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DVD Review

Bringing Balanchine Back: New York City Ballet

by Leland Windreich

Published December 2009

During the heart of the Cold War a cultural exchange was struck between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  In 1962 and 1972 George Balanchine took his New York City Ballet to the major cities in the U.S.S.R, while the Bolshoi Ballet was received in American theatres.  Balanchine’s abstract ballets played to full houses in Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi, and audiences that had never seen a plotless dance work, some performed in practice costumes and no décor, were fascinated, puzzled, intrigued, mystified, thrilled and sometimes vexed.  By the end of the second Russian tour,  Mr. B. had become a national hero.  In the next several years a few of his works were cautiously mounted for the Kirov Theatre.  But it wasn’t until 2003 that the NYCB was invited to present a full season of its ballets during the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, and, as before, seats were consumed for every performance.

This film, made for DVD by Richard Blanshard, covers the time from rehearsals in New York before the tour to its triumphant conclusion in the Maryinsky Theatre. Ballet Director Peter Martins presides in the telling, pointing out that no one who appeared in the Cold War visits was still dancing, the average age of his current crop of dancers being 20. The majority had not even been alive during Mr. B’s lifetime. And few of the Russian viewers had been around to see Balanchine works in the thirty-year interval since their last visit.

A choice repertoire of 23 works was brought, including NYCB’s two ageless signature ballets, “Serenade” (1933) and “Symphony in C” (1948) , along with “Concerto Barocco”, “Western Symphony”,  “Agon”, “Symphony in 3 Movements” and Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces”.  A recent work by Peter Martins, “Hallelujah Junction” gave the Russians an idea of where the company was headed.   Generous segments of each of these ballets were incorporated into the film.

One of the most moving revelations in the film showed the young dancers in complete respect, reverence, and dedication to their work and their pride in taking part in an event celebrating their own roots in the theatre.  Seen on stage, in rehearsal, in strolls around St. Petersburg they are mature visitors on a mission.  No joking, no horsing around, they are in Russia on business. When they talk to the camera, they come across as articulate and knowledgeable. On stage and in rehearsal some of them are filmed in close-ups, drenched in sweat after their strenuous activities.

Visually luscious, the film offers gorgeous vistas of St. Petersburg and the fabled interiors of the Maryinsky Theatre.  Sharing the podium, Maryinsky conductor Valery Gergiev brings out the soul in the Russian repertoire while NYCB musical director    Andrea Quinn takes the local musicians through the prickly requirements of Igor Stravinsky’s “Agon”.  On opening night Gergiev elected to conduct Stravinsky’s “Symphony in 3 Movements” but decided that the ballet musicians had not yet mastered the score.  After the first ballet, he and the entire musical ensemble vanished from the pit and did not reassemble after the 20-minute interval.  Anxious stage crew sent a searching team, which found them three flights upstairs in a practice studio, tackling the difficult Stravinsky score.  The ballet was shown 40 minutes late.

A thread of drama is introduced when we are shown a baby-faced Alexandra Ansanelli in the studio, being coached for her debut in “Serenade” which is to occur later in the week.   Of all NYCB’s ballets, this one is regarded with profound respect by the dancers.  Those assigned principal roles believe that they are on hallowed ground and are subjected to intense scrutiny of their peers.  Ansanelli makes it clear that she is not at all confident in the role, and in a later rehearsal with Peter Martins, she all but freaks out.  In the next cut she is refreshed and calm, having pulled out of the cast.  She makes her debut in Russia in the less-demanding “Western Symphony.”

This is a remarkable film for its excerpts of several NYCB productions shown in the world’s most glamorous theatre and as a record of a remarkable event, which can be relished by ballet lovers the world over.

City Lights DVD 600161.  Warner/Elektra/Atlantic Corp. 80min. 2008.  $29.95.

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