An American neoclassical dance festival with works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins – a new combination of works from the Wiener Staatsballett repertoire with the addition of the first Staatsballett performance of “A Suite of Dances”.
For George Balanchine, rooted in the ballet world of St. Petersburg under tsarist rule, the past was a springboard into the future. In Paris in the 1920s, he joined the Ballets Russes – and therefore became part of the avant-garde movement. From 1934 onwards, he made New York the new home of ballet. With a life’s work comprising 425 works, Balanchine reworked classic-academic dance for the 20th century, shaping his New York City Ballet into one of the most important of modern dance companies. When Balanchine appointed Jerome Robbins to the position of Associate Artistic Director in 1949, this also marked the start of a connection between Balanchine’s ensemble and Robbins that was to last over 40 years. With his ballets and his works for Broadway, Robbins found a way of combining high art and commercial entertainment in a fascinating way. We associate musicals like “West Side Story”, “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The King and I” with Robbins just as much as his subtle choreographic studies of humanity in the modern age.
Robbins was one of the first choreographers to be inspired by the music of the American minimalist composer Philip Glass, a composer whose music is now extremely popular and frequently used for ballet scores. In his “Glass Pieces’ (1983), using extracts from “Glassworks” and the opera “Akhnaten”, Robbins created a ballet which is driven by the energies of urban life. As if operating at high voltage, 42 dancers develop an architecture from their bodies and movements, through a combination of athleticism and elegance, classical ballet, modern dance and everyday movement. Using the repetitive structures of the music, which find their visual counterpart in a backdrop consisting of a framework that looks like graph paper, Robbins uses the basic elements of human movements, such as simple everyday walking, stylised steps, and running, to create a motion study on de-individualisation and the driven-ness of human beings. Only for one moment does the world stand still in the midst of this breathless activity, with a pas de deux created for the two NYCB principals Maria Calegari and Bart Cook, in which Robbins, with a tremendous intimacy which manages to avoid all sentimentality, moves the focus away from the mass of humanity towards the individual – a man and a woman, a couple, coming face to face with each other.
The centre of the programme is made up of two chamber-type miniatures of American neoclassicism: in Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant” (1972), set to music of the same name for violin and piano by Igor Stravinsky, a male dancer and a female dancer are first seen standing behind a concert grand piano, just listening to the music. Soon, however, they become involved in the musical performance and lose themselves, with a wealth of highly sophisticated choreographic ideas, in a duet which develops into a moving chamber piece about love and longing.
Robbins’ “Suite of Dances”, created in 1994 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, is an intimate “talking”. Based on several movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, an finely nuanced dialogue, sometimes spirited and witty and sometimes reflective, is created between a dancer and a female cellist.
“The Concert” (1956) is one of the funniest ballets ever created. Robbins has a pianist playing Chopin with an almost holy seriousness while the ballet ensemble responds to the music, sometimes with sophisticated flights of fancy and sometimes in a crazy sequence of mishaps and slapstick-style numbers. Ballerinas in tutus are carried across the stage like lifeless shop-window dummies, becoming chaotically entangled with each other and trying in vain to bring their steps into harmony in the famous “Mistake Waltz”. A frustrated husband, full of murderous thoughts, creeps around his bored wife and ends up in an embarrassing series of male fantasies after a “Mad Ballerina” has given him “Butterflies in the Stomach”. All this flighty pleasure is ultimately too much even for the pianist: armed with a butterfly net, he tries to recapture all the fantastical creatures he has conjured up with Chopin’s music.