The Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center (SPAC), New York, the United States, has a huge 5,000-seat amphitheater which is used extensively every summer. Famous companies which hold summer residences here include the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The SPAC in fact opened in 1966 as the summer home of both the NYCB and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Its sight-lines and acoustics were designed by the NYCB’s co-founder George Balanchine, the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th century. He also designed the stage floor to prevent injury to dancers. In the initial years, the NYCB’s summer residency was held for as long as four weeks. Since last year it has been cut down from two weeks of dancing to a week only due to funding.
The highlight of this summer’s NYCB residency in late July was Balanchine’s version of the 19th century classic “Coppelia” which premiered in 1974 and is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. This comic ballet is about Coppelia, a mechanical doll created by Dr Coppelius, who is so lifelike that villagers believe she is alive. Frantz is engaged to marry Swanilda, but he causes her much dismay when he is captivated by Coppelia.
Balanchine, with the help of the Russian ballerina Alexandra Danilova, created this version especially for this Saratoga Springs venue. He beefed up the male lead role of Frantz, by adding a solo for him in Act 1. Act 2 has reproduced the original St. Petersburg version by Marius Petipa for the Mariinsky Theatre, as remembered by Danilova.
The final Act 3 celebrating the Festival of Bells and culminating in the wedding of Swanilda and Frantz is completely re-choreographed by Balanchine. The choreography is rich and meaningful. To add interest to the Saratoga audiences, there is a corps de ballet of 24 girls picked from local auditions to dance the Waltz of the Golden Hours. The number 24 signifies the number of hours each day. The three solos are aptly named dawn, prayer, and work.
There is also a darker dance depicting war and conflict before the happy ending. In the final wedding pas duet for the two leads of Swanilda and Frantz, there is a memorable part in the coda when the bridegroom catches the bride who dives towards his arms in a backbend, signifying marital trust and consummation.
This not often performed ballet was superbly danced by the whole company. Megan Fairchild was magnificent in the title role. Anthony Huxley was excellent as Frantz. His spectacular technical virtuosity was impeccable. The exciting finale of this ballet was so uplifting that audiences left with the feeling that life could not be happier.
Another program of NYCB that I attended that week was a Tchaikovsky program featuring three of the most well-known Tchaikovsky ballets of Balanchine. Included was his last masterpiece “Mozartiana,” which was created in 1981 for his last muse Suzanne Farrell. The opening prayer section is deeply holy and religious. The ballerina attired in black as if in mourning, seems to be communicating with God in her prayers. This is followed by a sublime duet for the ballerina and her cavalier in the “theme and variations” section.
“Mozartiana” is a ballet of perfect symmetry and harmony. Sara Mearns was expressive as the ballerina. Tyler Angle was stylish as her cavalier, and Daniel Ulbricht impressed as the male soloist.
This program commenced with his 1935 early masterpiece “Serenade.” The performance conveyed its poetry and resonance. Lauren Lovette shone as the first ballerina. In Balanchine’s 1941 “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2,” Teresa Reichlen danced gloriously in the lead ballerina role. Russell Janzen was his elegant cavalier.
The Saratoga Springs summer season showed clearly that Balanchine’s masterpieces are still well danced by the NYCB. This great American company was last seen in Asia in 2011 when it was performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival. I hope that it will not be too long before the NYCB tours Asia again.