A Spirited '76 Salute to Old Blighty

Faye Arthurs, left, Teresa Reichlen and Melissa Barak pay tribute to the Royal Navy.
Faye Arthurs, left, Teresa Reichlen and Melissa Barak pay tribute to the Royal Navy. (By Paul Kolnik)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 4, 2006

George Balanchine's "Union Jack" has elements of football halftime shows, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and Popeye the Sailor.

It is as lock-step precise as a military drill, and the wit is no less sharp. This great big ballet, with its cast of 72 New York City Ballet dancers, steamrolled across the Kennedy Center Opera House stage Thursday night for the first time in a quarter-century, and once it was over one could still feel the ground shaking. Or maybe that was just weakness in the knees. A large part of the genius of this ballet is you don't just watch it, you feel as if you are in step with it.

Balanchine created "Union Jack" in 1976, when he decided to mark the American Bicentennial by honoring Great Britain. Such a Balanchine thing to do. The Russian emigre, a sentimental man even though that quality rarely surfaced in his ballets, wrote that his intention was "to celebrate the English and what they have given us." He was grateful to London for its warm reception of his work, when he was just starting out with the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and when his own New York City Ballet performed there decades later.

But if gratitude informed "Union Jack," it is not through a misty-eyed approach. Balanchine drew on the pageantry of military ceremony for its first section, the formulaic aspects of Cockney theater for a mime-and-slapstick sequence in the middle, and the infectious bounce of a hornpipe dance for the third section, a salute to the Royal Navy. The affection is clear, but Balanchine smartens it all into a deeply moving display that speaks about more than British tradition. "Union Jack" locates art in civic life, in political pomp and folk dances and in maritime signals.

In the finale, the dancers wave little flags (their arm movements spelling out "God Save the Queen" in semaphore), an enormous Union Jack descends behind them and the orchestra strikes up "Rule, Britannia!" And it's like a medals ceremony at the Olympics: Even if it's not your anthem being played, you can't help but be moved by the power of nationalism.

But the true wonder of this ballet is its presentation of ceremony as substance, as not just empty routines but as a meaningful display of something (respect and tradition, for starters) better shown through the body than stated in words. "Union Jack" seems so simple -- lots of marching, quite a bit of standing stiffly at attention, some cheerful jiggety-jigging -- but it gets at the fundamental power of dance. And not just dance but the sharp, swift neoclassical Balanchine brand of ballet.

There is not a whole lot of ballet dancing in this work, but it is incorporated with maximum impact. Against a whimsical storybook illustration of a fortress arch, with banners waving, regiments of Scottish and Canadian Guards march in, dressed in tartans and grouped according to clan (Lennox, Dress MacLeod, Menzies, and so on). It's all very serious and formal, and the brief moments of highly technical footwork by the leaders reflect and refract this. Especially fine were Teresa Reichlen, Sofiane Sylve, Yvonne Borree, Damian Woetzel and Nikolaj Hubbe, all with the supremely commanding air of someone whom you'd gladly follow into battle.

As the Pearly King and Queen, Nilas Martins and Jenifer Ringer injected the right amount of warmth and comic excess into their "Costermonger Pas de Deux." The third section underscored Woetzel's grandeur as a showman in a sailor suit -- equal parts corny and technically impressive -- and Reichlen as the majorette of a most winsome contingent of pinup girls. Balanchine, dipping into his Broadway and Hollywood background, wasn't above a healthy helping of cheesecake.

"Union Jack" capped a satisfying and balanced program, which opened with Balanchine's chipper pick-me-up "Ballo della Regina" and then moved on to Christopher Wheeldon's darkly poignant "Klavier."

"Ballo" was Balanchine's 1978 tribute to Merrill Ashley, a tall, broad-shouldered ballerina who could move like the wind. Megan Fairchild, in the leading role Thursday, is a compact soubrette dancer, so the effect is very different. She doesn't produce the stretched-out shapes and lines that Ashley could etch with such quick clarity. But she is charming and buoyant, and the difficult allegro steps posed no serious problems for her. Benjamin Millepied was her partner -- not a lot for him to do, but he showed himself well. The ballet did not come across as a top-shelf work, but then, minus a masterful leading dancer, it isn't one.

Wheeldon unveiled "Klavier" about a month ago. Accompanied by Beethoven's "Adagio Sostenuto" from the "Hammerklavier" Sonata in B-flat, it is steeped in melancholy. Drenched, actually -- but beautifully so. A fallen chandelier rests on the stage floor, and the dangling cords that we are to believe once held it over the dancers' heads look like cobwebs against the black backdrop. The lighting is somber, and the dancers are dressed in floating garments of sheer black, the barest silhouettes of Edwardian formal gowns.

What's remarkable in this work is the way Wheeldon through-choreographed it in a running current -- not necessarily matching the music step-for-note but perfectly attuned to its mood. "Klavier" is an especially fine showcase for Wendy Whelan's articulate pliancy, though the cast of 10 was excellent throughout. There is among the dancers a sense of hesitancy and unfolding, a wish to reveal but an inability to do so completely. It is like conversation caught in the throat, where what is most interesting is what is unsaid.

This program repeats tonight.

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