Crowning glory

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  March 4, 2009

RUBIES | This one is New York City and America; its backdrop is midnight blue, and its element is fire, with Igor Stravinsky’s jazzy, circusy Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra changing its time signature (2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 3/8, 5/16 — you get dizzy) almost as fast as women are alleged to change their minds. Available and not, the Lipizzaner ladies prance and preen and flaunt their Rockette legs; the Tall Girl displaces her pelvis as if she were a Picasso while showing off every facet of her anatomy; the Adam and Eve couple skip rope, ride broncos, tango, and run in place. (In the last movement, the guy runs with the four hunters, but it’s not clear whether he’s the leader of the pack or its quarry.)

All the pony stepping underlines the idea that the object of the Emeralds hunt is the unicorn. (We know from her autobiography, Holding On to the Air, that Balanchine had taken Farrell to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris, and that she also visited the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York.) As Stravinsky’s first movement reprises its apocalyptic opening moment, the Tall Girl is surrounded and poked at by four men, just as the unicorn is at the Cloisters, but she breaks free as they kneel. (Balanchine might also have had in mind Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors.) It’s not till the Diamonds pas de deux that the lady tames, and is tamed by, Love. The last of the six Cluny tapestries is titled “À mon seul désir”; for Balanchine in 1967, that was Farrell.

Kathleen Breen Combes was a steely and luxuriant Tall Girl, more classical than jazz, balancing exquisitely between Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Corps member Krista Ettlinger was more pop; she’s all arms and legs, but by Saturday afternoon she’d found her center of gravity. Melanie Atkins, just back from maternity leave, was implacable in the first movement, teasing and knowing in the third. All three were steady in those nasty flat-footed penché arabesques that end the first movement. James Whiteside and Melissa Hough were a big couple, in size, weight, and concept, Whiteside with huge extensions and a nice touch of hayseed (he made the pack look like buckaroos out of Rodeo rather than the Brooklyn gang Balanchine had in mind for Edward Villella), Hough supremely confident, hooker-sexy, with the perfect Balanchine smile: half for her partner, half for us, half for Mr. B. The equally outstanding other couple, Jared Redick and Misa Kuranaga, were all sly wit, Redick undercutting the heroics with comic timing (the pack here Keystone Cops), Kuranaga cheeky and porcelain-doll-sexy. At the piano, Freda Locker didn’t mince notes; she was percussive, playful, and rhythmically alert.

DIAMONDS | Set to the last four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, Diamonds is St. Petersburg and Russia, with air as its element, a backdrop of pearl gray, and Swan Lake constantly in view. It opens with a waltz for a dozen women who in four groups of three keep forming a diamond pattern, with two demi-soloists running on and off. Its beating heart, however, is Tchaikovsky’s “Andante elegiaco” slow movement (another “hidden” polonaise), which begins with a call-and-response section for bassoons and horns (more women and men). The lead couple appear from opposite ends of the stage, and we get the second act of Swan Lake in an alternate universe. At the very end, as the horns move us from D minor to D major, the man kneels beside the lady/unicorn (as the three men knelt at the end of Emeralds, and the four hunters knelt in Rubies), and you wonder — as you do when you look at the last of the Cloisters tapestries, The Unicorn in Captivity — whether it’s a moment of triumph.

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