In a Tchaikovsky festival, Balanchine choreography helps
One intent of the New York City Ballet's recent Tchaikovsky Festival, which will be interspersed with regular repertory until the close of the season on June 28, has been to reveal the range of the composer being honored. One byproduct of this is a revelation of choreographic range. The choreographer in this case is George Balanchine, whose conception the Tchaikovsky Festival was.
Tchaikovsky is both a lyric melodist and a tragic symphonist on the grand scale. Within the 10 days of the festival proper, Balanchine gave us the essence of each facet. Tchaikovsky's way with a melody is epitomized by the garland waltz from Act I of the ballet "SleepingBeauty," itself an emblem of Tchaikovsky's genius for making music for dancers. The garland waltz is only a few minutes long, but within this short time Balanchine evokes all the rich splendor for which the four-act "Sleeping Beauty" is famous.
Using what seems a cast of thousands, including children from the company's school, Balanchine creates a panoramic vista of gently swaying garlands and dancers. As the dancers and their wreaths of flowers intertwine, separate, and swirl together again, it becomes impossible to separate the people from the flowers. A dancing garden is what the stage becomes, as variegated and fragrant as nature itself. Unlike nature but like art, however, this garden has clear formations and space for each bloom. Order lives hand in hand with amplitude. It's the best of all possible worlds -- which indeed is what "The Sleeping Beauty" is about.
Within a week of the "Pathetique" completion, Tchaikovsky passed away in tragic circumstances. In choosing to end the festival with the composer's sixth , last symphony, Balanchine obviously wanted to underscore the most serious aspect of Tchaikovsky's work. Yet in his choreography to the last movement of the symphony, the adagio lamentoso, Balanchine has done much more. He's made a religious occasion of the music, referring not only to Tchaikovsky's demise but to the general bereavement of his life -- and perhaps the life of all artists.
The "Adagio Lamentoso" is not so much a dance as an allegorical pageant about good and evil. It begins with three women, perhaps the three fates, gesturing half-desperate and half-resigned emotions. The stage then fills with massive groups who will signify the forces in Tchaikovsky's life -- long-haired angelic women who move in sad, lyrical waves, like violins; literal angels with soaring, bold wings; shrouded figures in purple and red, who crouch on the sides menacingly; and finally, bulky black figures of undefined shape.
They fall to the floor so as to make a cross and heave to the final notes of the symphony. In the middle of their death throes, a little girl in white approaches them, a candle in her hand. She blows the candle out, and music and dance stop.
"Adagio Lamentoso" is naturally a one-time occasion, though as a signature of the Tchaikovsky Festival it will long be remembered. There are other, happier signatures as well, and they will continue in repertory. The most glorious, of course, is the garland waltz, which is included in an enchanting collection of dances called "Tempo di Valse." Tchaikovsky's piano music is charmingly presented in Jerome Robbins's "Piano Pieces," the popular hit of the festival.
Many of the other ballets made for the festival range from silly to modestly experimental. The only exciting experiment was the decor of translucent tubing, the now-famous "ice palace." It shall remain for the season's duration as a setting for regular repertory, and it shall be fascinating to see if this set is indeed one for all seasons.