What makes a ballet a masterpiece?
George Balanchine’s Serenade, the first work on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Giants” program, which I saw at the Keller auditorium on Saturday night, set me thinking about that. Because, in my view, it is the only masterpiece on a program that also included William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and the premiere of OBT resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Giants Before Us.
Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for String Orchestra, premiered in 1935, following a preview on the Warburg estate in 1934, and was the first ballet Balanchine made on American dancers. It is at once a tribute to his own training in pre-revolutionary Russia at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, and the cornerstone of the new American classicism that Lincoln Kirstein charged him with developing.
Balanchine liked to use cooking as a metaphor when speaking about his work. The version of Serenade that OBT’s dancers are performing—and damned well—was slow-cooked for three decades, the fourth movement of the score inserted in 1941, the lovely, flowing costumes replacing unbecoming tunics in 1950, the master chef adding ingredients and correcting the seasoning, if you will, until the mid-’60s. Balanchine changed his ballets all the time, of course, adjusting steps to suit the dancers who performed them over the years, or, more often, to challenge them to jump higher, spin faster, travel farther.
Serenade, however, is not about steps, and not about flashy technique, and while it does contain some narrative ambiguities, it is not a story ballet. “Virtuoso ability was not required,” according to dance historian Nancy Reynolds, “except in some demanding solo passages; more necessary were a lift in the torso, limitless breath, a soaring line, and the ability to sustain a phrase and to move and move and move. Serenade had little to do with ‘steps’ and everything to do with dancing.”
OBT’s dancers certainly moved and moved and moved on opening night, shifting smoothly from the stillness of the opening tableau, which some believe to be the most beautiful moment in ballet, into the speedy, flowing execution of Balanchine’s intricate, shifting floor patterns and the various solos, duets, trios and a pas de quatre that seems to me to be about the friendship of women as well as about classical technique.
The soloists – new principal dancer Jacqueline Straughan, Martina Chavez, and Candace Bouchard – all danced with the “soaring line” mentioned above, Bouchard, in particular, inhabiting movement and music with palpable joy. Thomas Baker, one of two male soloists in the ballet, danced with equal commitment to music and movement, and Brian Simcoe performed with eloquence and musicality. Everyone did, actually, assisted by a truly beautiful performance of the score by the OBT orchestra under the baton of Niel dePonte.
I have been watching Serenade, staged by many different people, including Balanchine himself, for more than half a century. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated I had seen only once before Saturday night, about 25 years ago, at Covent Garden, in an electrifying performance by the Royal Ballet. And I thought it was a masterpiece. I confess that when Kevin Irving announced that it would be on the opening program of OBT’s 27th anniversary season, I was skeptical that OBT’s dancers could pull off Forsythe’s rapid-fire technique-driven choreography.
I was dead wrong on both counts. Rudolf Nureyev commissioned In the Middle for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 when Forsythe was leading the Frankfurt Ballet. In the early ’90s, when I saw it, it was still a startling, and riveting, attack on the very classicism that Balanchine celebrates in Serenade. In it, the dancers use their limbs like weapons, reaching, thrusting, with extraordinary aggression, to a rhythmic score by Thom Willems (Willems is to Forsythe as Tchaikovsky is to Balanchine) whose loud bangs sometimes sound like the construction going on behind my building as I write this. OBT’s dancers had no trouble with the split-second timing, or anything else. Xuan Cheng’s joint-separating solo was particularly powerful; Baker and Simcoe shifted stylistic gears with tremendous ease; Peter Franc, who joined the company last season, seems to be able to do anything asked of him. It was an extremely good performance by dancers who “get” Forsythe’s pugnaciously idiosyncratic style. That being said, In the Middle is 10 minutes too long, it doesn’t hold up over time, possibly because of all the imitators, and I got bored. Movement and music are all on one relentless level; dancers and audience need to pause for breath. OBT has two other Forsythe ballets in its repertory, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and The Second Detail. Those I’d like to see again, but not In the Middle.
Serenade is viewed as a ballet celebrating women, so it was logical for Fonte, newly named OBT’s resident choreographer, to make a piece celebrating the company’s men. Giants Before Us does just that, to the music of Franz Liszt, gorgeously, lushly, performed by Portland pianist Hunter Noack on a platform somewhat too elevated stage right. You are made aware of this somewhat looming presence from time to time when the dancers turn sideways from the audience and, facing the musician, perform seemingly for him.
While there is some fine choreography and ditto dancing in Giants – particularly the pas de deux performed by Franc and Straughan, a solo executed by new dancer Christopher Kaiser, and every step taken by Chauncey Parsons – there doesn’t seem to be an overarching idea to hold the piece together, except for the music. Some parts struck me as silly, particularly a section in which the men seem to be worshiping a silhouette (female) shaped like an Easter Island goddess. They stand, clustered in a group, bare backs to the audience, rhythmically vocalizing in primitive grunts. Fonte is a greatly gifted choreographer, as OBT audiences know from seeing last year’s Beautiful Decay, and the earlier Bolero and Petrouchka. Perhaps, to extend Balanchine’s metaphor (and even he produced some failures that he was the first to acknowledge) Giants needs more time to cook, more time to jell.
For it is time, as well as talent, that makes a masterpiece.
OBT’s “Giants” repeats Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Ticket and schedule information here.