Whether they originated in the man or in his myth, stories about George Balanchine are an enduring source of anecdote in American ballet. Noted for his intellectually vigorous choreography and his dedication to a series of long-limbed and fiery ballerinas, Balanchine made more than 400 dances, many of which highlighted the talents of his muse of the moment. Through the New York City Ballet, Balanchine created the stereotype of feminine dance perfection with the Balanchine ballerina -- a performer with a small, round head, short torso with a flexible back and long, curvy legs. And through his approach to choreography (not to mention the dancers and teachers he trained who ended up running ballet companies across the U.S.), he also shaped much of the contemporary sense of what ballet is and should be. Often beginning with a simple gesture, a rise and fall, an arm in a curious position, Balanchine created dance out of gesture instead of dance out of story. That legacy of movement -- the lack of emotion and the height of form -- distinguishes his work, and is what continues to challenge dancers and audiences about his ballets.
The greatest difficulty in performing a repertory concert of Balanchine is that his works demand dancers achieve nothing less than perfection. A successful evening of Balanchine requires making the most strenuous choreography appear effortless. It's not an easy task. He didn't want one perfect turn, he wanted 12; not one leap, but several twirling leaps in a flurry of steps. His work reached a height in complexity with the pieces he made in the late 1950s, in particular Agon, a ballet for 12 dancers created with Stravinsky's specially composed score. Because his work often depended on the particular ability of one dancer, Balanchine encouraged a rapt loyalty, and many of his ballerinas spent their performing lives dancing for him. Patricia Neary was one such ballerina, and when Houston Ballet decided to open their season with an evening of Balanchine -- only the third all Balanchine program they've done in 15 years -- that included not only company standbys such as La Valse and Theme and Variations, but also the company premiere of Agon, Neary came to set the work on them.
Neary, who arrived in Houston in late August, danced with NYCB, and her tenure there, she says, was complicated by the fact that she was in the center of a debacle, in love with Balanchine while he was in love with another dancer, Suzanne Farrell. The emotional hardship of the situation threatened to end Neary's New York career, and the situation was complicated by the fact that Neary wanted to dance and Balanchine wanted her to teach. Now, nearly 40 years after the fact, Neary's grateful she ended up teaching, because it meant she had a career after hip replacement surgery. Neary eventually became one of eight retired dancers in the Balanchine Trust, the entity that supplies quality control for Balanchine's ballets.
Agon, with its repetition of steps requiring a loose pelvis and hips and a lightening quick choreography meticulously in tune with the quick and occasionally dissonant Stravinsky score, is Balanchine's most rigorous ballet, and a company has to prove it's up to the challenge of tackling the piece before the trust agrees to send a representative to teach it. In many ways, Agon, with its jutting hips, intertwined limbs and torsos, is a ballet about the groin. Groins don't figure prominently in classical ballet, and Neary's work in setting Agon was complicated by the Houston Ballet's soft, story-driven style -- a style far removed from Balanchine's.
In late August, things weren't looking rosy for the Balanchine Celebration. Neary, outfitted in an orange sweater warm-up, pearls and pointe shoes, was awash in the difficulties the company was having learning Agon, particularly in their attack on the angular steps and patterns. She grumbled around the lead dancers, pulled them out to repeat their mistakes and halted the ensemble several times with eyes rolled in horror. Neary is a tough ballerina, and she demanded the same kind of precision Balanchine did. At a rehearsal break, principal dancer Dawn Scannell talked about how invigorating it was to dance such complex and highly structured ballet. "The choreography is almost like a gift," she said, still panting from her pas de trois work. "If you're right there, you get it."
While Scannell's quick, even dancing is well-suited for Agon, other dancers struggled under Neary's tutelage. But the hard work with Neary (which totaled less than a week) paid off last Thursday, when four male and eight female Houston Ballet dancers attacked Agon with spirit and speed, if not perfection. Part of the delight in watching a lyrical company such as the Ballet dance challenging choreography is seeing new facets in dancers such as Sean Kelly, who danced a personable and sharp Agon, or Julie Gumbinner, a young corps member whose movement has an finished, perfectly timed quality. Opening night's Agon, a dance about resistance and, as the Greek word suggests, opposition or struggle, featured Rachel Beard, a last minute substitute for Barbara Bears, who had injured her knee during rehearsal. Beard danced well, in large part due to the skillful partnering of Phillip Broomhead. Last Saturday night, Beard danced with her original partner, Carlos Acosta, and they evened out the rougher edges of Agon's strenuous pas de deux, particularly the long balances and slow motion rolls and embraces, which require body contact from the dancers' collarbones to their hips.
Of the evening's other ballets, La Valse is the closest to story ballet Balanchine ever gets, while Theme and Variations is classically inspired. Opening night, La Valse featured Tiekka Schofield dancing the role of a young woman intrigued by a mysterious stranger who leads her to her highly metaphoric death. Based on a series of Ravel waltzes, the ballet has a courtly sensibility: female dancers wear long, white gloves and tulle skirts, and male dancers wear black courtier jackets. Waltzing in circles and diagonals, dancers pair off for ballroom style lifts and giant leaps, which featured Schofield shyly accepting her suitor's advances and eventually succumbing to a fall from innocence, pulling black gloves and a black dress on over her white ones. The heavy black symbolism in La Valse, along with the work's waltzes in a minor key, create an aura of gloom.
Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson's fairness in casting is wise, and it often results in surprises such as the young Gumbinner dancing the playful pas de trois in Agon, as well as Lauren Anderson dancing the lead in Theme and Variations last Saturday evening. Anderson's command of classical vocabulary and her strength were evident in the piece, choreographed in the tradition of royal Russian ballet. Theme and Variations, with its Tchaikovsky score, is highly accessible, radiantly happy and, at times, even silly, with dancers peeking underneath each other's tutus. The ballet showcases a pas de deux couple, danced on Saturday night by Anderson and Acosta. Featuring long series of turns and leaps as well as patterned circles of waltzing, it's the kind of piece that capitalizes on Anderson's strengths: her viciously good technique and her superior balance. Acosta danced both opening night and Saturday, each time performing with bravado -- though also, on opening night, with less than sharp technique or balance.
It's invigorating and encouraging to see the Houston Ballet extend themselves with these Balanchine dances, in particular a piece as demanding as Agon. Neary, who appreciates Balanchine's purity in the same way a priest appreciates the Sacrament, saw the struggle the company had in learning what she had to teach them, but was part of the warmth as well. Noting the Ballet company's camaraderie in rehearsal, even to the point of missing the same steps in the same manner, she said to the dancers, "I've missed that part, babies, and I've been missing it." Though marked by the moments of unevenness Neary pointed to in rehearsal, the Houston Ballet's foray into Agon was bravely danced. And if they lack the tight precision of Balanchine technique, the Houston Ballet has something Balanchine's companies didn't -- the rare ability to shift gears into vastly different sorts of ballets.
The Houston Ballet performs La Valse, Agon and Theme and Variations through September 15 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-
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