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Mindy Aloff | The Nation

Mindy Aloff

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Mindy Aloff

Mindy Aloff teaches dance history at Barnard College and serves as a consultant for the George Balanchine Foundation.

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The ballerina as a species of theater artist has been endangered worldwide for a quarter of a century; however, two organizations still regularly produce new generations of them. One is the Paris Opera Ballet; the other is the Kirov. Both are huge companies with old, distinguished schools, and both have large repertories stocked with works that require a ballerina's presence. What is the nature of that presence? My favorite answer is George Balanchine's. In The Nutcracker, he once observed, "the ballet is the tree." He meant the Christmas tree in his own production, which, as an appropriately scaled evergreen, serves as the focus of the family party, and then, in the vision of the child Marie, mysteriously swells in sync with Tchaikovsky's ascending musical scales, until the only parts one can see are the very bottom branches, each about the size of a house in East Egg. The rest of the tree, one imagines, is creating havoc with the landing patterns of airplanes making for Kennedy and La Guardia. That is, Balanchine was talking of transformation, a certain kind of stage illusion associated with magic, music and what was once called the sublime.

Of course, a family Christmas tree that has sprouted to the size of the Chrysler Building is thoroughly inappropriate to a domestic setting. And that's the point: Ballerinas require a special setting--a surround of music, space and light in which they can grow--and partners who think of them before they think of themselves. Balanchine's ballets, regardless of their complexity in other ways, always clear such spaces. As he showed his audiences, over and over again, a ballerina catalyzes a ballet company's energy and summarizes something of its style, but she is not simply one more player on a team. She is, rather, the thing, the principle, the radiance, the life force that the team is playing for, or fighting to protect. The very concept harks back to chivalric codes and contains, as well, an element of the sacred. In a world where nothing seems sacred anymore--not religious sculptures the size of a mountain from the seventh century, not the privacy of intimate communication, not Christmas--it's a wonder there are any ballerinas left at all.

And yet, in February, during a brief season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Kirov was able to field at least four ballerinas of international stature during two performances of Jewels, the spectacular, evening-length storyless ballet, for a cast of sixty-six dancers, that Balanchine made for the New York City Ballet in the mid-1960s and slightly reworked about a decade later. The structure is both very simple and rather devious. Jewels consists of three "acts"--that is, of three individual ballets--each focused on a precious stone: "Emeralds" (to excerpts from Fauré's late 1880s Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock), "Rubies" (to Stravinsky's 1929 Capriccio for piano and orchestra) and "Diamonds" (to Tchaikovsky's Third, "Polish" Symphony, with the first movement omitted). Only "Rubies" has since proved excerptable, able to stand on its own as a repertory item, and it may not be a coincidence that the music for "Rubies" is the only score of the three that Balanchine used as the composer wrote it.

Although the conceit of the work--that the ballet represents facets of dancing, of Balanchine's choreography and of his company at their most precious--has been dismissed as "packaging" by none other than Lincoln Kirstein, in retrospect it is possible to see some deep structures in it as a whole that were not visible when it was made. It is also possible to see--especially in the configurations of the corps de ballet--various actual designs for women's jewelry: necklaces, tiaras and parures.

Over an evening, the ballet gradually, almost subliminally, proceeds from complicated to streamlined choreographic designs, as jewelry design has proceeded from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. At the same time, there is also a gradual change in the images of lineage and love, from closely cherished connection to heroic and isolating grandeur. Each section has a principal couple who are supported by a world of soloists and/or corps de ballet.

In "Emeralds," a double-stranded ornament with pendants, the hierarchy is the most complex: There is a second principal couple, a trio of virtuoso soloists (two ballerinas and a danseur) and a corps whose interaction with the leads is exceptionally intimate--as in the pas de deux of Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, where, at points, the corps practically seems to embody the couple's collective breath. In "Rubies," where close connections are continually set up and then dissolved in diverting play, there is a principal couple and a Valkyrian ballerina soloist who occupy the same stage space and stage time; yet this trio is linked only visually, by its coordination with the corps de ballet--that is, only through formal conjunctions, rather than, as in "Emeralds," through a shared focus or mission. In "Diamonds," where imaginative distances are the most extensive, there is no mediating soloist whatsoever: There is the couple and the female corps. We are in the fourth act of Swan Lake, at least for most of the ballet; then, with the "Scherzo," where four gentlemen are introduced, and the concluding polonaise for the entire cast of "Diamonds," which brings in male cavaliers for each of the corps' ladies, Balanchine pulls one more rabbit out of his hat and brings Jewels back to a nineteenth-century court; that is, he gives Swan Lake a happy ending.

In the meantime, as all this transpires, the ballet is also developing the theme of walking--on flat, on point, alone, partnered--to climax in the pas de deux of "Diamonds," which opens with one of the most heartbreaking images of "pedestrian movement"--the buzzwords of downtown dance in 1967--in the classical repertory. At that time in his life, Balanchine was working daily on crossword puzzles at home before going to the theater, and it is quite possible that his wit, which could be quite barbed, was brought fully to bear in Jewels to make a statement about what walking on the stage ought to be. Was he conscious that he was taking a swing at postmodern dance? Probably not, although from a vantage point three decades later, Jewels does look like a divine comedy of a critique.

Jewels was an immediate hit at its premiere in 1967, and it is still well attended at New York City Ballet, where it has never been out of permanent repertory. It is also a hit at the Miami City Ballet, whose artistic director, Edward Villella, was the original male star of the pas de deux in "Rubies" and who, when he decided to stage the full work with his company, sought out the original ballerinas of all three self-contained sections to coach his own dancers. The participation of Violette Verdy ("Emeralds"), Patricia McBride ("Rubies") and Suzanne Farrell ("Diamonds") has helped to make Miami's production of Jewels the most choreographically persuasive and musically detailed version in the world.

Even so, the Kirov offers a level of ballerina dancing that neither the New York City Ballet nor Miami approaches--in the case of NYCB, hasn't approached in a couple of decades. At the performance I saw, the principals were Zhanna Ayupova (in "Emeralds"), Diana Vishneva ("Rubies") and the young soloist Daria Pavlenko ("Diamonds"). The night before, Svetlana Zakharova had led "Diamonds," and by the accounts of several colleagues also acquitted herself beautifully. What sets them off from their current American counterparts in the work? The scale of their dancing, for one thing, which begins with their prodigiously strong lower backs and feet. The technical challenges--and there are many in each section--simply do not show in the performances of Ayupova and Vishneva, both of them seasoned principals. For Pavlenko, there were some tiny miscalculations of balance during the partnered adagio, and in what may be the pinnacle of difficulty in "Diamonds"--the moment when the danseur releases the ballerina to take an unsupported turn in arabesque position on point--the soloist elected, like her age-peers in the United States, to make only one revolution, unlike the miraculous Farrell and the magisterial Kyra Nichols, who were sometimes capable of a heartstopping two, or even, on occasion, three (a feat on the order of landing a toss with a quadruple revolution in figure skating). And yet, no individual feat, not even this one, is central to Jewels. Ballet is not a sport; it is an art. A single turn, impeccably achieved and musically sound, would please Balanchine, for whom quality always mattered before quantity. And Pavlenko, like the lustrous Ayupova and the brilliant Vishneva, made quality her priority. She danced as if she were carrying the real story in her head of what the ballet was about, as if she had a mission to show it entirely through the conjunction of her movement and the music. The moment when she vibrantly released her partner's hand in coordination with a chilling peak chord in Tchaikovsky had the effect of lightning in a midnight field.

Jewels is not only a ballerina vehicle, of course; it was made to reveal an entire company, in every ranking, as a treasury. The Kirov today justifies its acquisition: It has depth at every level. The dancers may not catch the jazzy swing in it that the Americans take as their birthright; however, the grandeur of the Kirov schooling and the monumental look of the company style are both flattered and challenged. The ballet is exquisitely costumed--the original Karinska designs have been meticulously rendered--and the Peter Harvey set, which would seem too ornate now for an American version, looks just right here, with its great, soft swags at the wings and its layered drizzle of gemstones in the air. One misses the septet that Balanchine added at the end of "Emeralds" in 1976: Its concluding image, with three cavaliers on bended knee, one arm of each raised in fealty to an invisible ideal, anticipates the moment in "Diamonds" when the cavalier kneels to his ballerina, as if he had walked in search of her across a vast distance and, by accident, discovered her on a mountaintop. In dancing Jewels, the Kirov is bringing back to itself something of what it lost for most of the twentieth century, and when its dancers kneel and walk and kneel, these simple actions feel profound. In July, the company will be at the Met in New York, and Jewels is on the schedule.