Though New York City Ballet’s fall season opened with costumes designed in collaboration with high fashion designers, refreshingly, its production of “Balanchine: Black & White,” is not about costumes. Instead, dancers work with George Balanchine’s creations, deconstructing classical ballet to unearth its raw elements—body movement and music, filling the stage at the David H. Koch Theater with the choreographer's “Black & White” repertoire.
The dances that compose the production—“The Four Temperaments,” “Episodes,” “Duo Concertant,” and “Symphony in Three Movements”—are part of Balanchine’s “black and white” canon. These are affectionately called “leotard” ballets, because the dancers are simply costumed in black or white leotards. Devoid of sets, the minimalist stage is at most lighted dark blue or sage green on the scrim.
Celebrating NYCB’s 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center, last Wednesday evening began sentimentally with “The Four Temperaments”—the very piece that NYCB co-founder Balanchine premiered at the 1946 opening program of the Ballet Society, the predecessor of NYCB.
Accompanied by composer Paul Hindemith’s music, the psychological choreography of the ballet is inspired by Hippocrates’ theory of four temperaments. In the first variation, “Melancholic,” principal Robert Fairchild emerges in a uniform of a fitted white shirt and black tights. His thrusting grands jetés en tournant pour out inner turmoil across the stage. After “Sanguinic” and “Phlegmatic,” exaggerated pas de chats divulge Ashley Bouder’s irascibility in “Choleric.” The absence of skirts creates an illusion of infinitely long leg extensions when the corps de ballet propels sky-high grands battments in a Rockette-like kickline.
Anton von Webern’s cacophonous score combined with Martha Graham’s input is reflected in the dancers’ jerky transitions and flex-footed poses in “Episodes.” The “Five Pieces, Opus 10” section spotlights Janie Taylor streamlined in all white and Sébastien Marcovici in all black. They explore the contours of each other’s body and become increasingly more comfortable in this discovery with every pluck and chime from the orchestra.
With “Duo Concertant,” Balanchine explicitly demonstrates how ballet is breathed by music when featuring a violinist and pianist on stage. This piece, which first showcased at the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, starts with principals Megan Fairchild and Chase Finlay standing still, absorbing Igor Stravinsky’s composition, and exchanging sheepish smiles. This motionless choreography instigates the audience to meditate on music flowing from the agile hands of the pianist and violinist surfaced from the pit.
When the pas de deux actually commences, the audience is prompted to fathom “the intimate relationship between dancers and musicians,” as explained during the pre-performance First Position Discussion. Thus, the dynamic duo periodically breaks to hear the sounds that guide their steps. In the organic “Duo Concertant” that permeates the bliss of dancing, the richer the violin plays, the more the couple melts into each other.
“Symphony in Three Movements,” also set to Stravinsky’s score, visually and rhythmically ends the evening with zest. A stunningly strong diagonal of 16 women in white leotards and ponytails modernizes the traditional image of the corps as dainty swans or snowflakes. The female principals shock the viewers appearing in three different shades of pink leotards—coral, poppy, and bubblegum. Sterling Hyltin’s exceedingly faster piqué turns radiate centrifugal force, and the metronome-like corps accelerates the pace.
But with the flick of the conductor’s baton, the escalating energy comes to a halt. The captivating production swept the audience to grasp and delight in Balanchine’s intent. The ballet mesmerized without tulles, flowers, and sequins. Textures, hues, and brilliance were embroidered in the hyped body movements and intricate music.
“Balanchine: Black & White” runs through Oct. 13 at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.