SARATOGA SPRINGS — New York City Ballet opened its 47th season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Tuesday with a tribute to the artistry of the troupe’s founding choreographer/artistic director George Balanchine.
Before the curtain even rose, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins invoked the name of his legendary predecessor in brief pre-performance remarks. “It gets better and better,” Martins said of the company’s SPAC season, explaining that the only person who loved coming to Saratoga more than himself was Balanchine. (By the way, next year will mark the 30th year since Mr. B’s death.)
“Maybe love will help a little bit in the future,” Martins continued, although neither he nor SPAC director Marcia White made mention of the decision last week to trim the ballet’s SPAC “season” to just one week in 2013.
Martins then concluded his comments by dedicating the performance to the memory of Balanchine.
What followed was a four-dance survey showcasing the breadth of the master’s work. There was neoclassical purity (“Concerto Barocco”), stark modernism (Kammermusik No. 2), a folktale (“Firebird”), and imperial elegance (“Symphony in C”).
The evening opened with the bright and accessible “Concerto Barocco” (1941) as soloists Savannah Lowery and Teresa Reichlen with a corps of eight women, all clad in short white dresses and looking positively virginal, captured the essence of J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto on D Minor in movement. Off-center pointe work and twisty, weaving passages when soloist Ask la Cour joined the group highlighted hallmarks of the Balanchine vocabulary.
If “Barocco” proved the “ballet is woman” maxim that’s attributed to Balanchine, “Kammermusik No. 2” stood in counterpoint. While the ballet features a female duo — Rebecca Krohn and Abi Stafford — out front, dancing in sync to the piano solo of Paul Hindemith’s music, they’re backed by a corps of eight men, who dance to the orchestral parts. The men are the strong and muscular foundation, sinking into deep, second position plies or cutting
their hands through space in mysterious gestures. It’s a weightier work that demonstrates Balanchine’s deftness at visualizing challenging music in movement. There were moments of brilliance and boldness: the women’s opening prancing, lilting duet; sequences with flexed-foot extensions and spins and quirky heel walks. However, there were also places where the corps was sluggish and sloppy. Sorry, boys.
In a complete departure was “Firebird,” the Balanchine-Stravinsky-Chagall fan favorite — though the more I see it, the more I wonder why that’s the case. The ballet is a blend of folktale and old world pageantry that’s meant to show off the fantastical imagery of Marc Chagall presented on the scenery and in the costuming. The costumes, executed by Karinska from designs by Chagall, are noteworthy for their intricate details. And it succeeds on that level. Ashley Bouder was the bright human element in this performance with her precise portrayal of the Firebird. But the storytelling is lacking in this truncated Balanchine version and the scene where the Prince (Justin Peck) is set upon by monsters was a mess. It didn’t help that more than a few performers looked like they were sleepwalking through their parts.
The company redeemed itself in the glittering finale “Symphony in C,” danced to music by Georges Bizet. Always an audience pleaser, it’s now decked out with new costumes designed by Marc Happel and adorned with light catching Swarovki crystals. This is one of those pancake tutu ballets that takes full advantage of NYCB’s sheer numbers. There’s nothing quite like seeing a stage filled with dancers spinning in the stage lights in all their regal and otherworldly splendor.
New York City Ballet
Program: All-Balanchine — “Concerto Barocco,” “Kammermusik No. 2,” “Firebird,” “Symphony in C”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Length: 2 hours 45 minutes with 2 intermissions
Crowd: A strong opening night turn out of about 2,600
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