Stepping to Balanchine

Ten years after the choreographer's death, the Boston Ballet (and other companies) pay fresh tribute to his genius

THE legacy of George Balanchine, who lived from 1904 to 1983, comprises more than 400 ballets. The choreographer's influence continues to be felt in every ballet troupe and modern dance company in the world. This season, to mark the 10th anniversary of his passing, the Boston Ballet has put together a program of three dances that reveal different sides of Balanchine.

Balanchine, who was born Georgi Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, absorbed the Russian traditions of pure classical dance, along with the stylized pantomime featured in the dances of Vaslav Nijinsky.

His background is scattered with names that read like a Who's Who of ballet history: He studied dance at the Imperial St. Petersburg School and eventually joined Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Through Diaghilev, he worked with the composer Igor Stravinsky, setting a number of his compositions to dance.

Balanchine came to New York in the 1930s, and, with the backing and talents of Lincoln Kirstein, founded the New York City Ballet and its school.

The choreographer's influence and advice also helped the Boston Ballet's founder, E. Virginia Williams, to get her company off the ground in 1963. Balanchine's link to the Boston troupe comes full circle in the performance of his dances "Apollo," "La Sonnambula," and "Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2."

The first, "Apollo," is set to the shimmering strings of Stravinsky. It is a startlingly modern piece for having been choreographed in the early part of this century.

The theme is the birth, youth, and maturity of the Greek god Apollo and his three accompanying muses, Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, and Calliope, who represent the talents of rhythm and gesture, mime, and poetry.

In the Boston performance, the vast Wang Center stage was empty except for a striking post-modernist staircase and a low white Greek column. The dancers, in white garments, moved precisely and struck tableaux-like poses, as if they were artists' models for a classical frieze.

Balanchine, while retaining the elegance and fluid control of classical ballet, throws in gestures that must have surprised his early audiences. "Apollo" clearly contains the seeds of modern dance: entwined bodies, hip isolations, and extended fists that curl and uncurl.

Boston dancers Patrick Armand as Apollo and Adriana Suarez as Terpsichore, in their pas de deux, brought out the charmed pairing that Balanchine devised, but Armand did not seem fully engaged. His acting consisted of a haughty attitude, rather than pleasure at discovery of Apollo's god-like powers. Their performance, along with that of Pollyana Ribeiro and Natasha Akhmarova, failed to catch fire.

The way Balanchine envisioned "Apollo" draws on platonic ideals: While the muses look to their mentor god for instruction, Apollo draws support and strength from their presence, minus a sexual component. Without reading too much into the ballet, "Apollo" moves into the calming realm of equilibrium and mutual appreciation among the muses and Apollo.

`LA SONNAMBULA" borrows its subject matter from the 1831 Bellini opera of the same name. Composer Vittorio Rieti composed the music for Balanchine's version, which tells the story of a sleepwalking ghost, a poet who falls in love with her, and the ghost's jealous husband.

The ballet begins with a masked ball, and offers an opportunity for a talented male dancer (in this case, Grant Scruggs) to delight the guests, and audience, with a Harlequin routine. One moment a rag-doll, the next a wooden soldier, Scruggs prances and preens with delightful goofiness, and finally steals away like a naughty child.

The ballet's eery, nightmarish quality becomes apparent only when a light is seen moving past the windows of the house. Soon, the ghostly sleepwalker appears, candle in hand, as if programmed by remote control. She cannot see the poet, who dances around her and tries futiley to embrace her.

Through Balanchine's remarkable choreographic sleight-of-hand, the poet's arms seem to go right through her body and she appears to step invisibly through him.

The poet and sleepwalker's pas de deux, as danced by Laszlo Berdo and Susanna Vennerbeck, is a marvel of dreamlike intensity and concentration. Vennerbeck is positively wraithlike in her filmy long nightgown, and her feet seem to hover just above the ground.

The last dance, "Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2," is less appealing because it is a formal, storyless ballet with the traditional grand gestures and no drama.

The piano, which was difficult to hear because of the notoriously poor acoustics at the Wang (built as a movie palace), is the soul of the dance, and the musical motifs are personified by several dancers with varying degrees of skill and precision.

It is hard to say anything in particular about this ballet, except that Balanchine choreographed it to take on tour to South America, and he wanted the audiences there to experience pure classical dance, ostensibly unencumbered by plot and narrative considerations.

The Boston Ballet's presentation adds further polish to Balanchine's reputation for adding new moment to the existing vocabulary of dance.

* The Boston Ballet's "All Balanchine" program concludes Sunday at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts. The New York City Ballet continues with its "Balanchine Celebration" (until June 27) at Lincoln Center, including such works as "Prodigal Son," "The Four Temperaments," and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."

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