Edinburgh Festival - Dance: Jewels in the NY crown

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The Independent Culture
New York City Ballet

Royal Festival Hall

We don't get to see much ballet from over the pond. US companies cost a lot to bring over. But Antonia Franceschi, an erstwhile dancer with now living in London, wants to educate us. This is the second time she has persuaded her old friends to break their summer vacation to show us the NYCB style. And what style. For dance-watchers raised on British ballet, this is a different ballgame - sleeker, speedier, and brimming with attitude. George Balanchine, the company's founder- director, famously favoured "big girls with long legs". And here they were. Wow!

The programme was naturally dominated by Mr B. NYCB is still wedded to his aesthetic: classicism hits the culture of baseball and jive. And we saw this most clearly in Rubies, part of his Jewels trilogy of ballets reputedly inspired by a trip to Van Cleef & Arpels's shop in 1967. The title may have been no more than an astute piece of packaging, because apart from Karinska's costumes (groaning with tiaras and studded hems and fussy little ruby epaulettes) the ballet has nothing whatever to do with jewellery.

What we see is an almost self-mocking display of Fifth Avenue pizzazz: a chorus of high-kicking lovelies, a minxy central ballerina flaunting her crimson wares, and a squad of chaps who, when the mad rhythms of Stravinsky's Capriccio briefly subside, act for all the world like Yale scholars jogging round the park. When all 14 dancers finally come together, the stage explodes in a kaleidoscope of pattern, squads of bodies slicing space with astonishing speed and precision. Best of all, the dancers dash off these feats with a sense of hang-it-all pleasure.

Not all Balanchine has worn so well. Allegro Brillante of 1956 makes the men look awful drips. Yet Agon, made only a year later, is still bracingly modern. We had the pas de deux here, in a dangerously erotic reading by Albert Evans (sardonic, laid back) and leggy Maria Kowroski, whose decision to sport a black leather belt round her black leotard hinted at all manner of dark intentions.

Stravinsky's score rewrites the rules of musical classicism, and Balanchine does the same to ballet's. This is no polite pas de deux: it's sex, and the woman is hard as nails. As she stands in arrogant arabesque, her man lies flat on his back, and her raised leg sweeps carelessly over his head. He gets his own back when, in another arabesque, he lifts her leg up behind her and presses her head back to meet it in a gesture both intimate and cruel.

A more recent duet, Concerto 622 by Lar Lubovitch, also inverts traditional roles, but this time we get two men unabashedly in love with each other. At its premiere only 12 years ago, this was a courageous stand. Now it's simply a well-made short ballet, gorgeously in tune with its sublime Mozart adagio. This was due in part to the dancers Peter Boal and David Krensing, dapper in casual whites, whose demeanour was unaffected and most touching. But it was also elegant invention as dance. And utterly un-fey.

Finally there was the premiere of Life Story, again a duet, from America's doyenne of punk, Karole Armitage. Tennessee Williams's poem of post-coital pillow talk set the scene in a sleazily apt setting for soprano and piano by Thomas Ades. The sheer banality of casual pick-ups is nicely caught in the choreography (at one point a half-dressed Wendy Whelan sits on Albert Evans's back, bored stiff) as is the narcissism, as each indulges his/her own pleasure. The curt final line, "That's why people burn to death in hotel rooms", came as a hilarious, blessed release.

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