I honestly can't decide whether Ballet Arizona's annual homage to legendary choreographer George Balanchine is best suited to ballet experts or complete novices. Saturday night's performance of All Balanchine at Symphony Hall had something for everyone, with three ballets that truly showcased three distinct types of choreography from Balanchine's hundreds of well-loved works.
We're spoiled here in Phoenix in this regard. Although Balanchine's choreography laid the foundations of modern ballet, his work isn't allowed to be performed by just anyone.
Ballet Arizona artistic director Ib Andersen joined the New York City Ballet in 1980, while Balanchine was still choreographing for the company. In effect, Andersen was Balanchine's last male star, with principal roles in Ballade, Davidsbündlertänze, and Mozartiana. Today, Andersen is one of a few dozen "répétiteurs" authorized by the George Balanchine Trust to re-create Balanchine's pieces.
All Balanchine marked the Arizona debut of two ballets, Walpurgisnacht and Western Symphony, and brought back a favorite, Episodes, which was most recently performed here in Arizona Ballet's 2012 Balachine showcase.
For me, Episodes stole the show. The piece originated from Balachine's love for the 12-tone music of Anton Webern, but the ballet itself was a collaboration between Balanchine and modern choreographer Martha Graham. And Episodes really is ballet at its most modernist (think flexed feet and disjointed movement). The Phoenix Symphony's performance of Webern's Symphony, Op. 21 was as impressive as the masterful dancing during the piece. The second part, which featured two dancers spotlighted against a darkened stage was particularly entrancing. Kenna Draxton's limbs looked like they went on forever, and her dancing was captivating.
The fourth part of the piece progressed towards more traditional ballet movements while maintaining subtle hints of modern influence, clearly asking the audience to reconsider our own answer to the question "What is ballet?"
That question became even more pronounced in the context of the whole show. The first piece, Walpurgisnacht, took its cues from classical depictions of feminine beauty. The lush pink colors and soft airy textures of the costumes created a lightness that made the work a perfect start to the evening. Jillian Barrell moved with a seemingly impossible effortlessness, and for a moment, I was convinced that Junxiong Zhao was actually floating.
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The end of the show was a complete departure from this kind of softness and subtlety. Western Symphony was pure camp. The male dancers donned actual cowboy hats for this upbeat finale, which, to my genuine surprise, was maybe the biggest crowd-pleaser of the evening. Despite the over-the-top nature of the western theme, the movements of the dance were still clearly situated in the traditions of classical ballet.
If there was one take-away from All Balanchine it is that ballet is an expansive art form, despite rumors to the contrary. Balanchine passed away in 1983, but his work is still relevant today, especially as it's performed by Arizona Ballet under the direction of Ib Andersen. In an odd way, looking back on Balanchine's choreography makes me excited to see where the future of dance will lead.
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.