Wrapped around Stravinsky's complex rhythms and submerged regular pulse, Balanchine's patterns switch from piston-like athleticism to frictionless volatility. The corps's first, stage-filling diagonal line returns later in broken, unfinished form. Still later, they stand half in, half out of the wings, a frame that could easily vanish. At moments, the whole cast seems to be rushing in circles every which way, but the pathways are precision-engineered and timed to avoid collisions.
Brilliant solo bits burst out of the mass and disappear like foam. The audience tried to reward every special thing, but it couldn't keep up. I don't think Balanchine meant this ballet to be a showcase; it's more like a tremendous engine with many mysterious working parts. The breakdown of one small component could result in disaster, but in full operation, it's a miracle of elegant design. At last the circles and diagonals lock down, until all 32 dancers are arrested in a formation of stalwart arm signals and sprinting crouches, while the music pounds through its last hurrahs.
Both Jerome Robbins ballets on this program have a lot of relevant backstory to them, but the important thing in performance was their drastic contrast with the Balanchine works — the absoluteness of form and technique versus the drift and glamour of sexual imaginings. Robbins's biographer Deborah Jowitt reports that Robbins made Antique Epigraphs (1984) as a companion piece to his 1953 Afternoon of a Faun. Both were set to Debussy's music, and together they could make up a half-hour program segment with a certain dreamy, reflective mood.
Afternoon of a Faun is Robbins's update of the famous Nijinsky ballet choreographed in 1912. Instead of the idyllic encounter between a faun and six nymphs, Robbins pictured two dancers who meet by chance in the studio and wordlessly begin to move together. Gazing downstage into the invisible mirror that would be the fourth wall of Jean Rosenthal's gauzy set-within-the-stage, the dancers inspect their reflection as they drift into a sensual pas de deux. Enchanted, he kisses her on the cheek — and breaks the spell. She backs out of the studio and he returns to his warm-up.
Whitney Jensen, with flowing blond hair and glamorous make-up, looked more like a magazine cover than a working dancer, and a dazed Sabi Varga could have been dreaming her the whole time.
In Antique Epigraphs, which was suggested to Robbins by some ancient Greek artifacts, a band of eight women in long, filmy shifts perform for one another, accentuating the lines of their bodies and modeling their faces with cupped hands. Four of them (Kathleen Breen Combes, Lia Cirio, Erica Cornejo, and Luciana Voltolini) dance alone, sharing their private feelings with their sisters. At the end, they all link together in a line and angle into poses taken from the dancers inscribed on Greek vases.
Debussy based his music on poems with Sapphic implications by Pierre Louÿs. Whether Robbins saw his dancers as lesbian icons or decorative antiquities, these women project a certain narcissism on today's stage. Antique Epigraphs was choreographed less than a year after Balanchine's death. One way to look at the ballet is as Robbins's elegiac reformulation of the Balanchine woman. His vision is more contemporary in a popular sense, more approachable, but less extraordinary than the kind of feminine power wielded by Balanchine's balletic titans.