George Balanchine’s ballets are delectable enough, but one Lincoln Center audience got an extra treat: passion fruit birthday cake and shots of vodka to toast the master on what would have been his 100th birthday.
All year long, New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine co-founded in 1948, is marking his centennial. But on Thursday — Balanchine’s actual birthday — artistic director Peter Martins decided to do something special.
He had two giant nets filled with balloons waiting at the top of the New York State Theater, ready to shower the audience during a post-performance round of “Happy Birthday.” Unfortunately, when the time came, one set of balloons remained stuck at the top. But no matter: the audience was happy enough with its tiny bottles of vodka, handed out during intermission.
“It’s all about love for Mr. B,” Martins told the audience, listing all the reasons that Balanchine had been adored.
On the way out, guests were handed little tartlets of caramel and passion fruit mousse, with a lychee nut center (2,800 of them had been baked for the occasion.)
As for the dancing, Thursday’s performance highlighted three of Balanchine’s earliest works, beginning with “Apollo,” the spare but gorgeous mythological piece choreographed in 1928 — when he was only 24. The ballet also marked the beginning of his lifetime collaboration with the composer Igor Stravinsky.
A legacy of beautiful balletThe Russian-born Balanchine came to New York in 1933, first founding the School of American Ballet — which still produces many of the country’s finest dancers — and then New York City Ballet, with Lincoln Kirstein. By the time of his death in 1983 he had created more than 400 works, many of which are still regularly performed around the world.
“Apollo” tells the story of the god of music and his three muses: Calliope, muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, muse of mime; and Terpsichore, muse of dance and song. The dancers perform in plain white costumes with no sets and only a few props: a lyre, a tablet, a mask.
Yvonne Borree, occasionally a bit nondescript in her dancing, was delicate and appealing this time in her portrayal of Terpsichore, and her duet with Apollo — a very muscular Nikolaj Hubbe — was charming.
Next up: Balanchine’s 1934 signature work “Serenade,” the first he choreographed in the United States. In this dreamlike ballet, 28 dancers in long ice-blue tutus perform in front of a plain blue background to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” The intricate steps here include unexpected moments from rehearsal that Balanchine adapted into the ballet: a dancer arriving late, or a dancer falling down.
But the most arresting moments were at the beginning and the end. The curtain rose on the dancers standing with right arms raised up to the heavens, wrists flexed. And it lowered onto a tableau of the elegant Kyra Nichols, one of the company’s longest-performing stars (and one of the few old enough to have worked with Balanchine), being carried by her ankles as she reaches up to the sky.
The evening finished with “Prodigal Son,” choreographed by a 25-year-old Balanchine in 1929. In this rather strange ballet, focusing on biblical themes of sin and redemption, Peter Boal was an energetic Prodigal Son and Darci Kistler was the siren who tempts him.