If there is a ballet more perfect in clarity than Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, I have yet to see it.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 wafts through the audience, and when the curtain came down Saturday night at the Brown Theater in the Wortham Theater Center at Houston Ballet's program Journey With the Masters, the audience let out a collective gasp. The scene is striking: blue panels frame the stage, gold and crystal chandeliers suspend from the ceiling and flowing silk draperies partially hide the distant view of the River Neva in St. Petersburg. Filling the stage are the dancers, beautifully attired: pale blue powder puff tutus and spiky tiaras for the women; blue jackets with flared cuffs for the men.
They simply stand there, regal and calm, then slowly, gracefully, bow and curtsey. We are swept into an idealized landscape of order, calm and grace, revealed by the slightest gesture— a bow, a turn, a tilt of the head.
The hierarchical structure idealizes the order of a long-vanished time, and so the ballet unfolds with crystal clear sequences, each section designed as sharply as faceted diamonds. Diagonal lines turn into pinwheels, then circles, then concentric circles, then straight lines. In one breathless sequence, Karina Gonzalez darts into the crowd with forceful jetés, zigzagging her way through the group, and ending in the center. There she does a sharp piqué turn on the right side, pauses, and turns on the left. As though she is s setting off clocks, several dancers repeat her turns, until the entire ensemble is turning, back and forth, again and again.
The ballet consists of three sections, and to keep the energy flowing, Balanchine throws in devilishly difficult steps for principals Sara Webb and Simon Ball, and interlaces their movements with a corps of 24 and three soloists. Balanchine’s gift is of simplicity and surprise, of repetition that breaks into something startlingly new, and—like fireworks on the Fourth of July—builds to a great climax at the end.
Jiří Kylián’s Sinfonietta offered a very different dynamic from Ballet Imperial: earthy, exuberant and free flowing. It celebrates not nobility but everyman, as well as the empty land that was home to the Czech composer Leoš Janáček and Kylián himself. Against a distant landscape of blue skies, rolling green land and water, sounds of trumpets rain through the air. Suddenly, men are shooting forth like rockets, hurtling themselves though the air, disappearing and returning. This simple rushing back and forth goes on for almost three minutes, slowing down to introduce two men, who are soon joined by two women.
The women wear simple flowing dresses of teal, lavender, avocado, persimmon or sand and slippers rather than pointe shoes, and the men wear white or tan pants and loose, flowing shirts. The ballet consists of five sections and its overall look is that of fluid movement that that can stop as quickly as it started, like flags billowing in the wind and suddenly dropping.
As spoofs go, Jerome Robbins’ The Concert is one of the funniest ballets ever. At one end of the stage, a pianist (Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon) plays Chopin as concertgoers stroll into the hall carrying chairs. As the audience settles in, there is the usual shushing and glares, a women in large hat blocking the view, a married couple bickering, and a mishap involving tickets so that everyone has to change seats. The music inspires daydreams, which sets off a series of comic scenes, the best involving six ballerinas who cannot seem to stay in sync, and male and female “butterflies” in a mating frenzy. At the end, the pianist pulls out a butterfly net to put a stop to those bobbing antennae and gauzy wings.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.