A warm summer evening, sitting on a blanket on a gently sloping lawn, a bottle of your favorite summer beverage in hand. Adults are sitting, chatting and laughing as the children are cavorting. Around you there are many other similar groups of people relaxing with their picnics as the evening sky darkens to night. As the stars begin to appear and the heat of the day dissipates you hear the sound of an orchestra off in the distance tuning their instruments. Just beyond the orchestra a stage is swathed in a huge shimmering curtain. The curtain opens to reveal a circus scene. The orchestra begins to play Stravinsky while a man dressed as a ringmaster appears on stage with his whip. At his command a line of young girls with their hair in high curly ponytails runs onstage and begins to jump and dance, followed by another line, and another, and another. The girls dance around the ringmaster in various formations finally ending in to form the initials: I. S. (for Igor Stravinsky). These adorable girls take their bows and run off stage. The curtain closes briefly then reopens to reveal a stage empty save for a large grand piano. Beautiful lithe adults emerge onstage and move in mesmerizing, seemingly effortless ways. And thus it continues for the rest of the evening.
This, my friends, is the way I spent a recent Friday. Did I die and go to heaven (only to be kicked out and sent back to Earth?)? Well, no, not in the literal sense! But it sure did feel like it.
Instead I was in Saratoga, New York for a brief road trip to see the New York City Ballet perform at their summer home. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC, for the uninitiated) is an outdoor amphitheatre located in a serene area of upstate NY. We ended up attending two performances. For the Friday evening show we had lawn seating: part fair, part park, and part theatre. And all thoroughly enjoyable (minus the bugs, but even they weren’t that bad). The only negative of lawn seating, of course, is the fact that you end up rather far back from the stage, so the view isn’t optimal. They do have projection screens so you can get a slightly better view, but of course you only get to see what the camera shows you and that doesn’t always capture everything going on onstage. For the second show the following afternoon we had regular seats within the amphitheatre, which would have had a much better view if it weren’t for the head of an SAB gazelle seated in front of me. Ha.
As I’ve stated in prior attempts at reviewing dance, I’m terrible at it, so don’t even ask for details of who did what. I get so wrapped up in the moment that the specifics tend to escape me. I sometimes think I should bring a notebook to shows to jot down my thoughts as it goes along, but I’m so afraid of missing something I doubt I’d ever write a word. But I’ll attempt a synopsis anyway:
The Friday evening show. As I mentioned, it started out with a dance that was performed almost entirely by children (save the Ringmaster who was an NYCBer). This was Circus Polka, a Jerome Robbins piece. We had watched the children rehearsing at the National Dance Museum that afternoon and oh my… more on that for a subsequent post, but highly impressive for a group of children. I believe they were in the 7-11 age range? This was followed by NYCB performing Dances at a Gathering, another Robbins work. I just love Robbins. I feel as though he doesn’t get the recognition Balanchine does, but everything I’ve seen of his is so beautiful. The lines and the humor and the different personalities of the dancers come through in his works; it’s absolutely stunning. However… this is a LONG piece. I heard comments that it was a bit too long and while I love all of it I have to agree somewhat. The music was beautiful (Chopin). The dancing wonderful. From what I’ve read of the piece Robbins’s original plan to choreograph one pas de deux evolved as he was inspired by the music and started adding other dancers and pieces. And perhaps if I wasn’t so darned far away from the stage I could’ve gotten sucked in even more, but I have to admit to getting a bit antsy towards the end. Ah well. After intermission it was Balanchine time (this show was entitled Founding Choreographers, so Robbins-Balanchine, duh). First up was Valse Fantaisie. Lovely and I think it appealed to the people in my group who are especially fond of tulle and pretty-pretty ballet. And it was pretty. But honestly, didn’t stick much in my head beyond that. Sorry. The final work was Balanchine’s Agon (more Stravinsky music). Now this I loved. The costuming was stark. The men were in black tights and white T-shirts. The women in black leotards and pink tights. Your basic ballet wear. And maybe because of this the dancing seemed all that much more ethereal. I wasn’t focused on the floating tulle, but rather the dancers motions which were incredibly beautiful. The lines, the turns. Another one of those ballets where there is no defined story, but to me it doesn’t matter because I could watch those dancers do what they do all day. As I fell asleep that night visions of Agon danced through my head.
Saturday afternoon was mixed repertory. Opened with a repeat from the prior evening: Circus Polka. Which… I mean, how can you go wrong opening a show with adorable girls dancing their hearts out to Robbins? Lovely to see it again. This was followed by Balanchine’s Apollo. Fabulous simply from an historical standpoint. Even though I’d never seen it I feel like Apollo is THE Balanchine ballet (aside from Jewels). Apollo and his three muses: Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, and Calliope. Watching this made me wish I’d paid attention back in freshman year of high school when we covered mythology in English class. But it was lovely, nonetheless. I can’t help but wonder what the audience in 1928 thought of this sort of ballet. Next up was Serenade (Balanchine). Another beautiful, story-less ballet. Although I found the costuming in this one a bit distracting. The women were wearing long tulle skirts which seemed to get in the way, though they were beautiful when they weren’t (literally) tripping the female dancers up or flying up over their faces. According to the program: “Balanchine began the ballet as a lesson in stage technique and worked unexpected rehearsal events into the choreography. A student’s fall or late arrival to rehearsal became part of the ballet.” I’m not sure that the wardrobe malfunctions were part of the choreography, though! The final piece of the afternoon was The Magic Flute choreographed by Martins. While contemporary ballets are my favorite it was kind of a nice change to have a ballet with a story. A funny one, at that. I also liked that the piece incoporated children and company apprentices. The set and costumes were colorful, the dancing and acting hilarious. Entirely delightful and entertaining. A great way to end the afternoon!
More posts to come on Saratoga, but wanted to at least post about the performances before they completely escaped my mind. If you ever get a chance to see NYCB in this venue I definitely recommend the experience!