Saturday, September 28, 2019

Indianapolis Ballet opens its second full season with a program of Balanchine

George Balanchine had such an affinity for music that he often thought of composers as his collaborators in an almost mystical sense. He spoke of how a work might suddenly come together after rehearsal and production travails. "All of a sudden everything looks wonderful. That's his doing," he told his biographer Bernard Taper, who then adds the choreographer's explanation: "He points to the heavens, 'Tchaikovsky's.'"
George Balanchine, revered father of American ballet.

The anecdote might allude to the wholeness the Russian-born choreographer lent to the Russian composer's failed third piano concerto, which in Balanchine's hands became "Allegro Brillante."  The work opened Indianapolis Ballet's "Evening of Balanchine" Friday night in the Tobias Theater at Newfields.

Even lacking the common ground of the same homeland, Balanchine probably found that Gershwin spoke to him as well from beyond the grave. In fact, the Gershwins came from Russia, but the New York-born songwriter of genius shaped much of what is today regarded as authentically American popular song for modern times. So there was some need for Balanchine to blend the balletic tradition that was his birthright with a fresh response to one of the most characteristic figures of the New World, Balanchine's adopted home.

Balanchine set his sights on choreographing Gershwin while the composer was still alive, but his premature death short-circuited that plan. By the time the choreographer had iconic status in American ballet, Balanchine managed to close the circle with the magnificent "Who Cares?" in 1970.

This almost 40-minute response to a wealth of Gershwinia  was the centerpiece of an enchanting program, which will be repeated here today and Sunday and will then travel to the University of Notre Dame on the company's first tour.  With recorded orchestrations by Hershy Kay and against a backdrop of a Manhattan skyline at night, the company showed its collective sparkle and precision in the opening and closing ensemble pieces, "Strike Up the Band" and "I Got Rhythm."

There the syncretism Balanchine fashioned of tradition and innovation bears particular fruit. Movement that might not seem to have much connection separately is unerringly blended in this ballet. The vocabulary of turns and leg beats is expressed at ease with aspects of vernacular dance: flat-footed pizazz, syncopated twists, openly flung arms, and underlining of Gershwin's liberally accented tunes with brief patterns of forward hops on one foot.

Technical aplomb is forged with a nod to song lyrics as well as the music itself. The solos, duets, and small-scale ensembles succeeded one another to amazing effect, and the lyrics (where I remembered them) never seemed irrelevant to what the choreography was about. Kristin Toner's stunning virtuosity in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" evoked the song's second line, which is repeated at the end: "with a new step every day." There are plenty of "new steps" in Balanchine's setting of this song, and Toner seemed to exult in bringing them off.

One of the Gershwin brothers' most heartwarming ballads, "The Man I Love," pits repetition of a rising figure in
 Kristin Toner (from left), Yoshiko Kamikusa, and Camila Ferrera
the melody against a chromatic downward slide in the accompaniment. It's a perfect representation of yearning checked by caution and second thoughts. As danced by Yoshiko Kamikusa and Chris Lingner Friday evening, the danseuse's lingering advance on a diagonal across the floor toward the danseur amounted to a slow-motion portrait of attraction and hesitation. The ardor that eventually overtakes the couple was exquisitely represented. It will be hard to think of this familiar song from now on without calling to mind the way Kamikusa and Lingner put its meaning into dance a la Balanchine.

There were also brilliant solos reflecting the songs by Kamikusa ("Fascinatin' Rhythm"), Camila Ferrera ("My One and Only") and Lingner ("Liza").  The men in ensemble created a nice tableau of informal chumminess and coordinated bravado in "Bidin' My Time."  Several women brought "Somebody Loves Me" up to a plane of rhapsodic assertion and exuberance.

Gershwin once advised pianists to play his songbook with minimal use of the sustaining pedal. His rationale? "The rhythms of the American popular song are more or less brittle — they should be made to snap." Balanchine caught that characteristic in his "Who Cares?" choreography, but he also applied the sustaining pedal of continuity in expression and movement inherited from the Russian classical tradition.

That tradition is at the center of "Allegro Brillante," in which a focused energy is lent to music of Tchaikovsky that lacks it somewhat in the original. On Friday, Kristin Toner and Riley Horton provided the central focus in his piece, with an echoing radiance from four couples. The lines were immaculate, and the interaction of the couples avoided stultifying predictability.

Bringing the program up to intermission was "Sonatine," Balanchine's sensitive treatment of Maurice Ravel's piece for solo piano of the same title. Former Butler University faculty member Panayis Lyras, the distinguished brother of the company's founding artistic director Victoria Lyras, was on hand to offer an idiomatic reading of the classically minded but idiosyncratic Ravel as accompaniment.

The Friday performance offered the evening's first chance to admire the superb partnership of Kamikusa and Lingner. The music's somewhat restrained emotion is loosened admirably by the choreography, which includes unconventional elements (the male dancer's thigh slaps) amid a flexible updating of pas de deux tradition. That tradition was well-sustained and supplemented by these performers, who are scheduled to repeat the accomplishment in Sunday's concert.

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