The New York City Ballet’s (NYCB) Balanchine neoclassic take on the pas de deux dance duet has created a new meaning of performance perfection, as shown in its performance at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance on Thursday.
In the NYCB’s rendition, there were no rules to leg bends or foot angles or any quintessential ballet movements. Not even that classic straight, rigid posture. To dance Balanchine, which is to dance after certain principles developed by choreographer George Balanchine, is to unrestrainedly contort in unexpected variations. Though the NYCB’s repertoires were danced with stunning synchronization, the heart of Balanchine does not embrace exact parallelism. During Thursday night’s performance, the audience observed unique movement that challenged gender norms across six separate pas de deux.
Though typically performed “romantically” with the male dancer acting as a prop for his female lead, the Balanchine interpretation of La Sylphide was a more egalitarian performance with the two dancing side-by-side and somewhat mirroring one another. As Janine Parker, artist-in-residence, put it: “The dancer performing the Sylph must literally stand on her own two feet.” The Sylph continually fled from her suitor, a representation of independence with every self-supporting spin. Dancing on one’s toes spin after spin gets exhausting. The crowd understood the extent of the dancer’s exhaustion, her heavy breaths and steps sounded over the speakers toward the performance’s tail-end. While not intentional, this provided effective commentary on the efforts single, independent females make. Movement-wise, Swan Lake was less Balanchine. As the ballerina fled, the ballerino continually brought her back to center. Her performance was mostly dependent upon his stable hands, and she quite strongly resembled a music box ballerina.
Agon opened with a faint spotlight on dancers who did not necessarily perform a story but did show off their athleticism. They continued this contemporary style and, unlike the other performances, exhibited gender roles generally found in classic romantic ballet. At one point, the ballerino was on his back supporting his partner. She showed her flexibility and contorted her body. They ended this pas de deux once again in each others’ arms and the light fades out.
The Goldberg Variations consisted of two males and two females, each partnered at one point with one another. The dancers explored and navigated traditional gender roles throughout the piece. Liturgy closed perplexingly. These partners were reluctant to touch and had some ambiguous connection. The female dancer would run off stage as her partner awaited her. He would hold the same position as she ran away and back into his arms. The two ended their performance isolated.
Lastly, five men explored both traditionally male and female gender partner roles in Rodeo. These men performed leading, lifting and following. There were many permutations of these gendered roles, as their executions closely resembled those typically performed by both females and males.
Ballet likes to celebrate gender roles through physical constraints and strengths paralleled with modern romantic ideologies. NYCB’s six pas de deux challenged this traditional world of dance. The group’s physical talent and exploration of gender roles combined for a perfect performance.