suite of waltzes, or a spectacle choreographed to Sousa marches or British hornpipes with a stark new black and white creation.
New York City Ballet audiences are accustomed to seeing black and white ballets punctuate programs of dances by Balanchine and other choreographers. But this spring season offers a binge in the best sense of the word. Kicking off on April 28, NYCB presents 12 Balanchine black and white ballets spanning almost five decades, from Apollo to Le Tombeau de Couperin, danced in 11 performances over 2 weeks. (Eight of these ballets return for the 2015-2016 season.) Aside from the pure pleasure of watching these masterstrokes of precision, complexity, and speed, the programming allows us to observe the evolution and depth of the ultramodern creations that changed the course of ballet.
In The Four Temperaments, the first of Balanchine's most radical ballets, we see the defining elements common to many of the black and white pieces. A plotless expression of the four medieval humors: melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric: the ballet was created in 1946 to a score by Paul Hindemith commissioned by Balanchine. Initially, the choreography's impact was diluted somewhat by the ballet's elaborate sets and costumes. But in 1951 they were replaced with a dark blue backdrop and black and white practice clothes that revealed every angular movement and, as a bonus, gave the dancers an air of mid-century cool.
Agon, choreographed in a close collaboration with Stravinsky in 1957, proved even more extreme. Stravinsky's jagged score, based on a suite of French baroque dances, was atonal. The tension in the plotless ballet is palpable, and intentional, according to NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein, who called the Cold War-era creation "an existential metaphor for tension and anxiety." Balanchine, in turn, famously referred to Agon as his IBM ballet: "precise, like a machine, but a machine that thinks."
Two years later Balanchine would push his avant-garde sensibilities still farther with Episodes, an atonal homage to Anton von Webern so modern he teamed up with Martha Graham and her dancers for its creation.
But Balanchine didn't confine himself to modern music. Beginning in 1941 with the pulsating Concerto Barocco set to Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, he crafted a parallel repertory of pure dance ballets choreographed to classical compositions. Sprightly Square Dance, a baroque- meets-Americana tour de force created in 1957, is performed to music by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi that can sound more like fiddles than violins. And though lyrical, Maurice Ravel's wistful score for Le Tombeau de Couperin (1975) displays a familiar formality and symmetry reflected in the ballet's architecture. None of this music is romantic. "There's no Tschaikovsky in the black and white ballets," observes NYCB Principal Dancer Teresa Reichlen.
In the end, the most persistent inspiration for Balanchine's minimalist aesthetic came from the music of Stravinsky. His compositions shaped 7 of the 12 black and white ballets performed this season, and Balanchine looked to his music almost exclusively for the black and white ballets he created during his later years. He discovered rich, contrasting worlds in the sounds. Monumentum pro Gesualdo, a 1960 ballet just eight minutes long, "is simple, gestural, symmetrical, and reverent; it's like dancing in church," says Reichlen. Movements for Piano and Orchestra, the nine-minute 1963 ballet it's paired with, is its polar opposite, a dance Reichlen calls "weird and irreverent, with lots of flexed feet and turned in positions."
Three ballets created for NYCB's 1972 Stravinsky Festival are also leotard landmarks. In the intimate Duo Concertant, just two dancers share the stage with a pianist, violinist, and a spotlight. The kinetic Symphony in Three Movements is propelled by an unforgettable beginning that unfurls like an ocean wave. And at the heart of Stravinsky Violin Concerto lies one of Balanchine's most complex, introspective pas de deux, marked by the moment the ballerina collapses her knees as her partner clutches them.
For us in the audience, an obvious question is what does it feels like to dance these ground-shifting ballets? Reichlen, who performs seven of them, points out that no two are alike. But what stands out for her is the sense of freedom the ballets offer the dancers. "One reason I love them is because they're pure dance," she says. "There's no story so I'm more free to interpret however I want to within certain parameters. I can make up my own story. There's a lot of potential to give unique interpre- tations of the leotard ballets."
Which is one more reason the black and white ballets remain so compelling, original, and thrilling.