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Ballet: Back on Solid Ground

3 minute read

Stravinsky composed his ballet Les Noces for a chorus, a quartet of solo singers, four grand pianos and six percussionists, and demanded that they, as well as the dancers, all be onstage. Last week at the New York State Theater, Jerome Robbins crammed them all in, contrived an angular, hectic choreography for Stravinsky’s feverish music.

The ballet tells the story of an old Russian peasant wedding. Like some great infernal machine, the ballet crashes on in a barbaric, sensual ritual. First the bride and her maids, the bridegroom and his companions, each in turn, jump, run, somersault and contort. Then the weeping bride takes leave of her parental home. Finally there is the wedding feast: an obliging married couple warms up the bridal bed into which the shy, self-conscious newlyweds are then tossed by the drinking, brawling guests. Through it all the four soloists and the chorus wail, lament, cry, shout. Timpani boom, cymbals clang, bells ring.

Eighteen times Choreographer Robbins, Conductor Leonard Bernstein, Set Designer Oliver Smith, dancers, musicians and singers were called back by the applause, until the great gold-brocade curtain got stuck and refused to drop and rise again for another bow.

Premiered by Diaghilev in 1923 in Paris’ Théâtre de la Gaité Lyrique, Les Noces has not been performed in the U.S. since 1936 because of the difficulties of mounting it. But the Robbins production was a symptom of the revived vigor of the American Ballet Theatre, which has had its ups and downs since it first burst on the U.S. stage with such freshly contemporary ballets as Robbins’ own 1944 Fancy Free. Its current season at Lincoln Center has been a near-sellout success. Once again the company is what it was intended to be when it was organized 25 years ago —a grand gallery of the dance. From its vast and varied repertory of a hundred ballets, the company staged old classics like La Fille Mai Gardée and Giselle, typical Americana like Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend and Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid, pure abstract dance like George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.

All of the present company’s 55 dancers are competent, and some are first-rate. Lupe Serrano was a dazzling, feather-light prima ballerina in the “Black Swan” pas de deux, Sallie Wilson was a dreamy and hungry psyche trapped in Sargasso’s sea of weeds, Toni Lander’s split leaps in Etudes were electric, and Veronika Mlakar in Giselle made a Queen of the Willis of intense malevolence. Royes Fernandez is the company’s able, and sometimes distinguished premier danseur, and young Bruce Marks has the extra ebullience that sets off a star from the corps.

The American Ballet Theatre lacks the precision of the Kirov, the elegance of the Royal Ballet, the intellectualism of the New York City Ballet. But it is a kind of Bell Telephone Hour of the ballet, with something for everybody. And in this, it seems at last back on solid ground.

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