In the 1940s, as American might was growing overseas, big things were happening back home on the dance front. Take the revolutionary works of George Balanchine, where ballerinas got to flex their muscles, or Hollywood, where Fred Astaire used a waltz and a rumba to seduce one of the hottest wartime pinup girls.
The New York City Ballet paid shimmering tribute to the '40s on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It was not a perfectly danced evening, but it was a moving one. There was an unexpected tension and chemistry among the three works on the program: Balanchine's grand, Russian-style "Theme and Variations," the lean, hard beauty of "The Four Temperaments," and Jerome Robbins's swirly, nostalgic "I'm Old Fashioned," a homage to the Astaire-Rita Hayworth matchup in the 1942 film "You Were Never Lovelier."
Miranda Weese gave "Theme and Variations" all the hauteur it needed but partner Benjamin Millepied was a downer. In "The Four Temperaments," Albert Evans, left, and the soon-to-depart Peter Boal were featured.
Balanchine was coming off a spate of triumphs in Broadway and Hollywood (and the circus, too -- Ringling Bros. asked him to make a ballet for elephants, and he delivered) when he created "The Four Temperaments" in 1946. He had commissioned the score from Paul Hindemith for a few hundred dollars some years before, holding on to it until the right moment came along. When finally Balanchine was in a position to launch his own ballet troupe (Ballet Society, out of which City Ballet grew), he knew just what to do with that bracingly sporty and assertive music. What he came up with was a work of spare majesty, cool at times, at others intricately detailed and full-blooded. It is a work that cracked open classical technique while making it ever brighter and sharper.
Wednesday night's performance featured a sterling performance by Peter Boal in the "Melancholic" variation (the work plays with the four traditional humors, or temperaments). Boal will soon retire from City Ballet to head Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the sense of humanity he brings to his performances will be sorely missed. His solo had an unusual dimension of searching and yearning, the desire to rise heavenward starkly apparent in his twisting falls. Here was not just a performer with an impressive command of the steps, but a man in the full thrust of an experience -- of loss, of mourning, of disappointment and self-questioning.
Alexandra Ansanelli stepped in for an injured Sofiane Sylve in the "Sanguinic" duet, which explains the less-than-perfect matchup with her partner, Charles Askegard. She is tiny and weightless, he is one of the company's tallest men. But her huge, risk-taking abandon -- the way she stretched in all directions given any opportunity to do so, maintaining equilibrium in the most impossible arcing lines -- filled the stage.
A year after "Four Temperaments," Balanchine choreographed "Theme and Variations," to Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3, showcasing the strengths of Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch at Ballet Theatre, the company that would go on to become American Ballet Theatre. "Theme" is one of his most popular, visually ornate and technically difficult works, though he whipped it off in a matter of days. (In those amazingly fruitful '40s, he produced a slew of other works of enduring importance, among them "Concerto Barocco," "Le Palais de Cristal," later titled "Symphony in C," and "Orpheus.")
Miranda Weese, in the leading ballerina role, combined queenly hauteur, dark beauty and an ability to make the exhausting balances, turns and unfoldings look creamy and smooth. Yet she alone could not give this ballet all the brilliance it needed. Her partner, Benjamin Millepied, grew grim in his pirouettes and otherwise looked blank. The corps, which has a large role in the glittering impact here, was underpowered, dancing as though it were barely able to get off the ground in spots.
Like Balanchine, Astaire was an innovator (though his decade was more the '30s than the '40s). He, too, was a master at conveying emotion through dance in an unforced, unemphatic way. Curiously, for his 1983 tribute to Astaire, Robbins chose a sweet, carefree dance with Hayworth as his model of Astaire's style, rather than one of the more demanding and emotionally resonant duets from his many movies with Ginger Rogers. Robbins begins his ballet with that film clip, in which it is apparent that the Astaire-Hayworth duet is about steps and style and enjoying one another's company, rather than about a deepening feeling between the dancers.
Yet if there isn't the same level of absorption between Astaire and Hayworth as there was in his acutely sympathetic partnership with Rogers, this allowed Robbins more latitude to play with their steps. There are moments in "I'm Old Fashioned" that recall Robbins's own 1940s ballet, "Fancy Free," as well as flashes from his later Broadway smash "West Side Story," particularly in a jazzy solo by Philip Neal, who adopts an Astaire-like elegance and lightness of step. The suite of dances Robbins devised, for three couples and a sizable corps, has an easygoing appeal, drawing on the gentle swaying at the outset of Astaire's dance, as if he's crooning Hayworth a lullaby. Jenifer Ringer and Stephen Hanna echo the lively climax of the film clip, when Astaire and Hayworth gallop up a set of stairs and rumba as the Jerome Kern song builds, ending with a cute, faux-clumsy bump of their hips as they swish through a set of French doors.
Robbins's work is less memorable for his own contributions than for its underscoring of Astaire's genius. As the dancers converge onstage in the black formal wear of the film, we see the film clip played again above their heads, and it calls attention to the qualities with which these highly trained dancers simply can't compete -- most of all, the stylish, perfectly controlled tease of the dance, with Astaire leaning close but barely touching his partner, just a breath away from a kiss. Showman though he was, Robbins couldn't top that.
The New York City Ballet performs this program again tomorrow afternoon and Sunday evening, with performances of other works through Sunday afternoon.