July 10, 2020
While the lock down has been a devastating time for all dancers, there is heightened poignancy for students graduating from vocational schools this year. The courage they show in tackling roles often well beyond their years and experience, is awe-inspiring. It is a very special occasion to enjoy their moment of glory in front of proud teachers and parents. Sadly, in current circumstances and for many schools, a graduation performance is not possible.
The School of American Ballet, who have a proud heritage as custodians of Balanchine training and repertoire, have sought to fill the gap by presenting a video of items from the previous three years of Workshop programmes.
The School and New York City Ballet are intimately linked sharing artistic direction, currently in the person of Jonathan Stafford. He introduced the programme by mentioning its postponement from the original date in June, in light of the appalling murder of George Floyd. Stafford made an earnest statement noting the need for the art world to pause and take stock, to unite and face the racism in society. Racism that should be history, but still isn’t.
George Balanchine’s Agon, written for Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in 1957 was a landmark moment in black ballet history. This performance, filmed in 2019, was given in tribute to Mitchell, one of SAB’s most eminent alumni. It has weathered the years, as few other works have, and was the highlight of the performance.
Dancers Savannah Durham and LaJeromeny Brown rise to the challenge in the Agon pas de deux. Both Balanchine’s choreography and Igor Stravinsky’s score ripple with tension, easing ever so slightly in the brief moments of formal ballet, then coming back with force as her leg whips round his neck in a striking acrobatic shape. The electricity between the two is high charged throughout, as the bodies transition through a succession of angular positions, each holding their nerve in the complex partnering. Brown, who is now a member of NYCB, zapped through the male solo with eye-watering clarity and Durham, now a company apprentice, displayed an impressive line. It was a performance that showed authority beyond their years.
In Creases, filmed at the 2018 Workshop was the most modern of the ballets. Choreographed by Justin Peck in 2012, another alumnus of SAB, it is fresh, ebullient and eminently suited to the students. Set to two sections of Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos, played onstage, the pace is lively and the choreography endlessly inventive. Peck plays with the bodies like pieces in a kaleidoscope, constantly moving to make new patterns. While it was well rehearsed and performed with enthusiasm, the pointe work from the female dancers needed more fine tuning and finish. However, the partnering was secure and performed with professional skill, the male dancers adding the cherry on the top with brilliant virtuosity.
The main work was Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony filmed at the 2017 Workshop. The students entered into the spirit of Mendelssohn’s music dancing with freshness and sparkle.
Mira Nadon and Davide Riccardo brought passion and a touch of drama to the second movement pas de deux. In the third movement, with change of pace and mood they again proved up to the challenge, Nadon using her torso with lyrical ease contrasting razor sharp feet and finishing on a ballerina-quality balance. Riccardo matched, showing powerful jumps and well-focussed turns.
In the first movement, Kristina Hadjipetkov, sporting red pointe shoes and accompanied by kilted, LaJeromeny Brown and Nathan Compiano made a spirited trio, coping well with the brisk batterie. The students were a credit to Suki Schorer and Susan Pilarre who jointly staged the work.
The opening number was sheer delight. Stravinsky’s score for Balanchine’s famous ‘elephant’ ballet was rechoreographed in 1972 by Jerome Robbins as Circus Polka. Forty-eight young ballet dancers ranging in age from 9-13 years went through their paces dressed in coordinated coloured frills, bows in their hair and ponytails swinging. Faculty member, Arch Higgins, as the Ringmaster was in charge to keep order and insist that fun was had by all.
It wasn’t a graduation performance as we know it, but the lively introductions by a very committed team of coaches and teachers and the well-balanced programme made interesting viewing.