Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Breathes thee an audience with soul so dead it would not have its pulses quickened into heady exultation by the sight of George Balanchine's "Union Jack?" Not likely, as the opening night crowd at Kennedy Center can testify, after the New York City Ballet launched its three-week series at the Opera House Tuesday night with the hour-long "Union Jack" on the bottom half of the program.
"Union Jack," which had its premiere last summer, is the company's somewhat cheeky idea of a "Bicentennial" tribute. The object of the homage is, as the title suggests, not the U.S.A. but our one-time mother country, Great Britain, as represented by the pomp and flair of its marches and music halls.
Lincoln Kirstein, the company's director and co-founder with balanchine, is a self-confessed Anglophile and he sired "Union Jack" on the conceptual side with a wealth of histrical research. Traditional music was arranged by Hershey Kay. Military tailors carried out the costume designs of Rouben Ter-Arutunian, based on middy suits and the tartans of the Scottish clans. The end result, however, is not a gloss on British ceremony, but just what Balanchine insists it is - a classical ballet.
What's the difference? Where is the line of demarcation between parade pageantry and dancing? Balanchine shows you, by starting off with the one and ever so gradually, ever so slyly shading off into the other. In the first of the ballet's three parts, "Scottish and Canadian Guards Regiments," the dancers file onto the stage in squared-off ranks with the slow, rigorous gait of marchers, to the blood-chilling riffs of drums.
Almost without one's being aware of its happening, the formations turn into choreographed figures, and the high stepping becomes jetes and pirouttes and entrechats. You hardly notice, even when the women marchers go up "on point," because the motifs of the highland fling remain as coloration, and because the whole design is carried out within the rectilinear symmetries and regulated space of the military framework.
Balanchine has distilled the movement contours from these regimental pageants, amplifying and enriching the very qualities which stir spectators into an effusion of nationalistic pride, and here converting them into pure kinetic spectacle. The ballet isn't so much a glorification of British elan as it is a testimonial to the eloquence of disciplined movement.
In other ways, "Union Jack" tosses you back to Hollywood musicals. The regimental opening, which puts 80 dancers on stage, evokes Busby Berkeley and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." In the comical relief of the middle part, the "Costermonger Pas de Deux" based on music hall routines, the male solo (danced very ably but a bit tensely by Bart Cook substituting for the injured Jean-Pierre Bonnefous) with its cocky mugging and its umbrella prop looks like a bouquet to Gene Kelly and "Singin' in the Rain." The trios of sailors in the final "Royal Navy" section bring up "On the Town," and the leggy line of Wrens led by Sazanne Farrell is like nine Eleanor Powells brazening forth.
"Union Jack" doesn't call for "interpretation" from its dancers, but for precision, verve and bravado. In these respects the palm for Tuesday night's crew belong to Farrell, Karin von Aroldingen and Jacques d'Amboise for their solo contributions and to the entire company for the ensemble work.
The music has been aptly chosen, but Kay's arrangements have a bit too much of a commercialized glaze here and there, and I can't help missing the skirl of bagpipes in this context. Also, "Union Jack" looked stronger with the added spaciousness of the New York State Theater, though the performance may adjust better to Opera House dimensions as time goes by.
Also on the program was an affecting performance of Jerome Robbins "Dances at a Gathering," which so ardently plumbs the depths of Chopin's piano music.