Live review | Ballet Chicago | “A Balanchine Celebration”
For most bunheads, “Balanchine celebration” conjures memories of the New York City Ballet’s massive monograph in movement, in the spring of 1993, ten years after adopted American choreographer George Balanchine’s death. Guest artists from the world’s great companies provided NYCB with enough bodies to stage a staggering 73 ballets in eight weeks; many performances given then remain definitive interpretations. (The PBS special, released later on two VHS tapes, is essential viewing.)
Ballet Chicago’s “A Balanchine Celebration,” closing with a 3pm matinée today at the, is a more modest achievement, although similarly cooperative: The 24-member studio company dances three of his best-known pieces with help from seven guests in the leading roles. As in its spring program , this youthfulness suits the work, especially Serenade (1934), originally made for students.
“To truly see Serenade in its letter and its spirit,” wrote Mindy Aloff in 2004, “one must see youngsters, with their entire lives and hopes before them, perform it. Only then do its most melancholy ironies, the retrospective elements that the choreographer built into the work, surge forth with stinging clarity.”
This is proved true—Patricia Blair’s staging feels almost like a historical reenactment of its outdoor premiere in White Plains. Hamilton Nieh, soon to depart for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, matches the ensemble in tone while lending it attention to detail of professional caliber.
But this group is just a little too green for Rubies, a brightly devilish 1967 ballet to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, neatly staged with a strong finish by Sandra Jennings. The steps are coded with the fierceness of its original principals, Patricias McBride and Neary. Rachels Jambois and Seeholzer have yet to find that directness and fearlessness in themselves, and are short the physical power.
Matthew Renko, however, was born to dance Edward Villella’s role, and is growing nicely into his stage persona. Academic and a little stiff last year, he’s loosened up, and should fit in well at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he begins a contract in July. (He’s been in D.C. with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, after a start at NYCB.) Men twice his height don’t cover ground like he can, and he turns like a top. The only thing missing is a sense of play.
Gershwin homage Who Cares? (1970) is the most difficult of the three, because it’s the only one that can’t look hard. Its arc usually comes from the fact that its seven central solos and duets, to songs such as “Embraceable You” and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” are performed by different people*. Ballet Chicago alum and frequent guest Ted Seymour simply has too much to do here—all three duets, plus solo “Liza”—as do Seeholzer, Ellen Green and Jane Morgan. It’s more small town than big city. (The backdrop is a comic book–like starburst of Manhattan skyscrapers.)
Seymour’s “Liza” looks easy, and there’s no reason why the rest of the cast can’t get there, too, although it’s phenomenally difficult work and there are no shortcuts.
Any time a ballet dancer acquires this command, owns his or her roles both technically and theatrically, is cause for celebration.
*Ballet Chicago artistic director Daniel Duell, via e-mail on May 17, notes that the original cast of Who Cares? is in fact “one male (Jacques d’Amboise) and his three ballerinas (Patricia McBride, Karin von Aroldingen, Marnee Morris).… Acceptable variations of this include having three men…perform the three duets (as we have done in the past) but this is the exception rather than the norm. The three ballerinas [each] always perform both a duet and their own solo—that has never been different.… Our current staging observes the original casting and the normally presented structure of the work.”
I regret the error, and thank Duell for clarifying.—ZW