Review: New York City Ballet in Programme 1 - Essential Balanchine at London Coliseum

Performance: 12 Mar 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 13 March 2008

Serenade/Agon/Symphony in C’

After an astonishing gap of one quarter of a century, the New York City Ballet has finally returned to London for an extended Spring Season of four programmes, starting with a tribute to their prolific founding choreographer, George Balanchine. He made well over 400 works in a virtually uninterrupted 60 years of creating dance: a lot to choose from but understandably the three ballets selected to export his home company’s “Essential Balanchine” are the signature pieces.

They display the complexity of his extended classicism and the immense variety of his output, not least in the contrast between the pared down simplicity of Agon (1957) and the sumptuous spectacle of Symphony in C (1947) with these two iconic works prefaced by Serenade (initially made in 1935 and revisited in 1941 and 1948). This work was the first he made in America – famously for students at his new School of American Ballet and choreographed in sequences to match the number of students he happened to have in each class. The opening moonlit tableau of 17 dancers set luminously in an icy-blue diagonal, diamond-shaped formation, immediately establishes a stunning visual beauty to match the gorgeous melodies of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Serenade for Strings’. And so it continues with each wave of rippling movement showing the intensity of Balanchine’s creative fervour, fired by the exciting new potential he was building in New York and fuelled by the vibrant imagery of America at that time; it’s no accident that the kaleidoscopic patterns of Serenade resonate with the extravagance of Busby Berkeley’s dance musicals for this is the ballet equivalent of Gold Diggers of 1935.

*Agon* is so very different, reflecting the more austere post-war years of its time, with dancers clad only in the plainest of practice clothes, but without embellishment, Balanchine’s brilliant combination of classical movement and athleticism shines all the more. I’ve seen it many times but never with the central, sculptured, pas de deux danced better than it was here by the incomparable Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans, dancers with 42 years combined service at the company. They should know how to perform it by now!

And so onto *Symphony in C*, the only work not originally made in New York, but Paris, just two years after the end of Occupation, but nonetheless still a signature work for NYCB, where it came just a year later. No other work, I think, shows off the company’s verve better than this; every dancer attacking Bizet’s allegro passages with a vibrant, joyful aggression; it was only in the second adagio movement that the standard dropped short of the overall excellence. However, this dynamism, sharpness and musicality comes with a price; the New York dancers can keep time with the fastest allegro steps but they don’t remain together in repose; eyes shifting around the auditorium, bodies heaving with heavy breathing, wobbles, stutters, and irregular lines and arabesque heights. Perhaps, it was the excitement of new surroundings, but it was the only irritant in an otherwise superb evening.

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