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New York City Ballet Offers Faithful and Flawless Renditions of Some of Mr. B’s Greatest Hits

I have always told my ballet students that because the art form is kept alive by each new generation of dancers, we must be as proficient in historical styles as we are in contemporary techniques. The important works of the past cannot be hung on museum walls the way the paintings of the masters are. Instead, we have to recreate what came before us or else the ballets will be lost. Years ago when I made that speech, I was referring to the centuries-old ballet classics. Yet on the afternoon of October 13th 2013, when the New York City Ballet offered a mixed bill of Balanchine’s iconic “black and white” ballets at the Koch Theater, I was reminded that now the dance gems of the 20th Century must also be danced with historical correctness if they are to survive.


Thankfully, NYCB did exactly that. The first work on the program was “The Four Temperaments” to the music of Paul Hindemith, affectionately known in the ballet world as “Four T’s.” The premiere was on November 20th, 1946 as part of the opening program of the Ballet Society, the precursor of the New York City Ballet. The unlikely venue for that momentous event was the Central High School of Needle Trades in NYC and the original cast included Tanaquil Le Clerq, William Dollar, Todd Bolender, and Francisco Moncion, among others. Now, 67 years later, a fresh crop of dancers schooled in Mr. B’s neoclassic style moved through the signature hip thrusts, intertwining arms, echoing movements, and flexed feet with absolute authenticity. Legend has it that one reason Mr. B. opted for “leotard ballets”, eschewing elaborate costumes and sets, was because the Ballet Society was launched on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, the artistic reason makes just s much sense. He reportedly wanted to focus attention on the movement and music with no distractions. Nothing is hidden in these “black and white” ballets and the dancers on that recent Sunday afternoon did Mr. B. proud.


Episodes, which premiered at the City Center of Music and Drama in 1959, came next. Again, the young City Ballet dancers (including some gifted apprentices) offered a faithful and impeccably rehearsed rendition of this ballet. NYCB has often been criticized for sloppy corps work but at this performance, I saw nothing but precision. That is especially impressive given the challenge of dancing to the twelve-tone score by Anton von Webern, a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg. In the 1977 book “Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets,” with Francis Mason, Mr. B. wrote that Webern’s score “seemed to me like Mozart and Stravinsky, music that can be danced to because it leaves the mind free to ‘see’ the dancing.”


The next two pieces were both premiered in 1972 during the Stravinsky Festival at Lincoln Center in what was then called the New York State Theater, now the Koch Theater, the venue the had become City Ballet’s home in 1964. In “Duo Concertant”, Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild took on the roles created by Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins. Mazzo is currently on the faculty of the School of American Ballet and Martins became NYCB’s Ballet Master in Chief after Balanchine died in 1983. In the shadow of their predecessors’ fame, the two 21st Century artists gave a compelling and winsome performance during which violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Susan Walters played the Stravinsky score on stage while interacting with the dancers. This charming conceit is as effective now as it ever was.


The closing ballet was “Symphony in Three Movements”, which fills the stage with dancers and also features soloists and a pensive pas de deux. The latter was eloquently dance by Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley. Overall, the matinee was a satisfying testimony to the enduring power of Mr. B.’s genius and the care with which his successors are curating the works that are his treasured legacy.

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