Balanchine’s Kammermusik No. 2 has aroused mixed feelings since its 1978 premiere, which may explain why it disappeared from New York City Ballet for eight years. But without this playful, relentless, puzzling ballet, the illustrious family of modernist Balanchine works to which it belongs would make less sense.
Like Agon, to Stravinsky, and Episodes, to Webern, this Hindemith ballet borrows from history’s scrapheap of dance moves: the Charleston’s knock-knees, the droopy doggy paws of jazz, the cancan’s tossed legs, the swivel-hipped showgirl strut. Like Symphony in Three Movements, the ballet has the spirit of a playground competition. On Tuesday, as the piano burbled, Teresa Reichlen and a punchy, space-devouring Sara Mearns flexed and stretched their joints in a canon so tight that they seemed to be running a race, Reichlen nipping at Mearns’s heels.
Meanwhile, the small all-male corps behind the frisky soloists semaphored as inscrutably as in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, but more doggedly. Balanchine was famous for saying “ballet is woman”; to the men in his company, he often just said “no”. Kammermusik’s corps seems mildly ridiculous – the only hint that something might be awry in this strange world.
The soloists follow the piano line and the corps moves to the orchestra. The transparency of the ballet’s schema makes it look unusually self-contained, but in fact Balanchine gravitates towards art for its own sake whenever the music is, as here, cheerfully objective and rhythm-driven. On opening night, Kammermusik was wedged between ballets with big themes, of destiny and love: Serenade, in an urgent, capacious performance led by Ashley Bouder, Janie Taylor and Rebecca Krohn; and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, buried beneath fussy new costumes.
Grief suffuses Serenade and punctures Brahms-Schoenberg. When the choreographer feels, he feels vast sorrow. With Kammermusik and family, he refuses to mourn. The ballets are insouciant, full of mysteries you feel no compulsion to solve, and triumphantly insular.
Kammermusik, like Stravinsky Violin Concerto, does have its romantic moments. At one point, Mearns repeatedly ran Amar Ramasar’s hand over her face like a washcloth. At another, she felt blindly behind her for his hand. But these impulses possessed no undertow. The machine of the dance kept chugging along.