Friday, September 11, 2009

The Four Temperaments

Going back to basics in 1946, Balanchine concentrated his attention equally on the smallest details and the largest resources of classical dance and on making transitions from one to the other clearer, perhaps, than they’d ever been before.

When, in the opening statement of the ballet – the first part of the Theme - we see a girl, supported on her points, turning from side to side and transferring her weight from one foot to the other as she turns, we see her do it with a finicky grace: she lifts and lowers the free foot, curls it around the standing leg, and carefully flexes it before arching to full point.We see, in short a foot becoming a point-nature being touched to artificial life. The detail looms for an instant, then quickly takes its place in the grand scheme of the ballet.

The Theme is full of elementary particles, jostling, caroming, crisscrossing space in strokes that define the boundaries of the territory Balanchine will invade.In the Theme’s second statement (there are three such statements, each a pas de deux), the side-to-side turns have become full revolutions, rapid finger turns marked off by the girl’s point as it taps the floor. In the third statement, the finger-turns are taken in deep plie with one foot held off the ground in passé position. The weight on that one supporting point looks crushing, but, as we have seen, there is something about a woman’s point that makes it not a foot – that makes it a sign. The image created by the third girl as she is spun is blithe, even comical; could Balanchine have been thinking of the bass fiddle the forties jazz player spins after a chorus of licks?

The developing sense of the passages I’ve cited is analogous to the process that takes place in the molding of a classical dancer’s body. The “story” of The Four Temperaments is precisely that story – the subjection of persons to a process and their re-emergence as human archetypes – but these citations may make it seems as if that process happened all in closeup, and if that were true we would be in a crazy man’s world. Balanchine has built a large and dense composition on a handful of cellular motifs, and it’s this economy that allows us to perceive the ballet and survive it, too.

Balanchine’s control of the action’s subliminal force allows us the most marvelous play in our minds; we’re torn in an agony of delight between what we see and what we think we see. Metaphoric implications flash by, achieve their bright dazzle of suggestion, and subside into simple bodily acts. The way the women stab the floor with their points or hook their legs around men’s waists or grip their partners’ wrists in lifts – images of insatiable hunger, or functional necessities?

[Melancholic’s] space is penetrated by menacing diagonals for the entries of the corps. They are enough to frustrate and block his every attempt to leap free. He leaps and crumples to earth. We recognize this man: his personal weather is always ceiling zero.

In the Sanguinic variation, the vista is wide, the ozone pure and stinging.The Sanguinic variation takes us to the top of the world, and twice we ride around its crest.

Phlegmatic is indolent, tropical, given to detached contemplation.The male soloist languishes, and loves it. Slowly he picks up invisible burdens, lifts them, and clothes himself in their splendor.

Choleric enters in a burst of fanfares and flourishes, kicking the air. Her fury must be appeased, assimilated by the ballet’s bloodstream. The entire cast collaborates in the process.

After a silence in which nobody moves, the great fugue of the finale begins its inexorable massed attack. All the parts the ballet is made of are now seen at once in a spectacle of grand-scale assimilation. Apotheosis. We see a succession of sky-sweeping lifts; we see a runway lined by a chorus of grand battements turned to the four points of the compass. The lifts travel down the runway and out as the curtain falls. Balanchine has interpreted the subject in the form of a dance fantasy, but never so literally or schematically that we need fear, if we miss one element, having missed all.
8 Dec 1975

- from the essay “Momentous” by Arlene Croce

"The Four Temperaments" was not a Balanchine ballet that I "got" immediately. My first exposure to it was on video, from the Dance in America series of the 1970s with a highly praised revival cast. The themes consisted of couples moving to create shapes but their movements would be abruptly stopped by foot, leg, or arm. Was this ballet about movement arrested? I was equally confused by the men's sections (Phlegmatic and Melancholic). The four women who sometimes accompany the men pose fashion model style, sometimes blocking the path of the men with their arms, torsos, or legs. The only sections I really responded to were "Choleric" with her sharp kicks and the ending, which really does surprise with the mass of dancers suddenly present on stage dancing in unison. It was a ballet I admired in the back of my mind, but didn't really care to see again, no matter how many ballet critics I read maintained that "The Four Temperaments" was a ballet they NEEDED to see at least every 5 years.

However, as I saw more ballet - particularly more traditional classical ballets - I could see how Balanchine was building off of the basics of ballet movement. I was also able to get beyond the early ballet-watcher confusion of "what am I seeing here?" and enjoy the pure movement - the languorous backbends, the sharp kicks, the flexing feet, the hip thrusts - not merely their shapes, but their force and impact as movements. Not that one cannot immediately enjoy "The Four Temperaments" as movement, but it took me seeing the way Balanchine was altering those movements - through their placement in the music, or accents, or general force - from their more typical use in older classical ballets to understand what was going on here. Only now am I beginning to understand how much this 1946 Hindemith ballet can train the eye and teach us of how much ballet still has to communicate.

Chicago, 20 October 2006, Evening

Throughout the day and evening performances, I kept thinking that NYCB has sure turned into a "short" company with a lot of short, compact female dancers. Martins was clearly keeping all the tall, long-limbed, Balanchine-caricatured women for this ballet, and I immediately wondered why several of them (Krohn, Bar, Riggins) weren't dancing soloist roles in Concerto, Symphony in C, and Divertimento, as they had the energy and phrasing and individuality one had been waiting for. (I also would have liked to have seen Somogyi in 1st movement Symphony in C.) I thought this was the best performed ballet (at least it had energy!) but I also thought it was a bit uncontrolled. It seemed like the dancers were breathing easier in this space, but at the same time not realizing that they were still performing classical ballet. In other words, they looked happy to exaggerate, and exaggerated too much for it. But there was a real sense of commitment, a real excitement to be out on stage that was sorely lacking in the other five Balanchine ballets, and for that (at the end of the day) I was grateful.