In the program 'Balanchine Black & White', New York City Ballet presented five of George Balanchine's works in the style of his 'black and white' ballets.  It describes not only the colours of the simple costumes that the dancers wear - essentially, leotards and leggings in black and white - but also the contrast to the ornate, classical-styled ballets of the era that preceded these works.  Balanchine removes the narrative, characterization, costumes and set, while retaining the rigour of classical ballet technique. What emerged was far from minimalistic, rather, Balanchine's vocabulary created an intricate relationship between dance and music, through choreography that invites one to, as he had said, "See the music, hear the dance." 

Sara Mearns and Teresa Reichlen with Company in George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco © Paul Kolnik
Sara Mearns and Teresa Reichlen with Company in George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco
© Paul Kolnik

The evening opened with Concerto Barocco, which premiered in 1941, set to Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D Minor.  The music's layers and accents were presented visually in the dancers' phrases and formations, made up of a busy corps of eight women, and Sara Mearns, Teresa Reichlen, and Russell Janzen in the lead roles.  Reichlen and Mearns complemented each other well by their different styles – Reichlen, more fanciful, and Mearns, more forthright – that expressed the two lead violins in the music.  Perhaps such contrast encourages one's bias, but my personal taste favours Reichlen's elegant interpretation.  Her lightness and lovely extensions seemed to suspend the music, and at times, conduct it with her movements.  

Momentum pro Gesualdo, which premiered in 1960, is set to music composed by Igor Stravinsky and began with all fourteen dancers onstage standing in formation, waiting to begin on the music's first note.  Six pairs of men and women accompany Rebecca Krohn and Ask la Cour (in the lead roles) demonstrating gestures of courtesies to one's partner.  The choreography accented the music and also showed some deviations from classical ballet vocabulary, such as a flexed-foot penché.  At one point, Krohn rested her cheek against la Cour's and suggested an affectionate relationship.  However, with no narrative or characterization, we are left to ponder our own conclusions and revel in the delightful moods they expressed.

NYCB in George Balanchine’s Monumentum Pro Gesualdo © Paul Kolnik
NYCB in George Balanchine’s Monumentum Pro Gesualdo
© Paul Kolnik
Movements for Piano and Orchestra, also to music by Igor Stravinsky, premiered in 1963.  Though choreographed separately from Momentum, Balanchine paired its performance immediately following Momentum, an arrangement retained since 1966.  The polyrhythmic quality of the music of Movements and its frequent meter changes is a challenge in musicality for the dancers and shows the breadth of Balanchine's neoclassical language.  The piece opened with three women and Krohn and la Cour, again in the lead roles, in a commanding stance of legs apart, arms hung straight down from the shoulders and looking to the audience.  The choreography used limp arched backs, hunched backs, hands flexed with palms outwards, and innovative spatial orientation that had Krohn in the arms of la Cour, tipped upside down with her feet in the air.  Krohn and la Cour were aptly crisp in their phrases and whose expression of the nuanced notes in the music heightened its complexity.  Balanchine's adherence to classical technique leads to an expectation of classical phrases, yet the choreography's quirky deviations surprise and provoke, through which the works stay fresh and relevant.

Episodes premiered in 1959 and was Balanchine's homage to composer Anton von Webern; the piece is set to music from his orchestral works.  Each of the four vignettes showcased a pas de deux and, without the distraction of elaborate costumes, the piece revealed the construction of partnering work.  Particularly exquisite were Craig Hall and Jennie Somogyi, in her second last performance before retirement (her farewell would be the following day).  We were able to observe the care that Hall took in the exact placement of his hands on Somogyi's body for each lift, and the way he gingerly led her through the pattern of choreography; their relationship is expressed in this process.  Sara Mearns, in the last segment partnered with Adrian Danchig-Waring, lent a definitiveness to the complex footwork, weaving through the corps of fourteen who complimented her in intricate patterns. 

Meagan Mann, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Anthony Huxley in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments © Paul Kolnik
Meagan Mann, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Anthony Huxley in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments
© Paul Kolnik
The Four Temperaments, which premiered in 1946 and is set to music by Paul Hindemith, takes initial inspiration from the notion that the human organism is made up of four temperaments – melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric.  Each of the dancers held their own in the first and second variations, but were incomparable to Amar Ramasar as 'Phlegmatic', whose rich and intimate interpretation expanded the artistic potential of the choreography.  Ashley Bouder topped off the program as 'Choleric' in the final variation.  Her outstanding command of the vocabulary found new moments for pause and brought a fresh clarity to the piece.  

Balanchine's 'black and white' ballets show that dance, when fulfilled by artistry as seen this evening, requires no embellishment.