Balanchine could not stage a bicentennial ballet when the time came because he already had done – the bubblegum-bright Stars and Stripes, made in the hot middle of the cold war. So he celebrated the losing side instead. Populous, mainly exhilarating, Union Jack troops the colours, entertains East End dance-hall shenanigans, and ends up dockside with randy Popeyes and their cheesecake chorus-line mates.
The best part comes early. Seven regiments of 10 dancer-guards apiece, each in its own colour of kilt, advance with slow menace in columns, then rearrange themselves methodically yet magically in the kind of elaborate rite that ballet knows well.
In his final decade, Balanchine returned often to the roots of dance. With a little tightening and brightening, he demonstrated, a ballet could emerge from walking, running and jumping, as well as from the proto-choreography of battle and royal court. For Union Jack, he made the regiments’ full stops sharper (as the guards stare out impassively), the re-formations more slippery, and the flares of movement more dramatic. But the emotional containment remained; when the clans eventually break into Scottish jigs, their joy feels cathartic.
On its first outing this season, the dancers performed the nearly hour-long work (until May 20) with precision, vigour and pleasure. Among the wonderful soloists, Tyler Angle flung himself into his jigs with rough grace and Savannah Lowery brought a fierce dexterity to her impossibly swift syncopations.
Balanchine liked a programme to be varied, so he would have loved the leap from Union Jack to the emotional turmoil of Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze”. This intimate portrait of a love affair, revealed in its several dimensions by four couples, begins as slowly as Union Jack, but it is a movie-flashback sort of slow. And once we have entered the characters’ world, their lunging, arching, embracing, striving and grieving pick up speed.
The dancers moved expansively and impulsively, with Robert Fairchild – in a role debut – lending an especially improvisatory air to his fusillade of leaps and Sara Mearns stunning in her extremity. Still, a sense of unreality hovered over the ballet. Though moving with passionate abandon, the women looked past their lovers, as if into their own immaterial future.