Balanchine liked to compare a well-curated show to a good meal. Who wants only steak or cake? But nothing has proved more satisfying than New York City Ballet’s recently inaugurated Balanchine Black & White nights, which limit themselves to ballets without tutus or much in the way of plots. Episodes, Apollo and The Four Temperaments, for example, are close enough in kind that the first ballet reshapes how we see the second, which in turn refocuses the third. You emerge from the theatre stuffed with insight.
Episodes’ spare Webern score “fills air like molecules”, Balanchine said. So he filled space with micro-steps – each move broken down cubistically to its component parts. You notice not the leg, but the ankle, then the calf, then the knee. The experience is not claustrophobic, however, but liberating. Episodes is the closest Balanchine ever came to making a Cunningham dance. The choreography may be mesmerising, but it does not seem inevitable: you can conceive of it being something else. Largely resistant to fantasy, the singular 1959 ballet invokes a world of possibility – for us and for the dancers.
Abi Stafford has been bland in more obviously suggestive roles, but in Episodes she was juicy, expansive and – when hammering away at a single move in a space circumscribed by a corps oblivious to her – crazy with ambition. It was glorious.
Unlike Episodes, Apollo – made for Diaghilev when Balanchine was not much older than the rash young god – resonates with story. Round, interlocking arms recall not only Apollo as radiant sun but also his emergence from the womb – the original production’s opening scene. Spearlike legs suggest both the sun’s rays and the efficiency of godly power. Primed by Episodes, however, we also notice incongruous detail, such as the three budding muses’ mechanical doll shuffle. As with Episodes’ fracturing of the body, the unnaturalness of these steps causes them to stick in the mind.
At this performance a new Apollo appeared. Robert Fairchild is thoroughly capable of both innocent charm (see Namouna, in which he played another boy with too much cake) and violent charisma (Robbins’s Dreamer). But on this highly anticipated occasion, he didn’t manage much of either. Still, you could see what he was aiming for: a god who, until the muses tutor him, exercises more enthusiasm than skill.
The Four Temperaments is usually thought of as a mood piece; Apollo brought out the drama. Ashley Bouder’s Choleric was all clarifying fury, her lines and jumps unswerving. And though the squadron of women slamming their legs in the air as they advance on Melancholic have always been menacing, this time they were Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane. Exuding stillness, Gonzalo Garcia’s Melancholic entered their midst like a sleeper resigning himself to his nightmares. At least they are familiar.