Spring Dance at the London Coliseum: New York City Ballet

Written by: Michael Darvell

Connoisseurs of the dance have a special treat during March and April 2008 when some of the world’s greatest dancers appear in a month’s season at the London Coliseum. Presented by Askonas Holt, Raymond Gubbay and Sadler’s Wells, the season fields Stuttgart Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet (25-30 March), Carlos Acosta (31 March-3 April & 9-12 April), and Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant (4-7 April).

The season opens, however, on Wednesday, 12 March, with New York City Ballet, which returns to London for the first time in over a quarter-of-a-century with a company of nearly one-hundred dancers in four programmes from the company’s world-renowned repertoire.

The first programme is entitled “Essential Balanchine” and includes works from George Balanchine who co-founded the company with Lincoln Kerstein. “Serenade” is set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and is the first piece that Balanchine staged in the USA in 1934. The genesis of this ballet almost seems an impromptu one – it was originally created to give the first students something to do. There were seventeen girls in class on the first day, so that is the number for which the ballet was made. One girl came in late and another fell over and they were also incorporated into the work.
Balanchine worked in a totally different way to other choreographers. Everybody was placed in position and not told just to copy the soloist. Balanchine’s making of the ballet was not regimented but more like improvisation for which he adopted a fluidity of style, working on each of the dancers as they performed to the music, changing shapes and moving limbs as they went along. He made the dancers feel more involved in the creative process and seemed to want the dancers to be happy with what he was doing, comfortable with the moves so they could trust him and he could equally trust them to say if something didn’t feel right. Although it may have looked improvised at rehearsal, apparently the final work always looked as if it had been meticulously planned. This may account for the lasting qualities of Balanchine’s ballets and why, after 75 years, “Serenade” is still considered to be his most original work.

Also in the first programme is “Symphony in C”, which began as a commission in 1947 by Paris Opéra and called “Le Palais de Cristal”, a four-movement piece that became known after its music, by Bizet. The ballet, like the symphony, is a classical piece, more formal than Balanchine’s usual custom. As such, it is fresh, full of pretty, charming tunes – music pure and simple to accompany pure and simple dance.

The first programme is completed by Agon, one of Balanchine’s best pieces, which some think to be the culmination of his long association with Stravinsky whom the choreographer idolised. In its day (1957) Agon was not only revolutionary, but also immediately popular. Balanchine’s choreography combined very modern moves with contrasting stately court dances. His leading ballerina, Dana Adams, danced the main pas de deux with the black dancer Arthur Mitchell who was later to found the Dance Theater of Harlem. In 1957 this was definitely revolutionary although it was more exciting than scandalous and, unlike The Rite of Spring, Agon was received with utter joy by all and sundry. “Essential Balanchine” is on 12, 14 & 16 March.

Programme two is called “Jerome Robbins: an American icon”, a tribute to the work of that other legendary name in the company’s history and who probably had more influence on choreography and direction in music-theatre than anybody else. Whereas Balanchine made a great contribution to Broadway and Hollywood in his work for “On your toes”, “Babes in arms”, “I married an angel”, “The boys from Syracuse”, “Cabin in the sky” and “Where’s Charley?”, et al, Robbins is arguably less well-known for ‘straight’ ballet and more associated with his music-theatre productions that began with “On the Town”. As a young dancer he was in the chorus of shows such as “Great lady”, “The straw hat revue” and “Keep off the grass”, which Balanchine choreographed. Robbins later became a soloist with American Ballet Theatre and danced leading roles in “Helen of Troy”, Petrushka, and Romeo and Juliet.

In the 1940s musical-theatre choreography underwent a sea-change with Agnes de Mille integrating the dance element of a show such as “Oklahoma!” with the drama and the characterisations. In 1944 Robbins staged Fancy Free at the Metropolitan Opera in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein. This one-act piece about sailors on shore-leave became the inspiration for the full-length musical “On the town”. Other shows followed – “Billion dollar baby”, “High button shoes” – plus more work with Balanchine until the start of a long run of major Broadway musicals beginning with Irving Berlin’s “Call me Madam” with Ethel Merman and continued with “The King and I”, “The Pajama Game”, “Bells are Ringing”, “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”, again with Merman. He helped “A funny happened on the way to the forum” and “Funny Girl” to success and received two Tony Awards for “Fiddler on the Roof”, for both direction and choreography.

However, Jerome Robbins will be forever remembered for his Tony Award-winning choreography for “West Side Story”, which he also directed and which marked another watershed in music-theatre history by bringing an authentic realism to dance and body-language. Every revival since 1957 has recreated Robbins’s work and he has been an abiding influence ever since, including, say, Bob Fosse, whose first choreographed show was “The Pajama Game” which Robbins co-directed with George Abbott. The three signature Robbins works to be presented in the London Coliseum season are “The Four Seasons”, which Robbins created for Mikhail Baryshnikov to music by Verdi, “The Concert”, a parody of a Chopin piano recital, and “Moves”, which is a ballet with no music at all (13 & 15 March).

The third programme, “Four Voices” presents a mixture of choreographers and dance styles in ballets by Alexei Ratmansky, Director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon, Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, and Peter Martins, the NYCB’s Ballet Master in Chief (18, 20 & 21 March).

Programme four is “Ballet and Broadway”: a musical celebration by three of the company’s choreographers: Peter Martins’s “Thou Swell”, a tribute to the music of Richard Rodgers, George Balanchine’s “Tarantella” and “Western Symphony”, and the “West Side Story” suite of Jerome Robbins, set to Leonard Bernstein’s unforgettable score (19, 20 & 22 March).

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