Up and down

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 18, 2006

Looking much as it must have in 1923, Les Noces seems flash-frozen — it’s too primal to undergo evolution. Serenade, on the other hand, has emerged from a long and difficult gestation. Balanchine set it on his School of American Ballet in 1934, to the first three movements — Pezzo in forma di sonatina, Valse, Elegia — of Tchaikovsky’s score, using whatever dancers showed up for each day’s rehearsal. He didn’t add the “Tema russo” Finale until 1940, and then he inserted it as the third section of the ballet, whose four movements are called Sonatina, Waltz, Tema Russo, and Elegy. The original Serenade had no solo parts; Karinska’s blue-white tulle skirts didn’t arrive till 1952; and it wasn’t till 1977 that the three female principals — the Waltz Girl, the Russian Girl, and the Elegy Angel — let down their hair in the Elegy, much to Arlene Croce’s displeasure.

There’s an initial conventional story — boy meets girl before a sisterhood backdrop of 17 women, with two additional solo women for decoration — but that indelible opening, the 17 women all with right arm outstretched and right hand flexed, is a warning shot across its bow. When the other women stride off at the end of the Sonatina and the Waltz Boy strides on, threading their ranks in counterpoint, to dance with the Waltz Girl, you’re meant to wonder whether counterpoint equals counterweight. The flowering trellis of five bourréeing women with arms elevated and interlocked at the beginning of the exuberant, folk-like Tema Russo raises further doubts, so it’s not a shock when, as the ensemble dash off in triumphant exultation, the Waltz Girl crashes to the floor.

LES NOCES: The direction is Cubist

But Balanchine’s Elegy is as eerie as anything in Les Noces, or anything in 20th-century dance. The Waltz Boy never reappears; instead, the Elegy Man enters from the same corner of the stage, his eyes shielded from behind by the Elegy Angel. They move toward the Waltz Girl; the Angel stands over her in arabesque and is turned from below by the man. The Russian Girl enters, and there’s an anguished ménage à quatre that recalls the god’s dance with the three Muses in Balanchine’s Apollo. Eight women from the ensemble appear and are partnered by four men: never enough men, or the right man. When the solo group return, the Russian Girl is absent; like the Waltz Boy, she’s never seen again. The Elegy Man lays the Waltz Girl down in her fallen-to-the-floor position; the Angel shields his eyes as before, and they continue on, moving off stage. The Waltz Girl rises to be comforted by women from the corps and raised aloft by three men, sailing exalted into the light.

Like Les Noces, Serenade is a sobering reflection on romantic love, and its stars are not the lovers but the community, which endures. Les Noces is all straight lines; Serenade is all straight lines that keep turning into curves, as if Balanchine were discovering relativity. The corps has to turn and float and execute ballet’s classic basics, and the women in this production do, better, if memory serves, than they did in the company’s three previous stagings, 1985, 1994, and 1999. Balanchine direction is embodied in Melanie Atkins, whose Russian Girl goes up and down on pointe so fluidly that she’s able to move horizontally at will, seeming to go in two directions at once, never stopping, every microsecond a photo opportunity. Striding through the exiting women at the end of the Sonatina, Carlos Molina is elegant and imposing, and he’s a tender if haunted partner to Lorna Feijóo, chiseling the swirling turns of the Waltz with what in figure skating would be deep edges. Feijóo is inscrutable with her hair up, imploring after she lets it down. The other Waltz couple I saw last weekend, Romi Beppu and Nelson Madrigal, both smiled in way that would be more appropriate to a Balanchine work like Stars and Stripes, though Beppu had better success than Feijóo with the closing backbend. As the Elegy Man in the Feijóo-Molina cast, Pavel Gurevich echoes Molina’s long line and solicitous demeanor; you could almost think it’s the same person. In the same role, Mindaugas Bauzys is a cooler shade of gray. Of the other two Russian Girls, Kathleen Breen Combes is more earth, Misa Kuranaga more air, and as the Elegy Angel Tai Jimenez is more angelic, Ashley Blade-Martin more human. Nobody quite has Atkins’s flow. But a company that can get down for Nijinska’s ballet and up for Balanchine’s is going in the right direction.

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