The last of the New York City Ballet's thematic programs, seen at the Kennedy Center last night, was an "all-Italian" evening -- that is, an assortment of four ballets, each set to music by an Italian composer. It was kind of a synthetic idea, and one that hardly made for ideal balance, but it assuredly wasn't lacking in excitement.
The program had further distinguishing marks -- for one thing it was the occasion for the last Washington appearance by Mikhail Baryshnikov as a member of this company since by the time the NYCB returns next year, he will have rejoined American Ballet Theatre. Baryshnikov was dancing, moreover, in the Kennedy Center premier of George Balanchine's "La Sonnambula," partnered with the ever-fascinating Allegra Kent.
Also on the program, in addition to repeat performances of Peter Martins' new "Giardino di Scarlatti" and Balanchine's "Ballo della Regina," was the latter's quicksilver "Donizetti Variations," which hasn't been seen in these parts for some time.
Balanchine is his own exception to every generalization that can be made about him, one of the most frequent of which concerns his fixation on abstract dance and his disdain for "story ballets." "Sonnambula," like several other Balanchine staples, unquestionably tells a story, in this case a moody one about a poet who intrudes upon a baron's masked ball, flirts with the baron's mistress, is next entranced by the baron's sleepwalking wife and is finally stabbed to death by the fuming baron, his corpse borne mysteriously away in the arms of the sleepwalker.
In the original Ballet Russe production of 1946, Alexandra Danilova was the sleepwalker. When John Taras restaged it for the NYCB in 1960 with the present, evocatively stylized set by Esteban Frances and costumes by Andre Levasseur, Allegra Kent danced the sleep walker -- a role with which she has been closely identified ever since -- and Erik Bruhn, the superb Danish danseur, was the poet.
the ballet has a spooky but ambivalent atmosphere. The edge-of-doom aspects, including the costumes, are akin to "La Valse," but the exaggeratedly gothic touches, with their hint of black humor, remind one of Edward Gorey. From another standpoint, "Sonnambula" is like a Mad magazine version of the "Black Swan" act of "Swan Lake," with the baron as Von Rothbart, his mistress (the coquette) as Odile, the sleepwalker as Odette, and the poet as Prince Siegfried. And the weird ending of "Sonnambula" easily equates to the apotheosis of "Swan Lake" -- sacrifice, death and heavenly ascension.
Most of the choreography of "Sonnambula" isn't particularly memorable -- at this point in history, the Blackamoor duet is an embarrassment and ought to be junked. The interest lies, in the first half, in the dramatic interplay between the central characters (Shaun O'Brien and Stephanie Saland were splendid as the baron and the coquette). But the real heart of the ballet is the uncanny scene between the poet and the sleepwalker -- and if its effect has nothing to do with pyrotechnics, it has everything to do, as Baryshnikov and Kent so tellingly demonstrated, with artistic virtuosity of the subtlest and rarest order.
"donizetti Variations" is all about pyrotechnics, of a light, openhearted sort that suggests Bournonville -- all pizzicato footwork and jaunty jumps. Despite poorly arched feet and a rather lethargic adagio, Kay Mazzo proved fleet and winsome as the lead ballerina, and Helgi Tomasson was positively scintillating as her partner.