at the Dance Center of Columbia College

September 16-19

George Balanchine, asked once how he created his dances, said “I just give my dancers what they are good at.” His answer was modest, but I tend to take him at his word. Finding the movements a dancer does well and having him or her do them seems a sure formula for success.

But Balanchine’s success had its price. By slanting his choreography toward his dancers’ best movements, he pushed his dances in the direction of displays of technical prowess. Many writers have noted that Balanchine gradually became less concerned with narrative and story line; at the same time he became less concerned with his ballets’ emotional effects. The emptiness at the emotional heart of his dances makes the slightest variation in movement style register like a thunderclap. Ballet Chicago’s program of Balanchine ballets, the first week of their two-week engagement at the Dance Center, charts his explorations of technique while at the same time unwittingly illustrating his emotional distance.

Despite its title, Balanchine’s 1957 Square Dance is an almost entirely traditional ballet with a corps of six couples dressed in light blue and a pair of principal dancers dressed in white (Manard Stewart and Petra Adelfang). The corps is used primarily to frame the principal dancers, surrounding them in a semicircle or V shape. Most of the movement is classroom ballet.

Balanchine seems to use many of the elements of American folk dancing in Square Dance in purely ornamental ways, such as a moment when Adelfang, standing on pointe, lays her arm across Stewart’s shoulder in what is called “promenade position.” The disparity in their heights makes the moment look odd: a minute’s reflection makes it seem even odder, because promenade position in square dancing requires the man to place his arm across the woman’s shoulders. Beyond the surface oddities we can see Balanchine at work appropriating the elements he finds useful technically: square dance’s circular, weaving floor patterns. The six couples of the corps form a circle, and the women arabesque with their legs pointed in toward the center, then the men leap into the center. Balanchine turns a square dance “grand right and left” movement into a figure in which the men weave around the pirouetting women, as the two groups travel in opposite directions around the circle. The points at which Balanchine uses these floor patterns are easily the best in the dance.

Balanchine does not incorporate square dancing’s democratic spirit, however–the love of individual variations on a step and the insistence on equality, as every person dances with everyone else in the square. His Square Dance embodies instead the aristocratic ethic of prerevolutionary Russia, with its strict “class” division between the soloists and the corps. A middle section of Square Dance in which Stewart does a series of cabrioles between two facing lines of men reminded me of nothing so much as a king walking out of his throne room between rows of courtiers.

The traditions of classical ballet are embodied well in two pas de deux on Ballet Chicago’s program. Tarantella (1964) is a frantically paced duet, danced by Juditka Hoenig and Alexies Sanchez. The tarantella is a southern Italian folk dance based on the legend that if a person is bitten by a tarantula the best cure is to dance wildly and get the poison out. Balanchine’s Tarantella is a breathless duet between a coquettish girl and her admirer.

The Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (1960) is danced to music that is essentially an outtake from Swan Lake. When Tchaikovsky wrote the music for the Black Swan pas de deux, he removed some music he’d already written. Balanchine found the music and choreographed his Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux to it, an unabashed showcase (performed by Lisa Kipp and Jason Paul Frautschi). Like most pas de deux, it’s exciting but forgettable. Only a single inventive movement saves the dance: as Kipp arabesques in profile and on pointe, Frautschi scoops away her standing leg. He holds her arched form as her cheek brushes the floor and her feet arc above his head. This shape reappears in the climax, when Kipp tosses off a series of pirouettes, then jumps into Frautschi’s arms.

Both pas de deux are rousing to watch but difficult to remember later on. Pure technical display without emotional resonance does not make for memorable dances. What is memorable is the dancing. Balanchine was perhaps primarily a teacher, who taught a pure style of dance to a new American audience. His ballets are not creative expressions of ideas and feelings so much as exercises that confirm technique or expeditions that locate new technical resources.

Square Dance shows Balanchine on a prospecting expedition in the American dance wilderness: in Rubies (1967) he purifies his raw material. The title captures Balanchine’s dual intent well: Rubies is both lavishly ornamented, with beautiful costumes by Kathryn Koesling-Bennett and lighting by Ken Bowen, and studded with the gems Balanchine plucked from American dance.

At the beginning a deep red light slowly comes up on four trios that frame soloist Christine Dorian; as Dorian begins a series of figures at center stage, the corps thrust their pelvises forward in a “hinge” movement from jazz dance. It’s an odd moment that seems to sully the sensuous austerity of the balletic movement. Then the moment disappears: the light changes to a sunny yellow, and the soloist runs offstage to be replaced by a pair of principal dancers (Kipp, Jeff F. Herbig). Odd moments abound: the women of the corps walk forward on pointe, swaying their hips and throwing steamy glances at the audience, in a Balanchine version of Busby Berkeley; Herbig does a brief soft-shoe number; Herbig and Kipp do a bizarre fox-trot, with Kipp on pointe towering above Herbig, who settles into a deep second-position plie; Dorian and the women of the corps slowly pull their arms in, from an open second position into Graham-like claws.

Balanchine’s good-natured parody of popular dance forms catches fire in a duet between Kipp and Herbig. He holds her on balance, then pushes her off center; she arches into lovely curved lines. They settle into a counterbalance that might have come directly from a beginning modern dance class. The play between on-center, balanced movement and off-center, weighted movement comes directly from Doris Humphrey; it’s been a fruitful source of movement for modern dancers for decades. One wishes Balanchine had pursued this kind of movement instead of dabbling in it.

When we set aside all of Balanchine’s parody, dabbling, and prospecting, what’s left–and it’s the major part–is clean classical dance. Rubies proceeds at an allegro pace, capitalizing on American dancers’ ability to move quickly and cleanly; it’s rapid but not hurried, like Manhattan at rush hour. All of the dancers dance well, never sullying the clear light of Rubies.

Balanchine’s explorations of American dance have an imperialistic feeling to them. His allegiance was always to classical dance; his travels in the American dance world focused on finding dance gold for exportation back to the Saint Petersburg of his youth, which no longer existed. He worked essentially alone, with students but without peers or teachers. Without the richness of a community of equals, he continually fell back on pure academic dance. With the lush, democratic vigor all around him, Balanchine kept to himself–an Old World gentleman trying to maintain the elegance of tradition in the noise and confusion of the New World.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Janet Mesic-Mackie.