Backstage, Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne, New York City Ballet tour, 1958. Photo Walter Stringer

The Four Temperaments. Some reflections

The Australian Ballet’s 2021 season will include performances of George Balanchine’s work, The Four Temperaments, a ballet that had its world premiere in 1946. Then it was performed by Ballet Society, the forerunner to New York City Ballet, in the auditorium of the Central High School of Needle Trades in Manhattan (now the High School of Fashion Industries). For an explanation of the title of the ballet see this link from the George Balanchine Trust website.

Researching the ballet, ahead of its (hopefully live) performances in 2021, has uncovered some fascinating stories, articles and recollections by those who have danced in it over the years, and about the company that first performed it, Ballet Society. According to Bernard Taper in Balanchine. A Biography, Ballet Society was ‘a most peculiar venture’ that was organised by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to encourage the production of new works. It was to be an organisation that ‘would cater only to an elite subscription audience’. The press was not invited to the first production, which consisted of The Four Temperaments and Maurice Ravel’s The Spellbound Child (L’enfant et les sortilèges) as staged by Balanchine with an English translation of a text from Colette. The press, however, managed to get to see the show by ‘buying their own subscriptions’ or ‘sneaking into the auditorium on performance nights’. So began a ballet that was ground breaking then and is still remarkable today. It is more often than not described as ‘A dance ballet without plot’ (Balanchine’s subtitle), but according to Taper ‘[it] seemed to demonstrate that ballet could do anything that modern dance could do—and more.’

It was not (and is not) an easy ballet to dance. In the beginning there were the costumes to contend with. The original costumes were designed by Swiss-American artist Kurt Seligmann and were somewhat extravagant and not easy to wear. In Barbara Newman’s Striking a balance, Tanaquil LeClercq, who danced in the corps de ballet in the original production, recalls:

I had a large nylon wig that came down to about my rear end. It had a large pompadour, and it had a large white horn in the middle like a unicorn’s, which made it difficult to do all the things [Balanchine] had made. That was number one. Very irritating. You come to dress rehearsal, and if you swing your arm close to your head, suddenly there’s a horn. The other thing was that [Kurt] Seligmann had made wings, red wings, fingers enclosed, and there was no place to get out. If you got into your costume and then got something in your eye or wanted to unzip yourself to get out, you couldn’t. Once you tied your toeshoe ribbons, that was it. It gave you a  feeling of claustrophobia I can’t describe. All enclosed. Not even gloves with fingers—no fingers at all. It was hideous.

The Seligmann costumes were eventually abandoned and were replaced from 1951 by simple practice clothes, black leotards for the women, and black tights and a white T-shirt for the men, which are still worn today.

Then there was the choreography. Merrill Ashley, in her memoir Dancing for Balanchine, speaks of some of the choreography she found difficult. She danced the leading role in the Sanguinic section when the work was revived for New York City Ballet after slipping out of the repertoire for some years. She writes:

There was one movement about which [Balanchine] was particularly concerned. He wanted me to step backward on pointe and then, without traveling at all, put my heel down flat on the floor and let my body fall back—without losing control. Actually the step was meant to make me look as if I had fallen off pointe suddenly, and was therefore falling back. It was very difficult, especially lowering the foot without moving the heel at all. I wasn’t able to do it right, but when Balanchine told me that no one else had ever done it correctly either, I felt a little better. Although I come closer to it now,  I still move my foot as I lower my heel.

Quite recently the NYCB website published an article by NYCB’s Manager, Editorial and Social Media, Madelyn Sutton. It is well worth a read and it also contains two video snippets. Read and watch at this link.

In Australia, The Four Temperaments premiered in 1985 when the Australian Ballet was under the directorship of Maina Gielgud. The ballet was staged by Victoria Simon and appeared on a program with Balanchine’s Serenade and the first performance of Robert Ray’s The Sentimental Bloke. (It is perhaps of interest to note that in 2021 The Four Temperaments will be part of a similarly constructed program, which will also include Serenade and the first performance of a newly commissioned work from New York-based choreographer Pam Tanowitz). Later, in 2003, Australian audiences saw it on an Australian Ballet program called American Masters, which also included Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night. Again it was staged by Victoria Simon. It was brought to Australia by New York City Ballet in 1997 when that company toured to the Melbourne Festival, and was last performed here by the Australian Ballet in 2013 as part of its Vanguard season. Then it was staged by Eve Lawson. I am curious to know who will stage it in 2021.

Michelle Potter, 13 January 2021

Featured image: Backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, during the 1958 tour to Australia by New York City Ballet, 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia.

(The Four Temperaments was not performed during this 1958 tour. I just like the image and my use of it reflects difficulties associated with permission to use images of The Four Temperaments. The article by Madelyn Sutton mentioned above contains some very nice images.)

Backstage, Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne, New York City Ballet tour, 1958. Photo Walter Stringer

Bibliography

  • Ashley, Merrill. Dancing for Balanchine (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984)
  • Balanchine, Georg, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet (New York: W. H Allen & Co, 1984)
  • Newman, Barbara. Striking a balance. Dancers talk about dancing. Revised edition (New York: Limelight Editions, 1982)
  • Taper, Bernard. Balanchine. A Biography (New York: Times Books, 1984)

Ballo della Regina and pas de deux from After the Rain. New York City Ballet

4 May 2020. Digital Spring Season

For me the two works on this New York City Ballet digital program are worlds apart. I have loved Ballo della Regina, choreographed by George Balanchine especially for Merrill Ashley in 1978, since I first saw it years ago now. On the other hand, After the Rain, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in 2005, has never been a favourite for me, especially when only the pas de deux is shown rather than the whole work.

The production of Ballo della Regina that was streamed on this occasion was filmed in 2016 and featured NYCB principals Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in the leading roles. I was interested to hear, in the introduction to the program, that Merrill Ashley handed down the ballet to Fairchild for her graduation performance from School of American Ballet in 2002. A graduation performance! And from the astonishing performer Merrill Ashley! Well the film was made around 14 years or so after that graduation and Fairchild has more than lived up to Ashley’s belief in her.

Ballo della Regina is probably not the most intellectually demanding ballet in any repertoire but it must surely be on of the most technically demanding. The female lead needs such fast and precise footwork, incredible musicality to keep the footwork in time with the music, and extraordinary energy. And the steps themselves are beyond the ordinary with unexpected changes of pace and direction and extraordinary use of the pointes. The male lead is also pushed technically, again with unexpected additions to standard movements. Both Fairchild and Huxley rose to the occasion and gave a performance that equalled any I have seen before and surpassed most.

Like most streaming programs Ballo is only available for a short time, but here is a short excerpt from the ballet with commentary by Fairchild, which should be available for longer.

The ballet is such a wonderful example of Balanchine’s choreography. We expect to a certain extent the fast footwork (although perhaps not always as demanding as we see in Ballo della Regina) but in Ballo we also see his particular use of arms and upper body (unusual inclines of the body and again those unexpected combinations). Then, when the whole cast is on stage, we notice so clearly his particular use of space along with the way he places the dancers in that space. Ballo was a great addition to the many available lockdown programs.

As for After the Rain, I have never liked what to me are awkward poses—upturned feet, parallel positions, crouching and collapsing bodies, back views of the dancers and manipulation of bodies using the feet, for example. They sit uncomfortably alongside those parts of the pas de deux that are anything but awkward. Still it was interesting to see Wendy Whelan in the role that was made on her. She was partnered by Craig Hall and the performance was filmed in 2012.

Michelle Potter, 4 May 2020

Featured image: Promotional image for Ballo della Regina and After the Rain pas de deux. New York City Ballet, 2020

Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson dance Balanchine

George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux was the absolute highlight of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala, at least as far as I saw on the televised version of the event. Tschaikovsky pas de deux, made in 1960 for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, has all the nuances of movement of which Balanchine was capable in his choreography and requires considerable technical expertise. Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson made it their own. Jackson is to be congratulated too for stepping into a role that was to be danced by one of the best male dancers around today, David Hallberg, who for some reason that I haven’t yet learnt did not appear.

In terms of the partnership, I loved the way Jones and Jackson interacted. Their initial meeting was gracious and they seemed to linger over each movement so as to enjoy the full pleasure of being in each other’s company. They developed the engagement with each other often in quite subtle ways—a gentle lean, a thrust of the hips or a bend from the waist, for example, or a hand held out to the other, and eye contact all along the way. Jones had such fluidity in the upper body and both were in such command of their movements that they often seemed to be dancing in slow motion. In the early part of the pas de deux Jones’ double swing of the leg going through a fifth position between swings was just gorgeous. Their musical phrasing was breathtaking.  And what a beautiful ending to the pas de deux—that slow, sustained unfolding from arabesque to fish dive. And how they shone in the coda when picking up that fish dive again but beginning it not from arabesque but with Jones flinging herself through the air into Jackson’s arms. Delicious.

Both executed their variations with great attack. Jones stepped into everything as if she had all the space in the world. Turns, beaten steps, that little gargouillade from Jones, Jackson’s grands pirouettes, they all were so pleasurable to watch. Jones often reminded me of that great Balanchine ballerina Merrill Ashley. While Ballo della regina is perhaps not Balanchine’s most thought provoking ballet, it was made on Ashley and Jones could look just as brilliant in it as Ashley did. Perhaps at another gala?

Jones and Jackson were rehearsed in this pas de deux by Eve Lawson. Lawson is now a ballet mistress and repetiteur with the Australian Ballet but comes from a strong Balanchine background. Amongst other things, she worked with Edward Villella at Miami City Ballet (a company with a strong Balanchine repertoire, thanks to Villella) and has worked as a repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust. While she had great material to coach in Jones and Jackson she appears to have brought out the very best in these two dancers and given them a real understanding of how to dance Balanchine. I can’t help wondering too whether her influence isn’t apparent elsewhere in the company? Unfortunately I didn’t see the gala onstage but the television screening gave me the impression that the Australian Ballet, especially the corps de ballet, is looking better than it has for years. Anyway it augurs well for next year’s Four Temperaments.

Bouquets all round!

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2012

Images? Unfortunately the Balanchine Trust did not give the Australian Ballet permission to photograph this part of the gala so I cannot include any images. Such a shame and incredibly annoying too.

Ballo della regina, Live fire exercise, DGV. The Royal Ballet

10 May 2011, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Every time I visit London and am lucky enough to see a performance by the Royal Ballet I am bowled over. The recent mixed bill of Balanchine’s Ballo della regina, Wayne McGregor’s brand-new Live fire exercise and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse) simply reinforced my view that the Royal is at a high point in its career—so many dancers of star quality or star potential, a coaching team that appears to work on developing a clear understanding of what lies behind each work and great programming.

Balanchine’s Ballo della regina opened this program. On the night I went, leading roles were danced by Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. It was especially rewarding to see Cuthbertson take command of a role so closely associated with that great American ballerina Merrill Ashley, who created the leading female role in 1978. On stage Ashley always looked as American as apple pie, you might say, with her glowingly healthy face, her forthright (and fabulous) technique, and a kind of no holds barred, no nonsense approach. Cuthbertson, however, had a different approach. Ashley showed the steps, and how she showed them. Cuthbertson, with a lighter frame than Ashley, seemed to emphasis not so much individual moments but an overall fluidity. This is not to say that her dancing lacked highlights. Her ability to alter direction suddenly and to move with unexpected changes of speed was a real delight. And there was not a moment when she faltered. It was a great performance.

As for Polunin he had nothing to live up to as Robert Weiss, who partnered Ashley in 1978, never in my opinion really made the role his own. Polunin knocked me for six with his ability to cover space—the extension of the front leg in movements like grands jetés en avant was like an arrow speeding forward on a perfect course. And then there was the clarity of his beats and the perfection of his turns.

Four soloists—Melissa Hamilton stood out in particular—and a beautifully rehearsed corps de ballet made this Ballo a special treat.

Wayne McGregor’s Live fire exercise, made in collaboration with artist John Gerrard, on the surface could hardly have been more different. The starting point was a US army exercise in the Djibouti desert, a detonation designed to prepare troops for the physical effects of the mortar rounds or road side bombings they may encounter. A screen occupied a large part of the upstage area. On it was a projection of a desert scene and over time we saw the arrival of trucks and other machinery, a blast and the subsequent plume of fire and its smoky aftermath. In front of this video installation three men and three women performed McGregor’s demanding, highly physical choreography. In the background Michael Tippet’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli provided, almost as a juxtaposition, a kind of pastoral accompaniment.

McGregor’s choreography in Live fire exercise, showed his signature extensions with the dancers’ legs pushed high into positions that destroy the usual line of classical ballet, along with his approach to partnering with its emphasis on curved, twisted and folded bodies, and with his use of extreme falls. At one point Sarah Lamb performed a promenade in attitude on a bent supporting leg. She was supported in this by Eric Underwood who, once the circle of the promenade had been completed, swiftly lifted her and with a swirl threw her through the air. She travelled through the air, looking light as a feather with a perfectly held body, into the arms of another dancer. For me this moment put McGregor in a new light and his ability to use the classical vocabulary, and then to manipulate it became clear.

Overall, and almost unbelievably, the choreography seemed quite calm and considered. Throughout the piece single dancers occasionally stood quietly beside the video installation. They were lit so as to appear shadowy, isolated human beings figures against the plume of fire or smoke. They drew our attention from the choreography back to the footage and also served to remind us of the content of this footage and its underlying political message. Live fire exercise is the most personal of the works of McGregor that I have seen to date

In addition to Lamb and Underwood the cast comprised Cuthbertson, Polunin, Akane Takada, Federico Bonelli and Ricardo Cervera.

Closing the evening, Wheeldon’s DGV was something of a letdown. DGV is set to a score by Michael Nyman, MGV (Musique à grande vitesse), and draws inspiration from the idea of a journey with the French very fast train (TGV) the source of both Nyman’s and Wheeldon’s title. The work is essentially a series of four pas de deux with a corps to ballet of another eighteen dancers who often also work in pairs. It shows Wheeldon’s exceptional ability to create mesmerisng duets and his capacity to move large groups of people around the stage to create strong visual imagery. It was beautifully danced, especially by the corps and without a perfect corps the patterns falls apart, which they certainly didn’t on this occasion.

But I found the work a little repetitive and somewhat soporific. Maybe it was simply that it came after the McGregor with its underlying message of the politics of war? McGregor pushes his audience, Wheeldon doesn’t, or didn’t with DGV. Nevertheless DGV completed a wonderfully diverse and fabulously performed evening of dance.

Michelle Potter, 27 May 2011