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Flash Review 1, 1-4: Seasons of Love
Looking for Love at City Ballet

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier

Remember, back in November, the New York City Ballet gala program called "Looking at Love"? In the first two performances of the NYCB winter repertory season, held Tuesday and Wednesday at the State Theater, I found myself looking not at love, but for love. It was a mature love of dancing I was looking for, basically, an alertness to and joy in what someone once called kinetic depth, an attentiveness to music and the tradition of style. Love arrived in four varieties -- fulfilled, frustrated, just now blooming, and not yet developed. But how to keep the newly blooming from getting frustrated? How to take care of the not yet developed? This is urgent business for NYCB, where the life of the repertory depends on the love of the dancers -- and vice versa.

Love fulfilled: Kyra Nichols, Helene Alexopolous, that whole constellation of senior ballerinas who are getting further and further away from us. Yes, their powers are fading -- Nichols, in Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony" Tuesday night, was visibly weak at the end -- but it is the final refinement of their art that really takes them out of our reach. We, the audience, get the reward of their devotion: bliss. Alexopolous in the Summer section of Robbins's "The Four Seasons" was silky as a mirage, far too much for her partner Kipling Houston (who appeared, as well, to have the flu). And Nichols just floats; every gesture, every roll through the foot, has import, yet she's inhabited the technique so fully that she can almost let it go. Her humor and wisdom in "Scotch Symphony"'s second movement (the one in the style of "La Sylphide") went completely over Charles Askegard's very practical, very unengaged head. Yet she fought for every one of those crazy pirouettes that push off from the front foot instead of the back, and in her almost laughing fearlessness one could see the fun and risk and serene freedom of an older style of NYCB ballerina. These dancers are truly and appropriately alone on stage; they fill it completely. But they will not be here forever.

Fun and risk and freedom -- those are qualities not very much in evidence in the company's second tier of ballerinas. Here frustration and fulfillment intertwine. At one end (according to how long they've been principals) are Yvonne Borree, Miranda Weese, and Monique Meunier, the last two of whom we've seen so little in the past year that it's impossible to judge what they might be like. Borree was wonderful when Peter Boal loosened her up and spun her around in "Square Dance." I keep waiting to see her develop into that sweet, slightly daredevil place that seems so right for her, but she can't seem to relax enough to get there.

At the other end are Wendy Whelan and Margaret Tracey. Both joined NYCB in 1986; both were made principals in 1991. We know what's happened to Whelan -- her skinny toughness has turned to purity, sensuality, and joy. Both in the Fall section of "The Four Seasons" (where she folded and unfolded and whisked herself about like a curling maple leaf) and Wednesday in Peter Martins's "Concerti Armonici," it was her more and more subtle gift for phrasing that kept all the pieces moving and together. She is loving it out there. But Tracey only grows more and more retiring. As the second principal in the Martins ballet, she could not have had a more off performance. She didn't seem to know, or care, that she was on stage. Nothing was working; she marked her way through, and hammered on a smile when she caught herself scowling. Love for dancing, frustrated.

As for the principal men in these opening performances, there were really only two. Damian Woetzel, who is of course a wizard, was out with an injury both nights (I name him anyway in absentia -- come back, Damian!). Philip Neal, who replaced him as the Hoofer in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" on Wednesday, danced wonderfully, like a big little boy (though his loping niceness didn't work as well in the part as the love-mad frenzy Woetzel brought to the part last year, plus there was something terribly wrong with the amplification of his tap shoes). Sometimes I don't know how he stays in control, but he always manages it. And Boal, in "Square Dance" and in "La Source" on Wednesday, continued his mastery over time and space and partnering and port de bras, though he is beginning to tire more easily, and there was the odd surprise of blurred beats from him on Tuesday night. He said recently that he plans to retire this year. It will be a very difficult loss.

But interesting things are happening underneath, in the "just now blooming" set. One flower has opened so far into the Sun that this season might best be dubbed "Looking at Jenifer Ringer." If the opener is any clue, the season will be hers. Two nights in a row, in debuts in the Spring section of "The Four Seasons" (with Neal) and "La Source," she had people sitting straight up in their seats. "Four Seasons" was the last ballet on the program Tuesday night (after the somewhat shaky "Scotch" and "Square"), and when Ringer took the stage in that lovely green Santo Loquasto costume, it was the first really assured dancing of the evening. Her feet knew where the ground was. (Ringer was made for Robbins; she's a soubrette, and a romantic, and smart.) She was absolutely on in "La Source" -- there was a great moment when, in a perfect balance at the top of a big developpe a la seconde, still on pointe, she slowly brought down her extended leg, and the audience sighed with pleasure. It's a wonderful part for her. She's about the only principal besides Whelan and Meunier who really shows us how much she loves being there, hearing that music, understanding the dynamics, making those pirouettes sing. She's had to fight for it. And right now she is the company's happiest blessing.

Some of the bloom already seems to have worn off Maria Kowroski, another of the three newest principals (the third is Jennie Somogyi, just promoted). In 1996 Kowroski was the Anointed One, the new Suzanne Farrell. Where has she gone? She made a serviceable debut on Wednesday as the Strip Tease Girl in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," a part in which to be serviceable (no, not *that* kind of serviceable!) is to miss the mark somewhat. She was quite gorgeous, that's for sure, and quite concentrated on whooshing her legs and her hair around. To get the outcome "vamp," she entered "raised eyebrows" and "knowing smile." Just about the only heat on that stage was generated by the cigarettes of the bartenders (the hilarious, worthy-of-great-vaudeville Froman twins) and James Fayette as Big Boss. Kowroski: love, petered out?

This year, another One has been Anointed: eighteen-year-old Abi Stafford, fresh from a year of outrageous opportunities. She stepped in at the last minute in the principal role in "Valse-Fantasie," danced the Merrill Ashley role in "Ballo Della Regina" and the Sugar Plum Fairy in last month's "Nutcracker," and now finds herself named the first Janice Levin Dancer (to be given each year to an outstanding corps member) and making her debut in the demi role in "La Source." Stafford has beautiful feet and legs, a big quick jump, and very clear technique. About twenty seconds in I began to lose interest. My eye wandered over to young Kristin Sloan, who (I now remembered) was so lovely last year in Christopher d'Amboise's "Triptych." Why not her instead of Stafford? Not as sharp an attack, maybe, but more varied, more pleasant to watch. (I look back to the anointed.) Stafford is clearly the best of the young corps dancers at NYCB, but the point is, why not let her season back there for a while? In fact, why all this anointing business in the first place?

There are a lot of other girls in that huge wall of names below the principals who should not, I repeat not, be vaulted over because of some policy of baby-ballerina-christening. Carrie Lee Riggins (superb in her debut as Winter in "Four Seasons"), Janie Taylor (strong, but always looking at the ground, in a debut in "Scotch Symphony"), Rachel Rutherford, Amanda Edge, and others -- these dancers need careful attention now, before they lose what kinetic depth they have. The young men are doing well. Corps member Jared Angle gave a good performance as Tracey's partner in "Concerti Armonici," dancing securely and with a strong line. He's been featured in a few things now, and he's getting better. Same with Jason Fowler, Stephen Hanna, Adam Hendrickson (the Faun in "Four Seasons" and Morrosine in "Slaughter"), and others. Some of the newer corps girls are spindly or pudgy, and they look pretty vacant up there (love for dancing, not yet developed). But wasn't it Balanchine who told his new corps dancers that only *now* would they begin to learn to dance?

NYCB needs its bright young things. It needs to generate excitement. It needs to feel it has momentum. All ballet companies do. Tonight it's Christopher Wheeldon, the company's first artist in residence, premiering a new work -- another youngster on whom high hopes are being pinned. High hopes and young things: it's the American way of doing it, I suppose. But ballet needs strong roots, rich soil, a love of living classicism. Are those things still with us? Ballet in America was always a risky proposal.

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