Oppositions

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 30, 2009

One might wonder how the pieces in this program were selected and ordered. Serenade (1935) and Ballet Imperial (1941) are early Balanchine works set to Tchaikovsky; Rubies is later (1967) and set to Stravinsky. All three offer a lead couple plus a second woman who’s outside their orbit. And in all three, there aren’t enough men to go around. The four men who come on in the Elegy of Serenade have to partner eight women, and at the end the men bear the Waltz Girl out while the women they might be dancing with look on. The Rubies curtain rises on a daisy chain of four men and nine women, and that’s as good as it gets for the women; later on it’s “Boys’ Night Out” — just the boys. Ballet Imperial opens with a line of eight men advancing to release their partners from fourth position, but eventually the women’s ranks swell to 16, and in the second movement the male lead swings a line of 10 women, five on each side, as if they were the Swan Lake princesses that Siegfried will never marry.

Rubies is the “American” section of Jewels (Emeralds being “French” and Diamonds “Russian”), with its spiky, spoofy 1929 Stravinsky score, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra — and never mind that the composer wrote and premiered it in Paris. The music’s three movements — Presto, Andante rapsodico (with an enigmatic brass chorale near the end that anticipates the second movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra), Allegro capriccioso ma tempo giusto — are nothing if not capricious. The choreography is period Picasso Cubist, with a nod to the Paris Jockey Club: the ladies have to shake and shimmy and smile without looking as if they were trying to hustle customers. And no lagging behind the beat.

The Kirov girls of 2008 are challenged by Stravinsky’s jagged rhythms in a way that I don’t remember of the class of 2002: they don’t displace their pelvises with enough bite (theirs is the art of classy stripping), and in the pony sections they don’t pump their knees high enough. (The orchestra and pianist Lyudmila Sveshnikova also seemed soft-edged.) But coming on for Alina Somova as the couple girl Saturday night, Olesia Novikova was pert and teasing and rippled through her big leg swings; she’d kick a leg up to her tiara without making a big deal of it and then, after a swirl of chaîné turns, exit with a wink. Leonid Sarafanov was a cocky, virtuoso partner in the Andante duet but not an idiomatic one, and as the big girl Nadezhda Gonchar looked uncomfortable from the outset: as the orchestra reprised its opening thunder and lightning, she let the four men manhandle her in the “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” section, and she had difficulty with the three nasty flat-footed penché arabesques that follow.

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