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Taking a risk

Posted on May 16, 2017

Last month, I watched Patricia McBride coach two New York City Ballet dancers, Lauren Lovette and Daniel Ulbricht, in the pas de deux and short solo passages from George Balanchine’s Rubies. McBride had created the woman’s role in 1967, and the Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreters Archive had organised the coaching session as part of its ongoing efforts to record the passing of his ideas and instructions from the dancers who worked closely with him to dancers of today.

After nearly two and a half hours, the three artists took a break for lunch; none of them had stopped to rest since the cameras started rolling. McBride had spent the morning on a pas de deux that lasts onstage for about five minutes, not teaching the steps, which the dancers already knew, but clarifying the focus and sharpening the attack. “He did it, we did it, and that was it,” she told them. “It’s all in the music.” “The music is always first,” Balanchine once said. “I couldn’t move without a reason, and the reason is music.”

The ways in which dancers respond to music distinguish one artist from another and one company from another. In contrast to the studio session I attended, The Royal Ballet’s recent revival of Jewels looked accurate and careful rather than exciting. Well coached in the steps, the dancers captured their intricacies neatly without venturing into the musical subtleties Balanchine implanted in every phrase.

Leading Diamonds with her customary sensitivity, Marianela Nuñez stole the show, hinting at enchantment, veiled mystery and maybe a princess before bursting into a sparkling display of pure joy that flashed Tchaikovsky’s noble grandeur to every seat in the theatre. Leading Rubies, Sarah Lamb and Stephen McRae carved Stravinsky’s spiky rhythms into a small jagged gem, sharply shaped but devoid of playfulness or wit. In Emeralds the dancers seemed to be holding their breath to maintain a fragile mood they never quite established. Languorous tempi alone can’t evoke Balanchine’s perfumed romantic atmosphere, and everyone loses when performers confuse precision with musicality.

This confusion never infected Tamara Rojo’s dancing, and she doesn’t permit the members of English National Ballet (ENB) to muddle the two either. As a result, the company boldly confronted William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps on the same bill and did full justice to aggressive works that require monumental energy and a ferocious attack. Though stretched to the limits of their technique, the nine artists on opening night, particularly Tiffany Hedman and Precious Adams, grabbed Forsythe’s challenge with fierce determination, easily overriding occasional flickers of fatigue that loosened the relentless tension.

The only company except the Paris Opéra Ballet allowed to dance Bausch’s Sacre, ENB took a huge risk by tackling it, possibly fearing a comparison with the French troupe. Salomon Bausch, the choreographer’s son and the executive director of the Pina Bausch Foundation, predicted “a new experience not only for the dancers but vice versa for the piece, which is going to have a new home in London,” and if either he or Rojo were nervous about its fate, they needn’t have worried.

Rojo’s presence and attitude permeate the company’s ever more ambitious projects. In this instance, her dancers converted risk into memorable opportunity as she always has herself, tuning their attention and their physical attack attentively to Stravisky’s score to meet and match every nuance of its primal power.

The reason companies dance so differently depends in part on what they dance. In New York, after opening the spring season with classics by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, New York City Ballet launched the Here/Now Festival, a four-week event, seven performances per week, featuring 43 ballets by 22 choreographers distributed over ten programmes, three of those programmes dedicated individually to Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck. The Royal Ballet moved straight from 14 performances of Jewels into ten performances of Mayerling. What do those choices say about each company’s priorities?

Picture: Tiffany Hedman and James Streeter in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.
Photographer: Laurent Liotardo.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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