Union Jack, January 24, 2014
Friday’s New York City Ballet theme was Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work with two one-hour pieces, Robbin’s Dances at a Gathering and Balanchine’s Union Jack.
Dances at a Gathering, set to 18 Chopin piano pieces, premiered in 1969. It marked Robbins’s return to New York City Ballet after a 13-year absence in which he choreographed many successful Broadway musicals. Before the premier, Robbins said: “I’m doing a fairly classical ballet to very old fashioned and romantic music, but there is a point to it. In a way it is a revolt from the faddism today. I find myself feeling just what is the matter with connecting, what’s the matter with love, what’s the matter with celebrating positive things?”
This plotless piece features five couples. The ballet has a light, irreverent tone that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The steps are basic throughout with an array of combinations to keep things interesting: several solos, duets with various combinations, guys dancing together, women dancing together as dancers come and go throughout the piece. It’s informal as if the dancers spontaneously gather as if to say, “Hey, here I am, let’s dance!” In one segment, the guys stand in an informal pose, arms on each other’s shoulders after a combination, watching what the women can do in their segment. The piece has a number of mazurka steps with exaggerated upper-body movements, a nod to the mazurkas of Chopin’s Polish homeland.
Joaquin De Luz was the dancer in brown (dancers are identified by the color of their costumes in this piece). Joaquin has always been one of my favorites, dating back to his ABT days. I like his athletic style, with powerful pirouettes and leaps, but yet done effortlessly. (One of my favorite Joaquin moments was in Harald Lander’s Etudes at ABT, where he ripped off about eight consecutive double tours.) He had several solos throughout the piece and nailed his turns and assemblé en tournant, all with a whimsical demeanor. He also had a duet with frequent partner Megan Fairchild as they exchanged playful glances. Megan’s solos demonstrated very precise footwork to the brisk pace.
I also liked Maria Kowroski as the girl in green. Her solos had an academic, pedantic flavor as if Robbins was trying to show off basic ballet steps such as tendus and the various positions. If so, Maria was perfectly cast, with her long line, legs, and greatly arched feet. Tiler Peck was the girl in pink that featured her substantial playful energy.
At the end of the piece, all ten dancers were on stage in a circle as if searching for something as the curtain fell.
Balanchine created Union Jack in 1976 to honor the British heritage of the U.S. during the Bicentennial. According to the program notes, “Part I is based on Scottish military tattoos and folk dance forms performed in an open castle square.” Part II is a pas de deux for the costermonger Pearly King and Queen of London. Part III consists of dances, songs, and drill orders of the Royal Navy. Hershy Kay provided the score; he also composed the score for Western Symphony and Stars and Stripes, inspired by Sousa marches.
Part I is dramatic as seven Scottish and Canadian Guard regiments, dressed in kilts with ten members each, slowly and solemnly enter the stage to a loud and steady drumbeat. Part I is based on the Scottish tattoo, which is a military drum performance or army display with members in full regalia. I had a great overhead vantage point Friday evening, sitting in the second row extreme side and could see the patterns that the seven regiments (consisting of 70 dancers) made once they filled the stage with multicolor regalia. (The seats are cheap at only $26-not bad considering that a movie ticket in Manhattan costs $15. The seats aren’t terrible, but I could only see about 70%-80% of the stage). From my nice overhead perch, the 70 members were nicely in synch throughout and spaced well over the entire stage, not an easy task with so many dancers.
Once all seven regiments entered, the mood lightened as each regiment danced. Andrew Veyette was impressive as the Dress MacLeod leader. Sara Mearns handled her duty well as the MacDonald of Sleat leader, clad in white pointe shoes and red and black kilt. It must be difficult to dance in full gear, which may have caused Sara to slip during her regiment’s dance. She quickly recovered to lead the troops and complete the high kicking, exciting dance.
I don’t really understand Part 2, which depicts a husband and wife costermonger dance. Costermongers are London street sellers of fruit and vegetables. Amar Ramasar was the Pearly King and Jenifer Ringer the Pearly Queen. It was danced well, but I’m not sure how this part relates to parts one and three; but it did give the dancers time to change into sailor suits for part three.
Part 3 is “Royal Navy,” which features dancers in sailor-clad costumes in a series of rousing, jovial, and energetic dances. Teresa Reichlen was the star, leading the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service). Her work featured deep plies in second, long developes with salutes during her pirouettes. The fun comes to an end as the dancers use semaphore flags (flags used to convey information at sea, still used today) to signal “God Save the Queen” to the music of “Rule Britannia” as the Union Jack is dropped.
Tobi Tobias provides a nice background to the piece:
""Union Jack" was clearly the project of Lincoln Kirstein, the man who, recognizing Balanchine's genius, lured him to the United States in 1933 and fostered his career for the next half-century. The quirky pretext for the ballet was to make a Bicentennial offering to the kingdom from which America had wrested its independence. Kirstein was a self-confessed Anglophile, a condition related to his love of tradition, with its panoply, hierarchy and ritual. In a widely quoted program note, he presented his argument for the ballet in his inimitable prose style: "In the tepid euphoria of quasi-official celebration, dimmed by an exhausted peace and clownish public scandal" — a reference to Watergate — "it has been deemed fitting to recall roots." In the course of the ballet's making, its tone shifted, so the homage became alternately serious and tongue in cheek."