Three Paradigms of Partnership: NYCB "Black and White" Balanchine/Stravinsky Program

New York City Ballet’s “Black and White” Balanchine/Stravinsky program was a striking trifecta: Divertimento from La Baiser de la Fee, Agon and Duo Concertant. Stravinsky’s extensive compositional scope was encompassed in this collage: his Romantic phase in Divertimento, Neoclassical in Duo Concertant, and Neoclassical/Serial (his symbiosis of diatonicism to twelve-tone) in Agon. As the program progressed, so did the dynamics between each principal pair, modeling shades of relationships: first they embodied a bubble of perfection, splintering into imbalance and conflict, and then the overarching journey of growth as a unit.

Divertimento flurried with music-box ballerinas in a dazzling blur of colorful corseted costumes. Stravinsky’s Tchaikovskian lush score spends many minutes building to a distinct peak, followed by an exhale of sonic spillage at the climax of the pas de deux performed by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz, a dynamic duo among NYCB partnerships. Their chemistry is so natural, making us believe they are blissfully in love in this utopian bubble before us. All the dancers, from the adagio principal pair to the corps in sprightly bright allegro, explode with as much vivacious emotion as the music enveloping them. Sound, though not technically a visual, tangible being as dancers are, injects life into them; the conductor and orchestra are invisible puppeteers signaling this utopia’s beginning and end, and the moving bodies are their puppets.

Following this glittering luminosity was the divergent discord of Agon, razor-edged with jagged movements and simple, monochromatic costumes. Though having “no story,” it expresses tension, ambiguity, conflict between dependence and independence. Stravinsky fused this avant-garde soundscape with balletically-rooted movement, and Balanchine manipulated traditional steps to fit the spiky sonic shapes, all presenting a juxtaposition that expanded - and broke - the boundaries of ballet as it was known. Megan LeCrone, a strong soloist, burst onstage strikingly differently than those in Divertimento; she possessed controlled abandon, letting her body fall into hip-jutting, leggy movements, yet always pulling herself back in. She is a standout independent dancer, frequently dancing without a partner. She maintained a disciplined, focused expression, moving forward invincibly as if having been wound up like a doll before entering. Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle, the principal pair, sustained poses requiring superhuman flexibility and unbreakable solidity. Angle and Kowroski’s elastic interactions were like that of taffy. As the oldest current member of the company, one would think Kowroski might be slowing down, but the youthful freshness and glimmering energy in her dancing keeps her in a seemingly everlasting prime.

After Agon’s chaotic entropy came the centripetal, minimal Duo Concertant, where there are not only two dancers onstage, but also two musicians who are part of the choreography. It is the epitome of Balanchine’s words “See the music, hear the dance;" he embraced music not as an external accompaniment, but as an internal element of movement. Duo showcases the partnership in balletic partnering, exposing every subtlety in the connection the dancers develop. The “plot” has a universal tang that lends a malleability to its interpretation, and thus attracts pungent personal connection. This sensation is augmented by the choreography drawing on motions embedded in human life experience; of course it is grounded in balletic technique demanding a degree of strength and flexibility foreign to the typical audience member, but simple yet potent gestures such as fingers intertwined, a gentle kiss on the hand, lingered eye contact, or a last embrace spark a psychological recognition, memories of motions many of us have “danced” with another in our own private moments - our own duos.

The five movements seem to reflect relationship stages, the different dimensions of depth with another person. Similar to re-listening to a dense piece of music and hearing something new with each listen, one can watch Duo over and over, yet experience a new nuance each time. And, depending on the leading couple casted, each pair lends a different dynamic. Story ballets such as, say, The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker present a rose-colored lens, a character transformation that can shadow the dancers’ identities. But in Duo, the choreography possesses a stark nakedness stripped of those masks, exposing vulnerable dynamics between the dancers as well as musicians that resonate viscerally. In this performance, Russell Janzen and Ashley Bouder were cast as the pair. Their intimate familiarity was such that they did not have to be safe; they abandoned themselves to the story they co-create, and maximized each emotion to its edge. During the first movement, “Cantilene,” the dancers perform a rare action: standing by the piano, listening. Musicians are seldom acknowledged as tangible presences in a ballet; they are usually tucked away in the orchestra pit as an invisible soundtrack mystifyingly charging the air seemingly out of nowhere, only revealed in that silent shift when the story stops and reality resumes. Duo, however, incorporates the musicians into the physical fabric of the story, drawing attention to music as an intensely physical art in itself.

The final movement, “Dithyrambe,” sharply deviates in tone from the others; the stage darkens except for single spotlights, swayed by the soundscape transforming from frolicsome to mournful, like the silent shock when tragedy hits. The first spotlight illuminated Bouder’s hand and face, gradually expanding to flood the pair in light, their limbs sedated with somber adagio. The longing permeates into the audience as we await the moment their hands finally touch after such cautious gesticulation, Janzen carefully caressing Bouder’s hand with both of his as one would with a glass jewel. The tempestuous, impassioned pinnacle of the music paralleled Bouder and Janzen’s climactic embrace, which is the most contact they share. Bouder suddenly retreats into the darkness leaving Janzen to search for her, as the violin’s strain embodies his wrenched heartstrings. The light on Janzen darkens, followed by Bouder once again illuminated, with the violin reintroducing her theme (if tears streaming down one's face had a sound, this would be it). Janzen’s face appears in the spotlight irradiating Bouder’s hand as he gives it one last kiss, implying it was the last they would share.

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