Sunday afternoon, Novikova was back with a comic foil of a partner in Vladimir Shklyarov, who, bucking like a cowboy out of Rodeo, nearly fell during his duet shenanigans before letting the audience know he meant it. The “Boys’ Night Out” chase in the third movement can be a Jets-and-Sharks parody; here it was more like the Keystone Cops. It might not be what Balanchine — or the Balanchine Trust — had in mind, but at least it was something. Kondaurova turned up as a sly, slinky big girl, out of her element in the jockey prancing but later controlling her four men as if she were Marilyn Monroe surrounded by paparazzi, eluding them with ease and then clearing the stage with the serenity of her penché arabesques. Novikova and Shklyarov were so conspiratorially playful, their duet didn’t hold much tension. The ballet didn’t finish on the beat here, and it doesn't on the Paris Opera Ballet Jewels DVD, instead ending with a post-musical exclamation point.
BALLET IMPERIAL: Big and ineffable, like a dream you only half-remember.
Ballet Imperial is a study in oppositions. Balanchine made it for his Ballet Caravan in 1941, in Rio de Janeiro, a 35-minute work set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2. With its tutus and tunics and St. Petersburg backdrop (looking between the two rostral columns in front of what’s now the Naval Museum across the Neva to the needle-spired Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, with the Romanov double-headed eagle overhead), it could be an imperial naval ball. When it was revived at the New York State Theater in 1964, Balanchine ordered up new costumes and a new set by Rouben Ter-Arutunian to replace the originals by Mstislav Dobuzhinsky; now we seemed to be in the Winter Palace. In 1973, Balanchine, deciding that “imperial” was an out-of-date concept, dispensed with the set, replaced the tutus with chiffon, and, modest to a fault, rechristene d the piece Concerto No. 2. New York City Ballet now dances it as Tchaikovsky PianoConcerto No. 2; other companies are, it seems, permitted to stage it as Ballet Imperial, but that doesn’t mean they do it with tutus and tsarist vistas. American Ballet Theatre does its Ballet Imperial that way, with a new Ter-Arutunian set designed in 1988; it’s become a showpiece for Gillian Murphy. If any company were going to do Ballet Imperial with a St. Petersburg backdrop, you’d think it would be the Kirov, but instead we got the familiar NYCB blue drop and costumes “after Karinska” that verged on the informal, the men in white shirts and trousers, the women in undistinguished blush tea dresses. When Boston Ballet staged this work as Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1993 and 1994, the men wore burgundy jackets suggestive of naval cadets, and the women’s dresses had more character.
Then there’s the music. Completed in 1881, Tchaikovsky’s G-major concerto is a shambling Russian bear. Its proportions are perplexing: 21 minutes for the Allegro first movement, 16 for the Andante non troppo second, just seven for the Allegro con fuoco third. Reception was mixed; Tchaikovsky’s former pupil Aleksandr Ziloti proposed cuts and a restructuring (reducing the Andante to half its original length) that Tchaikovsky rejected but that after his death were carried out. The original version is the one that’s performed and recorded these days, but Ziloti’s is the one that Balanchine knew. In any version, the first movement has a lot of pounding, a lot of poetry, and a peripatetic structure that’s hard to decipher.