Last night I went to see New York City Ballet, which is coming to the end of “Balanchine Black and White Week”, celebrating the choreographer’s black and white leotard ballets. On the program was Episodes, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Symphony in Three Movements. Awesome lineup.
I didn’t know how awesome, though, until I saw Episodes. I had never seen it before, and it totally blew me away. It’s a kaleidoscopic Balanchine powerhouse: ever-shifting patterns, luscious, yet angular choreography, and all-around hip-jutting female domination. I think it’s the most feminist and feminine Balanchine ballet I’ve ever seen, as you’ll understand when I describe the individual sections, of which there are four.
(music by Webern) opens with “Symphony, Opus 21”. Abi Stafford and Tyler Angle led an energetic, responsive corps de ballet of three couples, who more or less imitated most of the steps the principal couple performed. Abi tidily introduced us to the aggressively angled forward- and sideways-tilted hip motions that dominate this ballet; hers were especially smooth and economical. Tyler partnered her gracefully as she shot him sidelong glances from under lowered lashes, revealing a sensuous quality underneath her neat exterior.
Next up were Teresa Reichlen (yay tall girls!) and Ask La Cour in “Five Pieces, Opus 10”, and here’s where I saw most of the mix of feminism and femininity that so struck me. In this section, the stage is dark, save for a large spotlight in the middle, which casts stark, sculptural shadows on the dancers’ bodies and faces. Teresa dominated the pas de deux, climbing up and over and winding herself around Ask in a manner that called up a narrative in which a man becomes powerless in the face of a powerful woman. Quite a few of the couple’s movements were more than a little suggestive of this; at one point, Ask knelt as Teresa climbed over his shoulders on pointe to stand in front of him, and then held is hands as she slowly tilted backwards, pushing her pelvis forward toward the audience. Another very striking pose was one in which she again stood in front of a kneeling Ask, and squeezed his hands between her thighs. She absolutely commanded the stage and radiated a feminine authority that garnered her cheers during the curtain call.
Wendy Whelan and Sebastien Marcovici were next in “Concerto, Opus 24”. What can I say about Wendy as a neoclassical ballerina that has not already been said? She has mastered this style; it seems to be in her very bones, in a body built for this kind of movement. She can section off her arms and legs as no one can. Her strength and maturity made it all look easy. This section also had a feminist undertone, but was mildly aggressive, where Teresa’s section was more sexual. The only man onstage with five women, Sebastien was continuously surrounded by them in circular formations. They seemed to be closing in on him, and at one point he seemed to be struggling to break free as he thrust is hands in the air repeatedly, while the women closed ranks in a tight circle around him, holding hands in a kind of solidarity.
The fourth and last section was “Ricercata in six voices from Bach’s ‘Musical Offering'”, featuring Sara Mearns, Jonathan Stafford, and a large female corps. (By now, it kind of seemed like Wendy and Sara had brough their own personal lady-militias with them). Now, as you may know, I am a bit partial to Sara, and I was not disappointed last night. She radiated strength and assurance and showed her trademark abandon–it did not seem so much that she had come onstange, rather, it looked like she had been turned loose. Sara always seems to me like a wild thing gently governed by beautiful technique; she knows just how much she can let go, while still remaining solid and confident. She managed to make the stark movement lyrical with her trademark lifted chest and fluid upper back and arms, which really took my breath away.
After the ballet finished, I realized I had been leaning forward in my seat in the same pose for the entire time. I’m not sure whether I blinked or not.