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Ballet Arizona’s ‘Balanchine Classics’

The Arizona Republic, by Richard Nilsen

Director Ib Andersen passes ‘Prodigal’ baton

Ib Andersen first danced George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” in 1986 and got rave reviews.

Ballet Arizona: ‘Balanchine Classics’
When: 8 p.m. June 11-13. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St., Phoenix.
Admission: $15-$119.
Details: 602-381-1096, >balletaz.org.

“His acting is absolutely superb,” wrote New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff.

“In the first scene, rebellious against his father, this prodigal is wonderfully restless, like a young colt barely restrained,” she wrote. “In his scenes with bald male revelers who strip him of his clothes and riches, he is hungry for experience.

“As he crawls back home, Mr. Andersen knows how to build toward a climax.”

Andersen, now retired from dancing and artistic director of Ballet Arizona, brings back his production of Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” this week, along with Mr. B’s “The Four Temperaments,” with music by Paul Hindemith, and “Divertimento No. 15,” with music by Mozart.

Andersen was Balanchine’s last male star for whom the great ballet maker created several of his final masterpieces at the New York City Ballet.

So, it is odd to hear him badmouth acting, at least until you understand what he means by that.

“Acting to me is such an awful word,” he says. “Acting is like pretending.

“I don’t believe that anything good ever comes out of pretending.

“To me, it’s being, not acting.”

“Prodigal Son” is an early Balanchine ballet, first performed in 1929 for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with music commissioned from Sergei Prokofiev. It tells the biblical story of the young man who demands his inheritance from his father, squanders his money and his life, and later comes back, wasted and repentant, to be welcomed by open arms.

“It’s a story ballet,” Andersen says. “I came originally from the Royal Danish Ballet, where they do mostly story ballets, so it is something that is in my bones. It is my mother’s milk.”

And “Prodigal Son” is a story with an emotional impact.

“It’s hard not to be touched,” he says. “It always makes people cry, which means it is something people remember.”

For Ballet Arizona, the lead part will be danced by third-year dancer Roman Zavarov.

“The opening is noted for all these very high jumps and explosive dancing,” Andersen says of his own performance.

“I was better at the end, though, because you actually don’t dance, you just crawl, and to pull it off, it requires that you have some kind of personal baggage to draw on. So, in a way, it’s harder to pull off at the end than at the beginning.”

The two other ballets on the program are also top-drawer Balanchine, but they are not story ballets.

The “Four Ts,” as he calls it, has characters, but no story: It outlines the four personality types of Medieval psychology, each with its characteristic humor, or body fluid. There is the melancholic, the sanguine, the phlegmatic and the choleric.

Balanchine commissioned the score from Hindemith in 1940 for $500. He later said it was the best-spent $500 he ever paid out. But he didn’t premiere the ballet built on the music until 1946.

“He commissioned Hindemith when he had a little left over in his pocket, and then sat on it for a long time,” Andersen says.

And “Divertimento” came later, in 1956, set to Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15 in B-flat, K. 287, for two horns and strings.

“All three of these are extraordinary ballets,” Andersen says, “but to me personally, the most perfect is the Divertimento. It’s not a flashy ballet, like the others, but it is just like Mozart’s music. You can say it is what classicism is all about.

“It is difficult, the way it is difficult to play Mozart, and it’s the same with the dancing. It requires so much of the dancers, but it should look effortless.”

June is a good month for Ballet Arizona. Their final program of the season will be danced to live music, and then, the company will head for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as one of six regional dance companies to perform for the “Dance Across America” program. They will dance Andersen’s “Diversions,” which the company premiered in Phoenix earlier this year.

“It’s important for a company to have things done on them,” he says, meaning that “Diversions” was created specifically for the individual talents of the dancers in Ballet Arizona.

“It’s tailor-made for them,” he says.