It would be hard to conceive of two more diametrically opposed ballets than the two most recent creations of George Balanchine -- the blithe, Incid "Ballo della Regina," introduced to Washington last week by the New York City Ballet, and the uncompromisingly blunt "Kammermusik No. 2," given its local premiere by the company Wednesday at the Kennedy Center, in a program that also included a repeat performance of "Ballo," among other things.
"Ballo" was inspired by the music of Verdi (from the opera "Don Carlo") and it's all sunniness and singing bodies. "Kammermusik No. 2" is set to a chamber work of that title by Paul Hindemith, for piano and 12 solo instruments, composed in 1924. Hewing closely to its gnomic counterpoint and sour, chromatic harmonies, Balanchine has given us a strange, powerful and disturbing ballet.
"Kammermusik No. 2" evokes a number of earlier Balanchine works, but none more strongly than "Prodigal Son," the last ballet he did for the Diaghilev company, in 1929. The two lead couples of "Kammermusik No. 2" are backed by an ensemble of eight men, whose bleak, angular, deadpan calisthenic motions recall the nine "grotesque, bald-pated Drinking Companions" of "Prodigal Son," not just in general aspect but in the expressionistic flavor -- rare in Balanchine -- of their pictorialism. There's an echo of this same band in another expressionist masterwork, Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table" of 1932, whose conniving diplomats have a very similar look.
There's a distinctly sinister atmosphere to "Kammermusik No. 2," reflected too in the tightly serrated movement of the principals -- not the graceful, liquescent ornamentation of "Ballo," but more like weird robotics.
Despite the allusions to German expressionism, "Kammermusik No. 2" does not appear to be more than superficially akin to any other familiar Balanchine opus. It's original in a disquieting way, and its structural and rhythmic complexities only begin to reveal themselves in a single viewing, the clockwork intricacies of the steps becoming more and more difficult to unravel as the work proceeds. This is not a "pretty" ballet, but it is surely a gripping and fascinating one, the co'd precision of its surface suggesting a deeply buried spiritual combustion.
Besides "Ballo della Regina," the program also included three other Balanchine ballets -- "Sonatine-Ravel," in a rather square performance by Patricia McBride and Bart Cook; the campy "Tzigane," delivered with apt flair by Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins as the soloists: and the everenchanting "Serenade."