Love and death

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 9, 2007

The Four Temperaments is “classic Balanchine,” a ballet that hasn’t aged a day in 60 years. Balanchine commissioned the score, a work for piano and string orchestra, from Paul Hindemith in 1940 after discovering he had a spare $500 from his work on Broadway. (It was Hindemith or “some extraordinary cigarette case”; Mr. B, as usual, made the right choice.) He wasn’t able to choreograph it till 1946, when he and Lincoln Kirstein formed Ballet Society (which in 1948 became the New York City Ballet), and then, performed on the stage of Manhattan’s Central High School of Needle Trades, it had costumes by the Surrealist artist Kurt Seligmann that included mittens, breastplates, and helmets. The critics found the costumes confusing; in 1951 they were replaced by rehearsal clothes, tights and leotards.

Now, of course, it’s hard to imagine the ballet in anything else. Hindemith’s score is just as simple in conception: a Theme in three parts followed by four Variations — Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, Choleric — that take up, in turn, each of the Theme sections. (For the 1977 taping for public television’s Dance in America, Balanchine color-coded the plain backdrops to match the Theme sections: the first was blue, the second red, the third yellow. At the Wang, everything was blue.) Each Theme section is set on a different couple. As the curtain rises, the first pair are facing the audience. Each extends a foot, points it, as in classical ballet, then flexes it. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Certainly not much in the post-apple fallout between Adam and Eve, which finds Balanchine on the road from Agnes de Mille’s AppalachianSpring to his own Agon a decade later. The war between the sexes in the Dance in America performance (preserved on a Balanchine Library videotape and now on a Nonesuch DVD) is hard-edged, though the quality of the dance makes it look light and easy; the Theme men are mostly behind the women, manipulating them, or trying to. The performances I saw from the Paris Opera Ballet in 2003 were sexy and feral; the three productions I’ve seen from Boston Ballet (1990 and 1999 before this one) have had more friendly fire, sparks but also camaraderie.

The two sets of Theme couples — Kelley Potter and Jaime Diaz, Heather Myers and Jared Redick, Romi Beppu and Mindaugas Bauzys; Katelyn Prominski and Bo Busby, Rie Ichikawa and Boyko Dossev, Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga — gave a lucid outline of the discovery of body parts and movement; Beppu and Bauzys were poignant, as well, particularly in their demanding exit, where the woman extends her legs horizontally and the man has to lift her by the arms and carry her off. John Lam tightroped his way around the invisible box of Melancholic as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders, the most like Bart Cook (who staged this production) on the DVD. Gabor Kapin was airier in his movement but just as demoralized; Joel Prouty was more forthright and positive. Dancing Sanguinic with Nelson Madrigal, Larissa Ponomarenko was more serene than Ashley on the DVD but just as multi-directional, and with a teasing smile; Erica Cornejo reprised her Ballo sensibility with an attentive Reyneris Reyes. Carlos Molina drooped Phlegmatically, even extending his leg in a sarcastic bow, before perking up to dance with his quartet of ladies in the cowboy-loping third section; Pavel Gurevich, like Prouty, was more positive. Kathleen Breen Combes was an explosive Choleric, Melanie Atkins more poetic and physically open. The various quartets of ladies — high-kicking (castrating?) and pelvic-thrusting in Melancholic, hot-footing it through the burning sands of Dante’s Seventh Circle — were mostly spot on.

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