Before he had a company, Balanchine was a choreographer for hire on Broadway and in Hollywood, churning out numbers for the likes of On Your Toes, Cabin in the Sky and The Goldwyn Follies. So it is no surprise that his Who Cares? catches the swagger, wit and breeziness of its Gershwin tunes and – tucked into their corners – the big-city longing and loneliness. But Ivesiana, revived for the first time in almost a decade for the New York City Ballet’s American Music Festival in the first two weeks of the season, showed how the insouciance and emptiness belong together. And that was surprising.
Who Cares?, brightly danced on opening night, lays on the charm by channelling slinky Broadway rhythms into ballet steps. But there are flashes when the Busby Berkeley-esque cohesion gives way and the dancers seem lost in space. Ivesiana – a homage to the New England modernist composer Charles Ives from 1954, the year he died – homes in on that void.
In the floating Mahlerian gloom of Ives’s Central Park in the Dark, Ashley Laracey wandered among a chorus of loose-haired women swaying inchoately like the shadows of trees or huddled like boulders.When she came upon Zachary Catazaro she flung herself against him with sexual hunger before setting off again on her sleepwalker’s sojourn.
She turned out to belong to the implacable nature around her. By the next section, The Unanswered Question, the woman, now magnetic Janie Taylor, had become a female manifestation of the dark itself, looming over a man (Anthony Huxley) who blindly sought her. Imagine a sequel to Serenade in which the sacrificial maiden returns as a ghost, somersaulting backwards from her airborne throne to skim along the ground like a blind winged goddess. It sounds ridiculous, but in her slow motion and sudden weighted falls Taylor was mesmerising.
To Ives in anarchic sampling mode, a goofy romance ensued. Sara Mearns as a Betty Boop flirt and her consort Amar Ramasar won each other over with solos seemingly concocted on the spot from bits and pieces of old popular dances. Balanchine makes brilliant sense out of this shift from primitive mystery to rough-hewn romantic fun in the sun. He suggests by unlikely juxtaposition that American self-invention – our insistence on a spanking new culture unmoored from history – leaves us vulnerable to disappearing into nature’s maw.
Balanchine loves the fearless American present tense, foolish though it may be. It is the dominant spirit of Stars and Stripes and the bouncy comic Tarantella, also on the programme. As with Mearns and Ramasar, these ballets’ leading couples seduce each other with competing tricks. Whoever is most entertaining wins. On opening night, Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette, the tambourine-wielding Megan Fairchild and Joaquín De Luz, all won.
Ivesiana, however, is only briefly a game. In the end, the engulfing shadows return.