For the most part, George Balanchine's Symphony in C is a hurtling, high-energy affair. The principals negotiate off-balance moves and fiendish footwork, launch themselves into speedy turns, and dive into hair-raising arabesques. The corps de ballet dances constantly throughout, and their technical challenges match the principals'. The ballet ends in a triumphant display of pristine unison, the white tutus of the women off-set by the black-velvet tunics of the men.
But in the second movement, everything changes.
Bizet's score turns mysterious and sinuous. The principal ballerina drifts on with her entranced partner. And we reach what New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Teresa Reichlen calls the "heart of the ballet".
18 Jul 2017
Symphony in C is Balanchine's tribute to his classical past: his Russian childhood at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg and his immersion in the works of Petipa and Tchaikovsky (whom he spoke of as "a father"). For all of Balanchine's stylistic innovations and his adoration of American popular culture - jazz, Westerns, Broadway - he never lost his reverence for and sensitivity to the great works of the 19th century. The second movement, with its white-tutu-clad corps fanning around and enfolding the principal couple, has all the sublime enigmatic grace of the ballet blanc. There are moments that recall the swans protecting their queen, drawing her gently away from the male interloper, or the wilis whirling around the spirit of Giselle. Although the second movement is entirely abstract, the ballerina must instantly project the dignity and mystery of ballet's great heroines, and her partner's focus on her must be absolute, drawing a hypnotic circle around the two of them.
There's something else that the Second Movement principal male must give his ballerina - and that's a rock-solid partnering performance that allows her to surrender herself to the tricky 'trust exercises' Balanchine has devised for her. The central adagio of their pas de deux begins with one of the hardest. Supported only by her partner's hand, the ballerina unfolds her leg in a languorous developpé, then holds herself in arabesque while the male dancer lets go and glides around behind her to catch the other hand. She then lets go again - before grabbing both his hands and bending into an arabesque so deep that her head is touching her knee.
There's an even more dramatic moment shortly afterwards, where the male dancer lets his ballerina go and she free-falls backwards until her head almost hits the floor. He catches her, of course! Eve Lawson, the Balanchine repetiteur staging our season of Symphony in C, emphasises that the risk "is calculated; he knows exactly what he's doing. [But] the two of them have to work together to figure out exactly when she's going to land in his arms."
Principal Artist Ty King-Wall says, "Pas de deux are always built on trust, but this one is especially." To bring the second movement to its true pitch of feeling, the partners must be absolutely in tune, in sympathy, breathing as one.
As with all of Balanchine's neo-classical ballets, there is a modern edge. Even in the Second Movement, there are off-kilter touches that tell you you're not in St Petersburg any more: the low, gliding lifts; the turns on a bent leg; the chorus-girl high kicks. But the 'perfume' of the piece is more Swan Lake than Agon. It's a mesmerising dance of enchantment and surrender, right down to the last swooning fall, with the ballerina bent backwards against her partner's knee, her tutu framing her arched torso. Trust allows abandon.