The well-tempered clavicle

A Balanchine classic returns to PNB

Watching George Balanchine's half-hour ballet, The Four Temperaments, after Kent Stowell's Zirkus Weill and Val Caniparoli's The Bridge reminded me of a scene from the movie Big Night. Having just finished her first exquisitely prepared gourmet meal, a dinner guest sobs, "My mother was a terrible cook!" Every time I see The 4 T's, no matter where it's placed on the program, I am compelled to cry, "All other choreographers are wretched!" Of course it's not fair, nor can it be absolutely true. It's just that Balanchine's sophisticated command of form—the movements, the placement and timing of bodies in space—opens our eyes to the lack of rigor in most other dances.

If Balanchine's The 4 T's is the Dom Pérignon of dance, then Stowell's vile circus is Boone's Farm with a screw top. You could say Zirkus Weill is "fun." It's spotlight bright (lime greens, electric blues, sequins, and feathers). Nearly 30 dancers perform "accessible" dance numbers in a circus ring, with live orchestra and jazz singer Greta Matassa on stage. Seth Belliston back-flips to "Dance of the Tumblers;" five women flounce and trot to "Speak Low." Stowell characterizes the piece as "tilted, a little off the edge." I'd call it a G-rated lounge act.

Pacific Northwest Ballet

'Zirkus Weill,' 'The Bridge,' 'The Four Temperaments'

November 5­7 and 12­14

Val Caniparoli's The Bridge, based on the true story of two lovers slain in war-torn Sarajevo, never quite lives up to the profundity of this fact. Five couples, all dressed in pedestrian browns and dark greens, swirl and run around the bare stage to the intensity of Shostakovitch's String Quartet no. 8. Signature movements: intermittent drops to the floor; a skating motif in which the males pull their female partners as though dragging a corpse or negotiating a slippery slope. While dancers Vladislav Bourakov and Kaori Nakamura lend a convincing desperation to the roles, the piece lapses into moments of vague arabesques, pirouettes, and mushy repetition.

Balanchine choreographed The 4 T's in 1946. The dance was immediately recognized as a seminal masterpiece. The architecture of the ballet is like that of hard-core modernist Mies van der Rohe: precise, rigorous, lucid. Space and form take precedent over content. Yet, the piece is a palimpsest: Classical tradition and vocabulary are still visible beneath the innovation and apparent starkness. We see the vestiges of Balanchine's Russian imperial tradition—courtly partnering, hierarchical relation of soloist to corps—in abstract form.

Balanchine uses classical vocabulary to express modern ideas, not only about shape and form, but also about human nature. The ballet begins with a man and woman standing side by side, wearing black and white leotards and tights. As Paul Hindemith's score for strings and piano unfolds, they present to each other a hand, a foot. Balanchine starts with a theme, then builds four variations (based on medieval humors) using these essential elements and structuring them into something we recognize but have never seen before. Simple, powerful geometric motifs constantly reappear: a woman straddling a man's thighs, the 2-D Egyptian walk, a flexed foot, a kneeling lunge.

The ballet requires 25 dancers who can elucidate shape, line, and rhythm with fierceness and detached commitment. PNB has performed the work since 1978. Overall, compared to the last time I saw the work nearly three years ago, the company looked rusty. The exceptions: Louise Nadeau's skittery limbs and anxious undertones added complexity and sharp delineation to the Sanguinic variation. And, as always, Ariana Lallone, in Choleric, consumed the stage with an unmatched ruthlessness. A few of the younger dancers, falling off point, were not ready.

The proof of a masterpiece, as critic

Arlene Croce once wrote, is its ability to perpetuate time, to keep the moment alive. During the finale of The 4 T's, there is a moment when the cast stands side by side in stillness, suddenly human before the final apotheosis. Rilke's second Duino elegy comes to mind: "Do you recall how the hands rest without any pressure though there is great strength in the torsos? Those figures spoke a language of self-mastery: We've come to this point, this is us, touching this way. The gods may push us around but that is for them to decide. . . ."

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