Peter Martins, artistic director of New York City Ballet, choreographer of Barber Violin Concerto, must have felt proud of his work performed Friday night by four excellent dancers of the Miami City Ballet.
Martin, called to the stage of the Adrienne Arsht Center to take bows with the dancers (and with Mei Mai Luo the Concerto’s solo violin), looked happy and rightfully so: the MCB’s Barber premiere – danced by Simone Messmer, Nathalia Arja, Rainer Krenstetter and Chase Swatosh – was an instant hit; one hopes it will be seen again soon.
Actually, the ballet, choreographed to the eponymous 1941 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber, consists of two parts: the longer first, serious, stately, athletically innovative with, importantly, a wail of mystery; the shorter second, simple, overtly and incongruously farcical.
Two couples: the classical one of Messmer paired with Krenstetter, and the modern one of Arja with Swatosh, (the latter couple bare-footed and Swatosh bare-chested), performed a series of intricate, sculptural pas de deux which enhanced the dancers’ balletic prowess and physical attraction. Exchanging partners and positions, the four dancers seemed to be constantly measuring one another, as young people often do on their first date. The beautifully coiffured Messmer projected aristocratic aloofness. Initially, she appeared disinterested in what could be – or were not entreaties of her equally cool Krenstetter.
(At one point later on, and quite unnecessarily, Messmer suddenly lets her hair lose to indicate a change of mind- which can be artistically done with more subtlety. Hopefully, for the next showing Martins will decide to forgo that trite device. A much-abused coup de théàtre, it is proper in Giselle when the ballerina loses her mind.)
The other, less interesting part of the Barber Violin Concerto, was an earthy, blatant effort by Arja to sexually conquer Krenstetter. He not only dislikes her, but actually tries to get rid of her in every way. But Arja is relentless; she persists and succeeds. At the end, she jumps landing on Krestetter’s shoulders; symbolically she strangles his head with a two-legged grip and, outstretching her arms like Samothrace, silently shouts: “I am the boss.”
George Balanchine’s La Source, the plotless ballet based on excerpts from several compositions by Léo Delibes, is not the choreographer’s finest oeuvre. Nor do I believe he wanted it to be.(He does not even mention it in his book “Balanchine’s New Complete Stories of of the Great Ballets.”)
But Balanchine, the most musical of all choreographers, liked the gentle ballet music of the 19th century French composer. He also knew better than most the history of ballet. Thus in La Source he was paying homage to the dance of France, the cradle of ballet.
While not a few people seeing Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty believe that the tsarist Russia created ballet, that form of art truly originated in French royal courts in the 15th century. A century later, Louis XIV founded the world’s first professional ballet company, the Paris Opéra Ballet; to this day, the ballet vocabulary is all French.
In the 19th century, Russian composers and choreographers dramatized and to a degree professionally revolutionized ballet technique; they also added exotic plots and locations, elaborate scenery and costumes. The French ballet remained as a placid expression of noblesse, only slightly different from what it was performed in pre-Revolutionary Versailles where it served basically to give pleasure to the Sun King, and was a backdrop of the aimless Bourbon life style.
Balanchine’s La Source does not extoll the fame of Louis XIV, but I am sure that France’s most famous king, surrounded by hundreds of fawning aristocrats would have enjoyed watching its 11 dancers: two soloists, eight ballerinas and their leader.
Like the dancers of the preceding centuries, Balanchine’s ensemble moved elegantly on the stage, with small steps and tender demeanor, performing as it were ballet class No. 1. The soloists – Tricia Albertson and Renato Penteado seemed underwhelmed by their task. Perhaps a couple of talented corps de ballet dancers would have injected more verve and passion into their parts. And the public seemed pleased – that’s what counts in the program’s beginning.
It is no secret that I am not enamored of the night’s last ballet, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, choreographed to the eponymous composition by Philip Glass. Pointing out that a number of people, including at least one famous ballet critic, feel the same, I recently asked one of the company “barons” why does MCB, with its wealth of ballets “in storage,” keep presenting Upper Room. His reply: “Because young people like it.” Friday night it did not seem so to me.
There are several questions about Upper Room. Why, for example, does the highly repetitive, melody-free composition – which some call respectively “elevator music” – merit a balletic treatment, and a boring one at that? Hard as I have tried, giving Tharp every benefit of the doubt, I could not find any real meaning in Upper Room. I don’t find meaningful observing a bunch of sneaker-clad youngsters aimlessly jumping, twisting and turning like high school students whose basketball team won a game against a hated opponent.
Then, why did Tharp divide the ballet into nine “acts”? The dancing steps in all of them seems the same except for the number of performers in each. And why not cut the repetitious Upper Room by half, perhaps making it more palatable?
As for the public liking Upper Room, last Friday few people applauded its individual “acts.” The applause was general when the ballet ended, I believe because we could plainly see that 16 MCB dancers did the best they could with a pointless material, and because we commiserated with these very talented artists.