On its first visit to the Kennedy Center in 17 years, the New York City Ballet will celebrate the Balanchine Centennial, with performances of seven Balanchine masterpieces: Apollo, Prodigal Son, Serenade, Concerto Barocco, Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, Symphony in C, and Jewels. Created between 1928 and 1967, they cover the full spectrum of his artistry. "It's great classic Balanchine," says Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins.
Originally a dancer with the New York City Ballet, Martins learned the repertory first-hand from Balanchine, and like other dancers, he developed special relationships with many of the ballets. "Apollo was the first ballet I danced as a lead," recalls Martins, "and I worked on it intensely. Mr. B didn't tell me how to do it; he showed me, down to every nuance. He wanted to make sure I did it with some sense of theater."
Apollo, which Balanchine choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev's glamorous Ballets Russes in Paris, had a particular significance for him. "In its discipline and restraint," Balanchine wrote, "in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could, for the first time, dare not use all my ideas; that I, too, could eliminate. I began to see how I could clarify, by limiting, by reducing what seemed to be myriad possibilities to the one possibility that is the inevitable."
With its Biblical theme, Prodigal Son, also created for the Ballets Russes, brought out another side of Balanchine. Rather than relying on the classical vocabulary, he employed movements from gymnastics and circus performances. Not everyone was pleased. At first, neither Serge Lifar, who played the title role, nor his partner, Felia Doubrovska, took well to the choreography's demanding physicality and eroticism, and the composer of the score, Sergei Prokofiev, hated its expressionism.
But times change. Principal dancer Maria Kowroski loves dancing Prodigal Son. "It was the first ballet that I danced as a lead," she says, "and I still get as nervous as I did then. I've always liked story ballets, and playing the seductress in this is a lot of fun. But it's difficult, too, because if you don't get your positions just right, like when you have to sit on your partner's neck, you can do a lot of damage."
Serenade, choreographed in 1935 to Tchaikovsky's Serenade in C major for String Orchestra, was the first ballet Balanchine created in the United States, and it is one of the most popular with dancers. It is also a great example of his flexibility and ingenuity. When he choreographed it, he didn't have high-caliber dancers, only students from his school's advanced class. The first time he worked on it, 17 girls showed up and he choreographed the opening scene around them; the next evening, he had only nine, and on the third, six.
Each time, Balanchine managed with what was available. When male students began attending classes, he integrated them into the ballet. At one point, as a group of girls rushed from the stage, one of them fell down and cried. He incorporated her fall, and later, when a girl arrived late, he did the same thing. As he prepared the ballet for the stage, he elaborated on some of the original sequences and dropped others, but the fallen girl and the late one remained. It now begins with the dancers standing in diagonal rows, as if in a classroom, with one arm upraised, feet together and toes pointed forward. Then, on a chord, they open their feet to first position.
"The thrill of Serenade depends on the sweetness of the bond between all the young dancers," the critic Edwin Denby wrote. "The dancing and the behavior are as exact as in a strict ballet class. The bond is made by the music, by the hereditary classic steps, and by a collective look the dancers in action have unconsciously‹their American young look. That local look had never before been used as a dramatic effect in classic ballet."
Serenade was the first ballet that principal dancer Jennie Somogyi saw as a young dance student. "As soon as the music started," she says, "I started crying. It took my breath away. Now when I dance it, I feel so free. I'm swept away. I like it so much that I used the music at my wedding."
Somogyi also enjoys Concerto Barocco, one of the first ballets Balanchine created without any discernible plot. "I let the emotion of the music carry me," she says. "It's very intimate. Because there aren't many of us on stage, we're very aware of one another, as we are in Apollo. There's a group vibe." This helps, given the ballet's difficulty. "It has a lot of challenging footwork," Kowroski says. "You need stamina. It's one of those ballets we call 'puffy,' because you can get out of breath."
Martins remembers it for other reasons. "Mr. B liked me to do it," he says, "because I had the ability to be invisible. He told me that the male dancer, who only appears in the second movement, should not announce himself. His role is only to support the ballerina, to make her look like she is floating. She is the object of desire. It doesn't appear to be a difficult role, and many dancers don't like to do it because when they go on stage they want to sweat. It's not labor intensive but it takes great skill."
Of course, all the ballets take great skill. Somogyi says Tschaikovksy Piano Concerto No. 2 is tough for soloists and corps. "There's a lot of jumping and fast footwork," she says. "But Balanchine choreographed in such a way that his ballets always feel comfortable to dance; they make sense to the body."
Balanchine's friendship with the jeweler Claude Arpels inspired the three-part Jewels. "Of course I have always liked jewels," he said then, "after all, I am an Oriental from Georgia in the Caucasus. I like the color of gems, the beauty of stones." The dancers for each section are dressed like jewels: emeralds for the Fauré, rubies for the Stravinsky, and diamonds for the Tchaikovsky. Looking down on the ballet from seats in the balcony, one can see jewel imagery, loops, pendants, and strands.
Although Balanchine would not ascribe meaning to the ballet, he did say that he hoped to evoke the elegance, comfort, dress, and perfume of France in "Emeralds," and many see the vitality of the American spirit in "Rubies." "Diamonds" conjures up images of St. Petersburg, Russia, and the works by the great 19th-century choreographer, Marius Petipa. Like Apollo, it was a ballet Martins loved to dance. "I did 'Diamonds' so many times and for so long with Suzanne Farrell," he says, "that we stopped rehearsing it. Mr. B would say, 'Just do it, dears.' And we did, and it came off better." But to him, "Emeralds" is the most sublime section. "It's understated," Martins says, "but one of the greatest ballets."
Principal dancer Charles Askegard also relishes dancing "Diamonds." "The pas de deux," he says, "is one of the most emotional and poetic that I dance. The role is deceptive. It requires a lot of finesse. You have to avoid any kind of melodrama." Symphony in C is another Askegard favorite. "The second movement is really gorgeous," he says. "I like playing cavalier roles. And the finale brings out the guys' competitiveness. We get each other going. We try to outdo each other‹to jump higher, turn better. To do that little extra. It's all good-natured fun." Kowroski is passionate about it. "Dancing the second movement is like dying and going to heaven," she says. "That music. You can't put it into words. I forget I'm onstage and completely give myself over to the experience of dancing."
Valerie Gladstone is a frequent contributor to Playbill.