The New York City Ballet on Sunday, May 28.
I wanted to go to this particular New York City Ballet program because each segment was set to music by Igor Stravinsky. I knew the company’s crisp neoclassic aesthetic would perfectly match Stravinsky’s later music, and I was eager to see how the dancers would interpret Firebird, one of the composer’s earliest works, written when he still indulged in romantic and primitivist styles. As it turned out, the company’s Firebird was the last piece on the program and by far my least favorite of the afternoon. I was sorry to see it all end on such a disappointing note.
But first, let me describe what I enjoyed. Scènes de Ballet, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, was a delight. The piece features more than five dozen students from the School of American Ballet, from the youngest to those ready to graduate. It has no plot but takes place in a ballet studio. A dancer’s barre divides the stage diagonally from back stage right to front stage left and creates an imaginary mirror. The dancers on one side reflect the movements on the other.
The mirror conceit is a gimmick, but Wheeldon exploits it beautifully, creating lovely, intricate choreography that shows off the professionalism and exquisite coordination of the young dancers. It’s easy to accept the illusion of the piece, to believe, for a few minutes, that you are watching dancers pirouette before their reflections.
In the most charming sequence in Scènes, all but one of the dancers clear the floor, leaving just one young girl leaning on the barre and staring dreamily at her reflection as it, too, backs away into the darkness. An older ballerina and her cavalier replace the reflection, and we realize we are watching the little girl’s dream of her own future. It’s an enchanting moment, largely because we feel that at that moment, nothing on stage is imaginary. No doubt the young pupil does dream of dancing on pointe with a partner — just like the young woman ready to graduate from the school they both attend.
After the enormous cast of Scènes, the next two numbers were extremely intimate. I’m not familiar with Le Baiser de la Fée, so the Divertimento from that ballet was a bit bewildering, as I couldn’t follow the emotional subtext of the dancing. I preferred the striking Duo Concertant. A violinist and pianist provided the music on stage while Yvonne Borree and Nikolaj Hübbe danced together. George Balanchine’s choreography matched Stravinsky’s elegant yet occasionally stark composition. The lighting made the number particularly dramatic; at a few points, the stage went dark but for a single, small spotlight, which Borree and Hübbe danced into and out of with grace.
Then came Firebird, what I’d been waiting for all afternoon. Stravinsky’s Firebird suite is a personal favorite of mine, but in this production, the scenery and costumes overwhelmed the music and even the dancing. It’s easy to see why: Marc Chagall designed the original production in 1945, and images from his work permeate — and suffocate — every other element of the ballet.
Like most people, I adore Chagall. If you can’t appreciate his rich, fantastical paintings, there’s something wrong with you. But too often, his eccentric design stifled rather than enlivened the New York City Ballet production. For me, at least, the novelty of seeing Chagall’s paintings brought to life wore thin after a while; I wanted to see people dance, but they were too busy parading about to do so.
Nowhere was this more disappointing that the Firebird finale. In the finale, Stravinsky sounds the same 13-note sequence again and again, building intensity with each repetition until he reaches a resounding climax. The music is extraordinary, and I could hardly wait to see the company bring Stravinsky’s rousing music to life. To my dismay, however, choreographers Balanchine and Jerome Robbins simply used the final minutes of the piece to position the enormous cast into a final picturesque tableau to show off Chagall’s design. The orchestra climbed higher and higher, and the dancers merely raised and lowered their arms occasionally. The prima ballerina had nothing to do but hold her enormous red skirt, which probably wouldn’t have allowed her to execute even a simple pas de chat.
To me, this was a travesty. The electrifying Firebird finale makes me want to get up and dance. Pinning the New York City Ballet company to the floor, even in the service of Chagall’s design, does a disservice to Stravinsky and to the dancers. The New York City Ballet’s Firebird didn’t turn me off Chagall, but it did convince me that his glorious artwork is better presented on a canvas than a stage.