Posted on May 8, 2019
I saw George Balanchine’s 1946 ballet The Four Temperaments for the first time in 2013. I remember it as a special time in my career because I was on tour with Sarasota Ballet performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC during the Ballet Across America festival. The sense of cool space, the physical exhalation in the air on the Opera House stage – on that occasion danced by Pennsylvania Ballet – was a revelation in US style and amplitude. This exposure to something so different to anything I’d seen before in my career left its mark.
The following year I danced the First Theme, one of the three enigmatic couples who open the ballet and frame Balanchine’s subsequent depiction of each of the four medieval humours that determine a person’s temperament. The happy memories I associate with the ballet abound. In March, I made a trip to see Miami City Ballet (MCB) in a quadruple bill that opened with The Four Temperaments at The Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, a wealthy city north of Miami famous for being the weekend retreat of President Trump. Though I was happy to see Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, August Bournonville’s Flower Festival at Genzano and Justin Peck’s Heatscape, I’m spending this month thinking about Balanchine’s black and white essay in modernism. MCB is a company I admire, and its account of the ballet gave me much to think about.
Balanchine style, and what makes an accurate account of his ballets, is a much-discussed topic. The choreographer is unique in the sense that he taught his company its ballet class and was responsible for refining classical technique so that his dancers acquired a speed, accuracy and angularity unique to his New York ensemble. MCB was established as an offshoot of Balanchine’s company, and the current director, Lourdes Lopez, had a distinguished career with New York City Ballet (NYCB). The words and intentions of Balanchine are still very much in the room with today because his works are almost exclusively staged by former NYCB dancers.
Rainer Krenstetter and Dancers in The Four Temperaments. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev.
In my experience, there’s a wonderful sense of living memory when you learn a Balanchine ballet in the US. The Four Temperaments was staged for MCB by Paul Boos, and I found it interesting to note small points of difference between how MCB moved in the ballet compared with what I remember from the staging at Sarasota Ballet by Sandra Jennings. The difference was generally about attack. Miami’s staging was cool and imperious, with legs and feet weightily placed with courtly respect so that movement phrases favoured the end of melodic passages. I remember dancing the ballet with more bloody vigour. Alexander Peters as Melancholic was the exception, showing sufficient blood and guts for all concerned. It’s a tired comment to repeat that Balanchine always wanted more – cultivating a sense of risk in his dancers – but Peters’ ability to take a piqué in à la seconde at such a vertiginous angle to the floor before falling to it, marks out his interpretation of this temperament as more than “gloomily pensive”; he was manically distraught.
The Four Temperaments can at first appear remote and alien. Supposedly the ballet’s dramatic finale, with four ballerinas flying offstage in supported jeté lifts between two rows of dancers, made choreographer Jerome Robbins feel the dancers were creatures from another galaxy, departing our realm for another place. However, far from being stand-offish, the ballet reveals itself over extended exposure. The curtain rises on two dancers, whom some have suggested represent Genesis, symbolising an ideal man and woman. The man moves his hand first. I remember feeling a sense of power knowing I was in complete control as to when the music for the entire ballet would start. I liked to think about how the expectant audience found that initial silence and stillness; how could I push the pause just long enough to create some tension, but not oddity.
Above: Miami City Ballet dancers in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev.
The two dancers in the First Theme continue in a “question and answer” style sequence with legs that move from parallel to turned out before a ravishing wave in the music confirms the start of the ballet proper as the female dancer dives in to a dramatic penchée arabesque. It’s a covert statement where Balanchine asserts the baroque philosophical ideas that underpin ballet. Dance – and turn out – bestows grace on the body, civilising and organising the human form. Rainer Krenstetter as Phlegmatic alluded to these ideas in his beautifully rounded port de bras, acknowledging the four women who slink around him in the ballet’s fourth section.
There are some irresistibly beautiful musical moments Balanchine pulls out of Paul Hindemith’s score. A moment in the central Sanguinic pas de deux makes me think of a glass being filled with ice water: the slow, satisfying increase in volume as the ice cubes tinkle up the container’s side. The dancers are performing a sustained lift that marks out the perimeter of the stage space, completely incongruous to the image the choreography triggers in my mind. This departure of reality, the unpredictable abstraction a spectator can get from watching Balanchine’s black and white ballets is the same as looking at a painting by Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque. These artists remade the way we see the world so we could gain a denser perspective and a higher truth.
Katia Carranzo and Renan Cerdeiro in Duo Concertant. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev
When you let your mind wander whilst viewing these works of art, you get unusual results. Similarly, when a dancer surrenders to how Balanchine slices the body up vertically, classical steps take on a radical dimension. A ballerina steps on to a perfectly straight leg, both sides of her pelvis shining equally at her partner in the Third Theme, only for her to relinquish her sense of balance and let each side of her pelvis shift back and forth so her arabesque takes on a distorted, extended perspective, akin to an anamorphic painting. The ballerina wouldn’t be able to achieve the effect without her partner; Balanchine is making an implicit statement about the connection between people.
The connection between the individual and the crowd, and how we are absorbed or expelled from it, was jovially explored in Justin Peck’s Heatscape, made on MCB in 2015. Though the physical energy and sense of fun the dancers showed was arresting and invigorating, the opening section of Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, an extended pas de deux, danced at MCB by Katia Carranza and Renan Cerdeiro, shows us how Balanchine’s rhythmic impulses, married with his understanding of the power of moving an arm in contradiction to a leg, can say more than any words ever could in the briefest of instances, exposing all the colours of the spectrum held in one beam of light.
Mina image: Miami City Ballet dancers in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev.