New York City Ballet illuminates black-and-white program

As women were tearing off their bras in the 1960s and ’70s, George Balanchine was tearing off their tutus. You can get a full dose of the effect at the Kennedy Center Opera House this week, where the New York City Ballet is performing a series of Balanchine’s black-and-white ballets — so called because the dancers, liberated from the staid trappings of classical dance, wear little more than the tights and leotards of their daily workouts. In so much of Balanchine’s choreography as on the fashion runways, the look of the era was unadorned and uncorseted.

So much so, in fact, that Tuesday’s handsome opening-night program could have been a Richard Avedon photo shoot. The whole evening was minimalist, stark, intimate. To list the five works — “Monumentum Pro Gesualdo,” “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” “Duo Concertant,” “Apollo” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” all with music by Stravinsky — is to clutter up a sentence more than any one of them cluttered the stage.

The marvel of these elegantly pared-down works is how much gorgeous movement they contain, sifting through in unexpected ways — and the surprises still shine, all these years later. These are not unfamiliar works to ballet regulars, but grouped together as they were, they make as resounding a statement about the enduring appeal of modernism as any Danish furniture line or Russel Wright crockery collection.

“Apollo,” created in 1928, launched it all. This was Balanchine’s eureka moment — where he discovered, as he once wrote, “that I could dare not use everything” — and he continued refining the sketch of the young sun god’s life through the years. In fact, it wasn’t truly a black-and-white ballet until the 1960s — before then, the god and his three muses were clothed in various iterations of Greek attire. But as the Space Age gave us sleek new designs and Jackie Kennedy defined class with her youthful, streamlined shifts, Balanchine finally settled on the simplest of miniskirts for his muses and a chest-baring sash for their leader.

Tuesday night was full of debut performances. In “Apollo,” the entire cast was dancing the ballet for the first time, and not without a few stumbles. But though he wasn’t yet fully authoritative in the title role, Robert Fairchild showed promise — here was recklessness brought slowly in line, true to the character. If his performance didn’t bear shadings of the immortal, its human dimension was compelling.

Certainly, not everything Balanchine created was distilled to the extent of the works on this week’s series — think of his full-length ballet “Jewels,” from 1967, so drenched in color, glitz and finery. But in 1972’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” which closed Tuesday’s bill, Balanchine brought it all together, achieving a massive modernist synthesis of his twin loves of simplicity and showmanship. Emptiness and quantity live side by side here, as do airy calm and the energy of jet travel. Its opening picture of 16 women in white leotards and high ponytails, standing motionless on a diagonal line, is so confidently chic it prompted cheers and applause. Later, dancers jog around with balled-up fists or jump with cheerleader zest, and their blunt energy recalls the Rockettes, the frenetic culture of the ’60s and the jangled nerves of that age — which feel all too familiar now.

If you’re going to listen to a full evening of Stravinsky — not the easiest on the ear — the musicianship had better be top-notch, but in its opening assay, the New York City Ballet Orchestra couldn’t quite gets its arms around either “Monumentum” or “Movements.” Maria Kowroski’s cool command in both works — created in the 1960s, perhaps as antidotes to that decade’s freneticism — was almost enough to overcome this rockiness.

“Duo Concertant” featured the highly successful debuts of Megan Fairchild (Robert’s sister) and Chase Finlay and the onstage support of violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Cameron Grant. Fairchild is an especially sparkling dancer — light and quick, every pose perfectly shaped, like a living sculpture. Exactly what this sleek tribute to style, romance and music demands.

This program repeats Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. New York City Ballet performs two more programs of Balanchine works through Saturday evening.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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