The Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) has always had a strong affiliation with the New York City Ballet (NYCB). From 1977 to 2005, former company members Kent Stowell and Francia Russell ran PNB. When the married couple retired, the gifted and charismatic NYCB Principal Peter Boal assumed directorship of the Seattle-based company and its renowned school. Boal brought PNB back to New York and City Center for a successful visit after a long absence back in 2013.
For their recently completed City Center engagement, PNB offered an evening of new ballets and another evening dedicated exclusively to works by George Balanchine (1904-1983), the NYCB’s co-founder and original chief choreographer. Balanchine ballets are worth knowing because they offer something beyond the ordinary expectations of a night at the ballet. Despite numerous distractions – women, years of false starts before the creation of New York City Ballet, the contentious move from City Center to Lincoln Center, and so on – Balanchine took the basic ballet vocabulary and re-arranged it (sometimes playfully or dramatically, but always beautifully). His ballets are self-contained neoclassic works of living art, personifying both perfection and possibility.
Square Dance premiered at City Center in 1957. While the dancers wear leotards instead of gingham, it does feature a square dance caller, and the music is heavy on strings of the Baroque kind by Vivaldi and Correlli. When he overhauled the ballet in 1976, Balanchine eliminated the caller and added a lyrical male soloist, who takes a brief leave of his partner, and four couples. The idea of Square Dance is akin to a real square dance; the lead couple (Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths) demonstrates steps that the others repeat, dancers bow to their partners, and ballerinas curtsy daintily while holding the ends of their short skirts. Most of all, the steps increase in complexity and speed. The entire cast, particularly Biasucci, enjoyed and easily met each challenge. The hyper-allegro finale demonstrated why exercises at the ballet barre are repeated on a daily basis, for the hardest ones can be found front and center onstage!
Stravinsky Violin Concerto is one of several major ballets Balanchine created for the week-long 1972 Stravinsky Festival, which occurred a year after Stravinsky’s death (Balanchine and Stravinsky were frequent collaborators). Balanchine used the concerto before in 1931, but this was a completely new work, with plain leotards replacing costumes. Stravinsky was another neoclassicist who eliminated yet still created an extraordinarily original sound. His Violin Concerto in D has four movements instead of the usual three, with Balanchine using two for his pas de deux. The first couple (Lesley Rausch, Jerome Tisserand) is edgy and comical, with the ballerina ending up in a handstand, while the second (Noelani Pantastico, Seth Orza) is softer. As with Square Dance, the finale is brilliant. Neither the music nor the choreography is particularly ‘Russian,’ but PNB revealed a pseudo-Slavic flavor in both. Seeing the piece performed this way was like watching Stravinsky Violin Concerto for the first time.
Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) not only choreographed for NYCB, but was also one of its earliest members. The ballets he created or restaged (Fancy Free, an arrangement of dances from West Side Story) for NYCB from its core repertory. In 1984, Robbins created Antique Epigraphs, a series of dances for eight women. Kyra Nichols, the great NYCB ballerina and member of the original cast, restaged this lovely work for New York Theatre Ballet, which was part of its ‘Legends and Visionaries’ program at New York Live Arts.
Antique Epigraphs is a series of dances for eight women. Set to Claude Debussy’s Six Epigraphes Antiques (1915) and Syrinx (1912), the ballet isn’t Grecian; it’s neoclassic. Robbins positions the ballerinas as if they were one-dimensional caryatids, figures on an urn, or Savannah’s Bird Girl. A solo danced by Elena Zahlmann hints at the myth of Niobe, a woman who lost everything because of pride. The ballet’s last minute brings all the dancers together for series of simple gestures – raising a hand upwards, standing with crossed legs, looking lost in thought – and it ends with them in line, their bodies linked and curved, looking towards the wings.
Nichols not only coached the dancers (Zalhmann, Carmella Lauer, Mayu Oguri, Amanda Treiber, Alexis Branagan, Giulia Faria, Chole Slade and Amanda Smith), she gave them something else. Those who saw Nichols dance remember her remarkable onstage presence. The NYTB dancers are versatile with a presence all their own, but here, they seemed ethereal.
Song Before Spring is far from neoclassic but is amazing regardless. Choreographed by NYTB member Steven Melendez and American Ballet Theatre’s Zhong‐Jing Fang, the ballet can be interpreted as a ‘rough night on the town.’ There is nothing balletic (pointe shoes are replaced by soft slippers) about the costumes or the interactions, which felt refreshing and were exceptionally executed. More than once, the dancers shoved each other into place, like a mean teacher might, but an encounter that leads to a duet between Joshua Andino-Nieto and Michael Wells occurs naturally, proving there are moments when ballet isn’t in a state of arrested development.
The duo chose Philip Glass’s Piano Etudes 1-10 in an arrangement by Josh Quillen for steel drums played by Quillen’s NYU Steel band. The musicians were onstage behind the dancers, adding their own spirited self-choreography. There is a long list of ballets set to Glass, and Song Before Spring is a strong newcomer to that list.