George Balanchine is as well-known for creating roles that make his dancers realize their full potential as he is for creating great ballets. His "Ballade," which was given its Washington premiere by the New York City Ballet last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, has such a role for Merrill Ashley, one of the most talented and yet limited of Balanchine's ballerinas.
Ashley's technique, with its lightning speed and rock-solid balances, is extraordinary. Her movements are formidably clear; she seems to chisel the steps in space as she dances. She can create a curious, slow-motion illusion as she speeds through a variation. The steps are so cleanly executed that they seem suspended in time.
Ashley's technique is also her limitation. She is the least vulnerable of dancers and seems out of place in romantic roles. "Ballade" uses Ashley's technique while almost disguising it, as though Balanchine had placed a filter of soft light over a diamond.
In "Ballade," Balanchine allows Ashley to be vulnerable and still be strong. When she dances alone, she seems unhappily solitary. When she dances with her partner (Sean Lavery) she remains alone, but it seems more a choice than an inability to become limp during a pas de deux. In this role, Ashley seems soft and feminine as she skips through choreography that would present an insurmountable challenge to lesser mortals.
Jerome Robbins' "Andantino," also a Washington premiere, is a pas de deux set to the second movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and was created during City Ballet's 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival. The ballet shows off Darcy Kistler's youthful exuberance and Ib Andersen's buoyancy, but it seems more a party piece than a repertory item.
The other ballets on the program -- Balanchine's "Serenade" and "Union Jack" -- were extremely well danced by principals and corps alike. Karin von Aroldingen and Kyra Nichols danced "Serenade" with romantic passion. Of the many notable performances in "Union Jack," special mention must be made of Stephanie Saland's daffy Pearly Queen and Bart Cook's lovably foolish Pearly King in the "Costermonger Pas de Deux." Suzanne Farrell, in her first appearance of the season, gave a daring performance, plunging her head to the floor while in arabesque, stretching off-balance in unsupported turns.