Say that five times in a row (Above photo of Sara Mearns in Davidsbundlertanze by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet)
Last Wednesday, my friend Judy and I went to NYCB for their Founding Choreographers II program, which included two by Balanchine — Ballo della Regina, and Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze (it’ll be a miracle if I don’t misspell it at some point), and Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces.
My favorite was the middle one (whose name translates to “Dances of the League of David” — Schumann’s imaginary society of artists organized to combat Philistinism), and it’s becoming one of my favorites of Balanchine’s in general, though many people can’t stand it and think it moves way too slowly. Made in 1980 and one of Balanchine’s last works, it’s meant to depict the mid-19th Century composer Schumann’s relationship with his wife, a pianist named Clara Wieck, and his ensuing mental breakdown, which led to a suicide attempt, followed by institutionalization.
There are four couples who seem to me to depict various stages of the same relationship — one is older and more mature, another is young, hot-headed and full of passion, another frolicking and playful, and the last and most pathos-ridden somewhere in between, full of loving and longing but pockmarked with fateful misunderstandings and missed connections, generally standing I think for the tragic impossibility of true human connection.
The music is all piano — the pianist plays onstage — and it seems to be set in a 19th Century upper-class living room, a window looking out onto a faraway lighted palace that almost looks like a distant Oz. At the beginning and end the women wear satin ballroom shoes, and in the middle pointe shoes, making it seem like the beginning and end mark the reality, the middle a dream.
Sara Mearns and Charles Askegard were mesmerizing as the leads — the couple I just described last. In their first duet, they spin in continuous chaine turns, one from front of the stage to the back, the other in the other direction, and they narrowly miss one another when they pass mid-stage. But even while they narrowly collide, it’s like they’re each spinning so fast, each in his / her own world, that they don’t even see each other. Toward the middle, when Charles dances all alone, four (I think it’s four) large black figures that resemble silhouettes of 19th Century writers bearing large quill-topped pens, emerge from each corner of the wings, and walk quickly toward him. He runs from each, soon realizes he is cornered, flees offstage, his hand to his forehead, obviously having a nervous breakdown, seemingly haunted by the phalanx of artists he’d created, or maybe haunted by his art, or his artistic calling. It’s a visually stunning scene and the figures, that seemed kind of clownish at first, end up being really frightening.
At the end, Sara (Clara) back in her satin ballroom shoes, tries to have a quiet, loving pas de deux with her husband. But ultimately he’s unable to do that, he’s haunted by those imaginary figures, and he flies backward again, away from her, disappearing into the wings, gone. She reaches out to him, as far as she can, unable to move her feet. It’s a heartbreaking last image.
The other two ballets were a sharp contrast. The first, Ballo della Regina, a fun, fast, high-octane ballet with lots of bravura parts for the female, and especially the male leads — danced here excellently by Megan Fairchild and Benjamin Millepied. I always think of this dance as the ballerino ballet because there are all these sweet, lovely ballerinas lightly tiptoeing around, and then on comes the man (who in my experience is usually David Hallberg) and completely takes over, doing these crazy high jumps and leaping turns while somehow managing to keep the feminine aesthetic, if that makes sense. The highlight to me is when the man / ballerino does these amazing continuous straight up and down jumps, his feet beating many times while he’s airborne, first the beats to the left, then to the right, then back to the left, then again to the right. He looks like this spectacular giant flying creature. I was worried Benjamin Millepied wouldn’t amaze me the same as David (he’s not as large for one thing), but he was very good, though he sometimes seemed a tiny bit wobbly landing the high jumps. Judy absolutely loved him.
And then the evening ended with Robbins’s Glass Pieces, which I always like at the beginning, then am bored by the middle. In the first section, all these dancers are crossing the stage, the vast majority just stomping their was across, most walking in straight lines, but some taking detours and jutting off to their left or right, and the logistics are just amazing. There are so many people crossing back and forth, each in his or her own circuitous path and it’s really a miracle no one collides with another. Every once in a while a dancer will actually dance across — in chaine turns, a pirouette or arabesque thrown in, or just a stylized raise of the arm and flight of the feet — some kind of action that marks him or her a dancer and not just a walker. The effect is really stunning.
And then the second section slows down and is mainly an adagio pas de deux that for some reason (regardless of who’s dancing it) just bores me. The third section speeds up again and begins with men doing jumps and other “man things” which would usually re-kindle my interest, but for some reason never does. I guess I’m just asleep by then.
Anyway, we went to P.J. Clarke’s again afterward and I found my ideal after-ballet meal: the iceberg wedge appetizer and a glass of white wine. The wedge, deliciously drizzled with creamy bleu cheese and sprinkled with little tomato and onion cubes, is downright enormous and you can pick on that thing for hours. It fills you up but it’s really just water. So healthy and no weight gain