New World Symphony, Miami City Ballet make inspired partners in Stravinsky

By Lawrence Budmen

Collaborations by George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky were performed by Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony Friday night at New World Center. Photo: Martha Swope

The second program of the New World Symphony’s Stravinsky Festival on Friday night focused on works from the composer’s neo-classical period and the collaboration between Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine. 

Partnering with Miami City Ballet under artistic director Lourdes Lopez, the performance was a tribute to the high artistic standards of two of South Florida’s preeminent artistic institutions. With lower-level seating at New World Center removed to make room for an orchestra pit, the stage was extended forward, providing ample room for the dancers and clear views for audience members. 

Apollo, produced by the Diaghilev Ballet Russe in 1928, was the first ballet the twenty-four year old Balanchine worked on directly with Stravinsky. (He had previously choreographed Le Chant du Rossignol in 1925.) The two Russian-born artists would work together intermittently through Agon, their final collaborative effort in 1957. Balanchine would continue to set Stravinsky’s orchestral, vocal and chamber scores to dance for the remainder of his career. 

Apollo is a strikingly original work. Stravinsky’s spare scoring for string ensemble matches an austere melodic style that mixes lyricism with coolly acerbic rhythms. Balanchine’s abstract choreography manages to dovetail Stravinsky’s modernist take while picturing the birth of the Greek god of light, music and poetry and his ascension to Mount Olympus.

Michael Tilson Thomas worked with Stravinsky and his mastery of the composer’s wide-ranging scores consistently results in outstanding performances. He brilliantly captured the rhythmic contours of this landmark work and brought forth its spiky essence. Terrific string playing of clarity and richness allowed individual lines to emerge in transparent fashion. The absolute control and tonal depth of Kevin Chen’s violin solo pictured the protagonist’s birth pangs and first grasp of light.

Renan Cerdeiro’s slinky and graceful movements conveyed the wild youth but he turned noble and aristocratic as he realized his role and stature. The coordination and pristine pointe work of Katia Carranza, Jennifer Lauren and Emily Bromberg as the three muses radiated excitement. 

Each had a turn in the solo spotlight. Bromberg’s rapid, angular motions were executed with accuracy and musicality while Lauren’s variation was closer to classical ballet. Carranza effectively captured Balanchine’s synthesis of his Russian romantic ballet heritage and path breaking creative aesthetic. The Pas de deux for Apollo and Terpsichore is like nothing in classical ballet that preceded it. Closer in many ways to modern dance, this duet reflects Balanchine’s impulse to explore new ideas in movement. The final image of Carranza balanced on Cerdeiro’s head and shoulders was stunning.

The Circus Polka (1941) was commissioned by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for an act danced by elephants and ballerinas devised by Balanchine, provided an interlude of kitsch. If this were a significant score, the accompanying animation by Emily Eckstein (commissioned by the New World Symphony in 2012) would have been distracting. With this generic circus band music wryly quoting Schubert, the video offered an entertaining five minute cameo of a ringmaster keeping his show on course without the assistance of an uncooperative elephant. Tilson Thomas and the players gave the low-grade music a brassy ride.

Balanchine choreographed Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major (1931) for the New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, one year after the composer death. This is one of the composer’s singularly original works. One three-note chord opens each of the concerto’s four movements. Two central violin arias bookend a toccata and capriccio. The violin line of Aria II almost sings like a Bach sarabande. Jazz and Russian folk elements are at play in the outer movements, all of this musical gumbo sounding decisively like Stravinsky.

James Ehnes’ virtuosic command and depth of sound, combined with his strong affinity for the idiom, brought out the score’s cosmopolitan aesthetic. He captured the brilliance of the final Russian dance and the simplicity of the central sections in gleaming sonorities. Tilson Thomas pinpointed the wind and brass’ astringent interjections while keeping the instrumental textures light. Although scored for substantial forces, Stravinsky rarely utilizes all the players at once. Tilson Thomas emphasized the chamber music qualities of the orchestral writing.

Right from the start, Balanchine’s jazzy choreography references his considerable work on Broadway and in Hollywood, areas of his legacy that are often neglected. Even in the first aria duo (splendidly danced by Nathalia Arja and Kleber Rebello), speed and a remarkable contemporary sensibility dominate. The stunning partnering of Ashley Knox and Camera Catazaro in Aria II gave full reign to Balanchine’s avant garde take on a romantic pas de deux. In the finale, the sixteen-member corps de ballet’s high stepping energy supported the four principals, all dancing at their peak.

A prolonged ovation greeted the dancers, Ehnes, Tilson Thomas and ballet director Lopez. Hopefully this exhilarating and artistically fulfilling evening will mark the beginning of more collaborations between New World Symphony and Miami’s world-class dance company.

The New World Symphony repeats “Stravinsky& Balanchine” 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.; 305-673-3331

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Sat Feb 1, 2020
at 1:30 pm
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