The first foray this season into Balanchine’s modernist ballets – as essential to the city’s modern identity as MoMA’s permanent painting and sculpture galleries – confirmed that they constitute a family, the members motley but undeniably related.
The Four Temperaments throws up a welter of symbols: a woman extending from a man’s hip like the figurehead of a ship or turned on bent-kneed pointe like a corkscrew. The Hindemith score joins the muted listing of piano melody to prickly plucked strings: melancholy goaded by anger. Balanchine sets lunges across space, and the body and leg stretched flat like a plank, against jumps that travel solely up and down and turns that switch legs but stay in place. The Four Temperaments sustains an eerie mood.
Episodes, on the other hand, brings courtly reserve to experimental fervour. The almost clinical 1959 work dissects academic steps, then sutures them back together. You can feel the cuts. To a Webern score that sounds like gas bubbles bumping around in a beaker, Episodes is Balanchine’s most self-reflexive ballet.
By means of much prancing, speed-walking and flouncing of ponytail, Symphony in Three Movements announces that it looks beyond ballet to the world. Still, the 1972 work is highly mannered. Such contradictions account for its thrill. Like its Stravinsky score, Three Movements matches frivolity with militancy, jubilation with menace.
What distinguishes these works from one another also exposes them as kin. They may approach the task in their own way but, modernist to the core, they all rework the ballet idiom. They are obsessed by form and materials.
When ballet is reinventing itself, the steps need a thrumming vibrancy to compensate us for our disorientation. On Tuesday the dancing was largely flat – lacklustre and tentative.
The exceptions proved the rule. In Three Movements, Amar Ramasar translated the strenuous manoeuvring of his partner Sterling Hyltin into tenderness. Ashley Bouder’s nuanced musicality lent Choleric of The Four Temperaments a directness that turned anger into clearsightedness, carrying us through the crush of aspiration and agitation at dance’s end. Robert Fairchild may be the best Melancholic I have seen. In the span of his jumps and lunges and backbends and in his plummeting falls, he discovered a desperate hope in melancholy.