Theme and Variations

Classic Arts Features   Theme and Variations
New York City Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center next month.

On October 11, 1948, a new troupe called New York City Ballet gave its first performance at a former Shriner's hall in midtown Manhattan, and changed the history of dance in America. Under the leadership of choreographer George Balanchine and arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, the company unleashed a torrent of creativity that argued for ballet‹long perceived the frivolous stepsister of the performing arts‹as the intellectual and aesthetic peer of music, drama, and literature. And despite its resolute agenda, there was nothing stodgy about the enterprise. The repertoire for that first program can't help but induce a frisson of nostalgic envy in any arts lover: Concerto Barocco, a stunning abstract exercise to Bach, made in 1943 for one of City Ballet's previous incarnations; Orpheus, a poignant new treatment of the Greek myth set to music by avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky; and Symphony in C, a virtuoso showcase of the glories of classical dancing created in 1947 for the Paris Opera Ballet to an early Bizet symphony rediscovered by Balanchine. The century was nearly half over, but New York City Ballet made things feel as if a new era had just begun.

That creative energy, an atmosphere of continuous experimentation within the context of rigorous classical training, continues unabated at New York City Ballet. Revered classics, Balanchine's modernist masterworks, definitive productions of beloved full-length story ballets, and new work‹sometimes as many as ten premieres in a season‹give City Ballet one of the most wide-ranging repertoires around, danced in a swift, clean, distinctively American style. Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, who has run the company since Balanchine's death in 1983, maintains Balanchine's unparalleled oeuvre while seeking out contemporary choreographers and composers committed to creating groundbreaking new works.

New York City Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center March 2-6 with a rich assortment of ballets from the 1940s‹such as Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, a potent totem of mid-century modernism‹right up to 2003. This will be City Ballet's follow-up to its successful appearances last season at the Kennedy Center, which came after a 17-year absence. Washingtonians shouldn't take it personally; the company did virtually no touring for many years, and has only recently begun traveling again. Any visit by New York City Ballet is exciting on its own terms, but seeing the company within the framework of the Kennedy Center's festival, A New America: The 1940s and the Arts, should be fascinating. After all, the company began life in the 1940s, many of Balanchine's great works date from the decade, and dance, even academically correct classical ballet, which aims for a sort of physical timelessness, is inevitably an expression of its time.

Among its three different programs at the Kennedy Center, City Ballet will dance two seminal works from the 1940s that not only proclaimed the sweeping changes Balanchine was ushering in, but set the stage for much of subsequent 20th-century ballet.

Balanchine choreographed Theme and Variations for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) in 1947 to an exciting score by Tchaikovsky, the composer of the story ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty. Here, Balanchine jettisons narrative and character to instead present a dazzling suite of dances in a series of variously swift, delicate, or soaring solos, duets, and group scenes that are inextricably linked to the music. And although the ballet's tutus and tiaras evoke the grand formality of the Russian court in its heyday, there is no story, no historical period. Balanchine cuts to the chase‹to the dancing, pure and simple. Or, more accurately, pure and deliciously complicated.

The Four Temperaments, set to a 1940 score that Balanchine commissioned from composer Paul Hindemith, is inspired by the medieval belief that human beings are made up of four different humors that determine a person's temperament (sanguinic, phlegmatic, etc.). When Ballet Society, one of the Balanchine-Kirstein troupes that preceded New York City Ballet, premiered the work in 1946, the cast wore unwieldy cut-out costumes meant to capture the essence of each characteristic. The elaborate outfits were hard to move in and rather quickly banished, so the dancers performed in practice clothes: leotards and tights. A pragmatic solution to a problem, the pared-down, black-and-white look became iconic. We now take leotard and tights for granted as an acceptable uniform for dancers onstage, but at the time it was a bold innovation, and made possible the presentation of the dancer as dancer.

Other works on the program demonstrate City Ballet's peerless range. Jerome Robbins's I'm Old Fashioned uses Morton Gould's arrangement of Irving Berlin's tender ballad to celebrate the magic of all those films in which Fred Astaire partnered some glamorous siren, usually on some impossibly romantic set. When the cast of young dancers‹the men dapper in tails, the women slinky in flowing gowns‹finally pauses to watch larger-than-life Astaire and Rita Hayworth sweep across the movie screen that towers above the stage, it's a match made in musical heaven. Robbins's Glass Pieces is a sleek, edgy evocation of a composer miles from Irving Berlin‹minimalist Philip Glass‹while Robbins's West Side Story Suite presents the dances from the landmark Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical. Here City Ballet's wonderful dancers get to move, act, and even sing a bit as Tony, Maria, Anita, and the rest.

Two recent works bring us to the present moment. Young British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has made several works for City Ballet, among them the astringent 2001 Polyphonia, a modern ballet for four couples with music by contemporary composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Peter Martins's Thou Swell, from 2003, is something completely different‹a lighthearted romp to the familiar tune with music by Broadway titan Richard Rodgers and witty lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Cutting-edge contemporary experiments, snazzy celebrations of show biz, astonishing mid-century masterworks by Balanchine‹it promises to be a remarkable celebration of the company's musical inspirations and ambitious beginnings.

Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.

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