It's been 28 years since New York City Ballet last visited the Twin Cities.
Why so long? Was it something we said? No, it's just because extensive traveling with nearly 90 members plus a full orchestra is rarely feasible these days. So instead, the world-renowned dance company is bringing a more portable version of itself to cities around the country and abroad. Northrop Concerts and Lectures will present New York City Ballet MOVES at the Orpheum Theatre on two nights this week.
"I think it's really a snapshot of what the company can do," said principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht by phone from New York. The compact rotating cast of principals, soloists, members of the corps de ballet (who have potential to move up the ranks) and musicians delivers what Ulbricht calls "a tasting menu" of the troupe's diverse repertory to audience members who can't make the trip to Lincoln Center for the glittery City Ballet seasons.
The vision for the touring program (launched in 2011) came from Artistic Director Peter Martins with the goal of bringing "our best to venues," said Jean-Pierre Frohlich, artistic administrator for MOVES. "Some companies don't always bring stars."
It also revives the troupe's touring history, which was more active during the mid- to late 20th century. As the company makes its tour stops, Frohlich hopes new fans will want to see the City Ballet again on its own turf.
"It's important to get ballet out there," added Ulbricht. "It's not the same when you only see it on film or the Internet."
Ulbricht, as well as principal Sterling Hyltin and several other prominent company members, will appear on the Orpheum stage in works by Christopher Wheeldon, William Forsythe, Martins, and of course, George Balanchine, the celebrated City Ballet co-founder. While in town, a company teacher and pianist will lead a master class for local advanced dancers at the Minnesota Dance Theater studio.
Dedicated to pure dance
Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein established New York City Ballet in 1948. The two men already had a working partnership from opening the School of American Ballet in 1934, which still operates, training professional dancers. It was there that the Russian-born Balanchine (who danced and choreographed for the legendary Ballets Russes) built the groundwork for his singular game-changing style, one that transported ballet from its classical roots into the realm of sleek and structured 20th-century modernism.
Balanchine is best known for his unparalleled sense of musicality, which will be on display this week in the 1972 work "Duo Concertant" set to a composition by Igor Stravinsky performed live on piano and violin. It's Hyltin's "absolute favorite" she said by phone from New York, of the choreography that unfolds like a wildly fascinating kinetic conversation between the performers. "The steps are so incredibly fun, the dancing is zesty and full of life. It's a great challenge for us. A lot of Balanchine works are copyrighted," she added, so the dancers always have to perform the same steps, with no room for deviation.
Although Balanchine died in 1983, his influence endures. Martins (who has spent more than 40 years with City Ballet) became the sole Ballet Master in Chief in 1990 after sharing the role for seven years with another significant innovator in dance, the late Jerome Robbins. The company has maintained a steadfast commitment to preserving Balanchine's vast body of work while encouraging new choreographic voices both from within and outside the company. According to Frohlich, touring is an opportunity to share this significant legacy and ever-evolving identity.
History, diversity, versatility
Three adjectives sum up the program in Minneapolis, said Hyltin: history, diversity and versatility.
For example, both she and Ulbricht will appear in Martins' "Hallelujah Junction" (2001). A score for two pianos composed by John Adams propels the movement, and the black-and-white-clad dancers reflect the keys on the instruments. "There's a conversation going on, and the dancing highlights it," said Ulbricht, who was born in Florida and has family ties to Minnesota. "There's point and counterpoint, plus a lot of energy. It's fast and alive. Each couple responds to the music and there's perpetual motion, even in the adagio section. The dancers are really going along for the ride, with no pause for breath."
Texas-native Hyltin also will dance in Wheeldon's 2001 work "Polyphonia" set to 10 piano pieces by György Ligeti. Audiences who saw Houston Ballet in the Northrop series last spring will recall 2003's "Rush," also by Wheeldon (a former City Ballet member), with its complex choreography combining elements of speed and precision. "Polyphonia" was the work that "put Wheeldon on the map," Hyltin said. "It's really special to see where it all began for him." The dissonant musical score is particularly demanding to follow, she said, as is the need for all the dancers to maintain a strict sense of uniformity throughout the piece.
Also on the program is "Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux" (1992) by Forsythe, who now leads the Forsythe Company after a 20-year tenure as director of Ballet Frankfurt. He originally envisioned the work as a quintet for City Ballet, set to music by Thom Willems, but its spare, pedestrian-movement-influenced duet is now a stand-alone piece. Martins' emotionally rich "Zakouski" (1992), set to music by four Russian composers, rounds out the evening.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.