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New York City Ballet

Winter 2010 Season in Retrospective: The Classics Revisited

by Dr Tom Ferraro

January, 2010 -- Lincoln Center, New York

If real men don’t eat quiche, then they certainly do not like ballet. But I like quiche and I also like ballet. I remember the first time I saw the New York City Ballet. I was a graduate student studying for my Ph.D. in psychology at SUNY -- StonyBrook. The year was 1976. I was wasting time on a Saturday afternoon trying to avoid some research work and happened to come across a public television show featuring the NYCB performing “Concerto Barocco.” This was the first time I had ever seen a ballet and was shocked by its sublime beauty. There were Balanchine’s devoted dancers carefully submitting to his vision to the refined music of Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins.” I was stunned. So stunned that I immediately joined a ballet class for beginners. My girlfriend thought I had lost my mind and my parents were sure I was having a schizophrenic break. Believe it or not, it was great for my golf game. But in actuality what happened was that I entered a chase along with every other dancer. I started to chase beauty. And the master of the chase was George Balanchine.

In his 2010 winter season they are presenting a series entitled “Classics: Revisited.” I attended a performance of three classics called “Three Short Stories.” This included Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” and Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” and Balanchine’s remake of “Firebird.”  Classical ballet can prove to be dull and dusty with its emphasis on grand narratives and set design. Balanchine left Russia to escape the stuffiness of the Russian Imperial style of ballet and Baryshnikov left it as well. Balanchine soon invented his stripped down neoclassical style as seen in “Concerto Barocco” and “Serenade.” But this year the company has decided to revisit some of his older classics. And they do have gifts to offer.

“Fancy Free” was choreographed by Robbins in 1944 to music by Leonard Bernstein. This piece of wonder has three sailors on leave on a midsummer night in Manhattan. The story unfolds with them in a bar challenged with picking up two females who are there just waiting for a good time. On opening night the ballet was an astonishing success with more then a dozen curtain calls. One could easily discern how this ballet was a forerunner to “West Side Story” which is perhaps Robbins most famous work.

The next piece in the evening was “Prodigal Son” choreographed by Balanchine in 1929 for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It is the biblical story of the prodigal son who is bored and restless at home, runs off prematurely only to be used and vanquished and finally returns home to be forgiven and embraced by the father. The sets were by Georges Rouault.

The final piece in the evening was “Firebird,” choreographed by Balanchine in 1949 with scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall and music by Stravinsky. This is a story of a hunter who spares the life of a firebird who gives him a magic feather in return for his kindness. He uses this magic later in the dance to defeat the wizard Kastchei and free his princess.

Although grand narratives are considered passé, these three ballets share a common and compelling theme. They all concern the heroes’ journey. In “Fancy Free,” the three sailors are on leave. In “Prodigal Son,” the hero leaves home but fails in his quest and returns home a defeated man. In “Firebird,” the hero is helped by the Firebird and eventually obtains his victory much to the delight of his community. Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, said that the heroes’ journey is of great interest to the world for what the hero can inspire in we the audience. And these ballets try to tell us of what it takes to be a hero.

And so does Balanchine and Robbins and their dancers. The boon that Balanchine  gives to us is seen in this amazing David H. Koch Theater with its gold and red designed seating area and building by Philip Johnson. Who does not feel uplifted when you step inside the promenade and pass the huge Nadelman sculptures? Who does not feel better upon seeing these sets by Chagall or Rouault? Who does not feel more human when you hear Bernstein, Prokofiev and Stravinsky by the NYCB Orchestra? And then come the dancers, these sublime beautiful creatures. We the audience get all these boons at every single NYCB performance. Similar to a Joseph Cornell box, similar to a Tiffany diamond ring, even similar to seeing the Grand Canyon. Balanchine ballets are a great gift to mankind.

There we sit, overweight, grumpy, clumsy,,tired and hoping for this gift. The curtain rises and the gift is given. Like the last scene in the film “Billy Elliot,” where the coal miner father drags himself to see his son perform “Swan Lake” with the Royal Ballet for the first time. And when the father sees the first leap that the son makes onto center stage, we witness this great gift of transcendence. What glorious sights we are given at Lincoln Center each winter season. So bravo to the NYCB, bravo to Balanchine and bravo to all those wonderful heroic dancers who have given their lives for our great pleasure.

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