Dance Review: New York City Ballet in Balanchine at Lincoln Center

September 24th, 2012

Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

The New York City Ballet performing “Le Baiser de la F?e,” one of four ballets by the choreographer George Balanchine in the program on Saturday afternoon at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.

The biographies of George Balanchine tell us of his several wives, of his other loves, and of his devotion to the female dancer. His ballets, though, make his feeling for women yet more complicated. Even in moments of amorous surrender one part of his women stays unreachable. And one part of his men always craves, in female terms, what they cannot have.

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Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Teresa Reichlen in “Firebird.”

Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Joaquin de Luz and Megan Fairchild in “Le Baiser de la F?e” (“The Fairy’s Kiss”).

On Saturday afternoon, to heartening effect, four Balanchine ballets joined New York City Ballet’s repertory, only one of which — “Firebird” — had been seen earlier this year; all four were to Stravinsky. “Scherzo ? la Russe” (1972) is a frolic danced by 18 girls from the School of American Ballet to brass-dominated music recalling the merrymaking in Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka.” But there’s enough structural and rhythmic complexity — look here! look there! — to make its all-female, all-youthful fun constantly beguiling.

Each of the four fast, elegant trios of “Danses Concertantes” (1972) is a pure-dance comedy for one man and two women, in which the man seems to say, in the words of “The Beggar’s Opera,” “How happy could I be with either,/Were t’other dear charmer away.” Each woman is so lively and so demanding that he has to chase to keep up with their partnering demands. In “Firebird” (1949) the hero dances with two quite different women: the mighty Firebird and the Bride whom he frees from a wizard’s power. But it’s possible to feel that these heroines are like opposite halves of the same being.

Of the many Balanchine ballets probably the most admired was his complete version of Stravinsky’s one-act story ballet “Le Baiser de la F?e” (“The Fairy’s Kiss”), danced between 1937 and the 1950s. In that the hero was repeatedly and tragically sundered from the woman he loved by the fairy who was both his muse and his fate. Its pathos was underscored by an implication that the woman he loved was remote and unattainable. When Balanchine took Stravinsky’s Divertimento from this ballet and choreographed it anew in 1972, he removed both fairy and kiss, baiser and f?e; but the unnerving element is the now gradual and now sudden revelations of tragic fate as a psychologically internal force.

As the curtain falls on this Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la f?e” — the most extraordinary of this program’s four ballets — hero and heroine are in separate zones of the stage, each walking backward along a different path, each looking up with arms open in a gesture that may include helpless despair and question. It’s a shattering image. The “Baiser de la F?e” score is Stravinsky’s arrangement of multiple items by Tchaikovsky; the music for this final scene is his sublime treatment of Tchaikovsky’s tenderly anguished song “None but the Lonely Heart.”

What’s fascinating is the chain of successive moments that stealthily lets us know that this Divertimento — which begins with an all-female dance more amazingly intricate than “Scherzo ? la Russe” — is not plotless but tragic. Some of them are achieved through solely musical terms. The hero has an astonishing solo, full of self-contradictions and helpless impulsiveness, in which his first circuit of turning jumps around the stage would seem just a pure-dance effect, were it not for the way the music’s harmonies keep building powerfully and beautifully in tension. He seems both heedless of them and driven by them and, as you listen, the spectacle of him in this series of turning pounces feels like a man dancing on a precipice.

The two leading roles are perhaps the best that Joaquin de Luz and Megan Fairchild dance. The fullness and brio of her lower body is very fine, and the artlessness of her manner is just right. Too bad that her face and eyes carry nothing of the warmth and bleakness that made Patricia McBride, the role’s originator, so haunting here. Likewise Mr. de Luz’s unaffected elegance and rapturous intensity are excellent up to a point in a role created for Helgi Tomasson. Ms. McBride and Mr. Tomasson were like this — but oh! how much more so: more on-the-brink in timing, more full in texture, more beating-heart in passion.

In the case of “Firebird” I never saw Maria Tallchief’s celebrated performance of the title role except in filmed excerpts. While I say that Teresa Reichlen is the best Balanchine Firebird I’ve seen since this version of the production was revived after Balanchine’s death in the 1980s, I do have some idea of the fierce blaze and attack she’s missing. But the tremendous scale of Ms. Reichlen’s line and jumps does much to make the drama arresting. And, more clearly than anyone I have seen in performance, she paces the pas de deux with Prince Ivan as a negotiation.

Jonathan Stafford, who has often been content to perform as an amiable blank, shows, as Ivan, that he can characterize with glee and charm. More evidence of these virtues would be welcome amid this largely too-discreet generation. (While speaking of performers I must apologize for speaking last week of the male dancers in Thursday’s world premiere of “Bal de Couture” as if Ask la Cour were one of its many principal dancers; he, like Chase Finlay, is a soloist.)

As the lead man of the “Danses Concertantes,” Gonzalo Garcia has sweetness but no wit. Sterling Hyltin, as his ballerina, certainly has humor; her lightness, delicacy and zest are all enchanting — to a certain degree. The meeting of dancers and choreography on Saturday afternoon was happy — yet these are gifted, appealing dancers who have yet to cut loose with all the incisiveness and sweep that could make them stars.

New York City Ballet performs through Oct. 14 at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center; (212) 496-0600;

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