NEW YORK -- The New York State Theater was a glorious place to be on Wednesday night. The New York City Ballet continued its 50th-anniversary season by offering George Balanchine's "Agon," "Concerto Barocco" and "The Four Temperaments," masterpieces that surely rank high on almost everybody's list of top 10 Balanchine ballets.
They were presented as part of what the company calls a "Balanchine Black and White Celebration," programs featuring plotless works danced in simple black or white tights and leotards. Two of these pieces were not always this spare. At their premieres, "Concerto Barocco," which dates from 1941, and "The Four Temperaments," first performed in 1946, had very fancy costumes. But Balanchine considered them fussy and discarded them. When he choreographed "Agon" in 1957, he envisioned it in black and white from the outset.Not every Balanchine ballet should be so austere. But for certain types of intricate choreographic abstractions, nothing should be allowed to obscure the movements. By discarding eye-catching but distracting designs, Balanchine proved that less can be more.
"Agon" is a marvel of invention. Just as Stravinsky's score spikes the melodies of 17th-century court dances with 20th-century rhythms and harmonies, Balanchine's choreography unites many disparate qualities. The dancers seem colleagues one moment, competitors the next, and the movements shift unexpectedly between tightness and looseness.
"Agon" got off to a slightly tentative start, but soon gathered energy. Maria Kowroski and Sebastien Marcovici demonstrated that they had mastered the choreography's constant dartings, both in their solos and in their ensemble passages with Deanna McBrearty, Jennifer Tinsley, Edward Liang and Christopher Wheeldon. And Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto made the fiendishly difficult pas de deux a struggle between two determined people who come to respect each other's strength.
"The Four Temperaments" is inspired by medieval theories of character types, and the soloists who symbolize these types preside over the action like signs of the zodiac. Miranda Weese and Charles Askegard were confident in the Sanguinic variation, and Aura Dixon was fierce in the Choleric variation.
The most distinctive interpretations were provided by the male soloists. Heading the Melancholic variation, Damian Woetzel became a man whose strength was ebbing away and, despite his efforts, could not resist the urge to sink downward. In contrast, Albert Evans, in the Phlegmatic variation, appeared to be someone perfectly content to droop. Cameron Grant was the piano soloist in the Hindemith score.
A repeat performance of "Concerto Barocco" was admirably led by Kyra Nichols, Jennie Somogyi and Nilas Martins. Guillermo Figueroa and Nicolas Danielson were the soloists in Bach's Concerto for Two Violins, to which the ballet is set. Maurice Kaplow conducted.