Tuesday, May 22, 2007

NYCB Style - Part I

The New York City Ballet formally came into existence in 1948. Founded by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, other choreographers were initially invited to participate (including Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, and Jerome Robbins), but it soon became dominated by the works and aesthetic vision of Balanchine. As Croce wrote in the early 70s (paraphrased), no other artistic institution was as singularly the creative vision of one person (Balanchine) the way New York City Ballet was. The first generation of ballerinas in the company included Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams, and Melissa Hayden. To this line-up, Allegra Kent, Jillana, and Violette Verdy were added in the 50s. Among the men, Jacques d'Amboise, Edward Villella, and partner extraordinaire Conrad Ludlow joined Francisco Moncion and Nicholas Magallanes. Balanchine's building of the repertory, a combination of more classical fare (Firebird, The Nutcracker, segments from Swan Lake) and highly innovative works to new music by Stravinsky, serialist compositions of Webern, and the works of other 20th century composers, would also shape the style of the company, right up to the time - 1963 - (as Garis wrote) that Suzanne Farrell arrived on the scene.

Tanaquil LeClercq as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker (1952)

Edwin Denby, “A letter on New York City’s Ballet”, August 1952
The NYC style is the most particularized and the clearest defined of all the American ones; the most Puritan in its uprightness. For me an immediate attraction of the NYC’s style is the handsomeness of the dancing, and another is the absence of glamour, of glamourization. To have left glamour out is only a negative virtue, but there is a freshness in it to start with.

Handsome the NYC way of dancing certainly is. Limpid, easy, large, open, bounding; calm in temper and steady in pulse; virtuoso in precision, in stamina, in rapidity. So honest, so fresh and modest the company looks in action. The company’s stance, the bearing of the dancer’s whole body in action is the most straightforward, the clearest I ever saw; it is the company’s physical approach to the grand style – not to the noble carriage but to the grand one. Simple and clear the look of shoulder and hip, the head, the elbow, and the instep; unnervous the bodies deploy in the step, hold its shape in the air, return to balance with no strain, and redeploy without effort. Never was there so little mannerism in a company, or extravagance. As clear as the shape of the step in the NYC style is its timing, its synchronization to the score at the start, at any powerful thrust it has, at its close. So the dancers dance unhurried, assured, and ample. They achieve a continuity of line and a steadiness of impetus that is unique, and can brilliantly increase the power of it and the exhilarating speed to the point where it glitters like cut glass. The rhythmic power of the company is its real style, and its novelty of fashion. Some people complain that such dancing is mechanical. It seems quite the opposite to me, like a voluntary, a purely human attentiveness.

It is an attention turned outside rather than inside. It is turned not to sentiment and charm, but to perspicuity and action. It suggests a reality that is not personal, that outlives the dancer and the public, like a kind of faith. The company is not trying for an emotional suggestion; it seems to be trying for that much harder thing, a simple statement.

Allegra Kent and Edward Villella in Bugaku (1963), photo by Bert Stern

Stravinsky's comments on
Movements (1963)
Those extraordinary bee-like girls (big thighs, nipped-in waists, pinheads) who seem to be bred according to Balanchine’s specifications.

Six members of the original cast of Agon (1957)

Arlene Croce, "Balanchine's Girls: The Making of Style," April 1971

[Following Agon] These girls didn’t seem to think; they acted. They didn’t walk; they swam and hovered in balances and dove with a perilous insistence; or they moved one muscle and froze the time they moved it in, as if time, by catching up, might force it to move by itself. Balanchine’s choreography in this style, after Agon (1957) and up through Movements (1963), was increasingly microscopic, cellular: tight phrases exploding like crystals in a confined space…The new ballets to the new music seemed to seize on qualities of architectural scale and anatomical development that made sense to New Yorkers. And they made sense in an era of affluence. These were richly concentrated, high-protein ballets, with more “grip” per measure than anything that had been seen up to that time.

For some people, the idea that poetry can pour from the bodies of hardworking American girls…is hard to believe, and occasionally, as we watch one of these girls moving with brilliant clarity, the thought “She doesn’t know what she’s doing” occurs to us. If she did, though, would she do it better? The question has never been answered. It isn’t mindlessness but the state beyond mind that moves us in perfect dancing. It’s what moves the dancer, too.

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"It suggests a reality that is not personal, that outlives the dancer and the public, like a kind of faith. The company is not trying for an emotional suggestion; it seems to be trying for that much harder thing, a simple statement."

I suppose that is the grandeur and lack of pretension in any work of genius. Not tortured, "impersonal", and all-encompassing. In the end, it serves the art, not the ego.