“Maybe it’s not right to talk about,” Balanchine said in his old age. “But … in everything that I did to Tchaikovsky’s music I sensed his help.” As a student at the Imperial Theatre School, Balanchine grew up inside Tchaikovsky ballets, and his first piece in America was to the composer’s Serenade for Strings. He identified his fellow St Petersburger not only with the courtly milieu of his childhood and a child’s exposed feelings but also with the kind of wondrous mystery that would allow a dead composer to commune with him.
Divine agency in all its enigma and inexorability runs through and stretches over several of the Balanchine works in this season’s Tchaikovsky Celebration – the second of New York City Ballet’s three music-themed mini-festivals this year – and certainly in the first of the three programmes (alternating nights until January 27).
Serenade (1935) reflects the music’s huge shifts in scale and gravity by interweaving mass and individual – the impersonal corps’ seesawing, swirling, frothy patterns and the three principal women’s striking variations on them. These three elusive heroines seem to have emerged from the waves of destiny, to which they eventually succumb. The 30-minute ballet is so swift and protean and yet so sure of itself that you do not merely watch the principals; you want to know what drives them. The constant prick of mystery – “Why does this woman, and now this, evanesce into the wings?” – prepares us for the ultimate question, why one woman must die.
On opening night, Janie Taylor imagined the sacrificial lamb as both wilful and desperate. All the principals danced with an unembarrassed pathos and emphatic gesture suited to the rich sound that guest conductor Roberto Minczuk conjured from the orchestra.
In his fealty to the music’s spirit, Balanchine reordered movements. It is fine for Tchaikovsky to circle back to pomp after elegy, but the human element in dance discourages such a severe reversal of fortune. After death or misfortune, why would anyone be leaping around?
Which is the puzzle of the otherwise ravishing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (aka Ballet Imperial). The queen abandons her beloved – Ashley Bouder limpidly demonstrating the stages of her disillusionment over the wooden Jonathan Stafford – only to make a grand appearance with him in the finale. I’d call that a non-sequitur, not a mystery.
In Mozartiana (1981) Balanchine moved the third movement, the prayer, to the start so that the jester’s gigue that follows brings to mind “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity”. The appeal to the divine hovers, in fact, over the whole work. Mozartiana’s mystery, though, lies in its melancholy despite the general tone of courtly cheer, with much curtsying and bowing and reams of steps as delicate and precise as lace. Maybe the disconnect is the point: whatever the pull upward and beyond (Maria Kowroski let her arms linger beautifully behind the beat of her busy feet), the mundane will not let us go easily.