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Flash Review 1, 1-15: Quinn's Got the Music in Her
New Music Director Gets the Spirit into City Ballet

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

As with so many of George Balanchine's statements -- "Ballet is woman," "I am a gardener," and the like -- his comment that "the music is the floor" upon which his dancers dance sounds both tossed off and, in the context of his aesthetic convictions, deeply true. From Bach to Stravinsky, Gounod to Hindemith, music was Balanchine's principal source of inspiration, his creative starting point. (Bernard Taper tells the story in his "Balanchine: A Biography" of an enthusiastic friend approaching Balanchine after a performance of "Caracole," a 1952 ballet to Mozart's Divertimento No. 15. Balanchine, apparently uninterested in comments about his choreography, simply said, in a sort of rapture, "Oh, that Mozart -- that music!") For his dancers, then, as for himself, music was not to be a mere accompaniment or ornamentation. It was the *floor* -- the foundation, the frame, the working-space, the thing from which you pushed off and that pushed you forward in return, without which the entire enterprise would either hover, disconnected, or fall through.

Thus did the unusual organism called the New York City Ballet Orchestra become a fundamental part of the whole operation. It has the most demanding job of any ballet orchestra in the world, and perhaps the most important. With the arrival this summer of Andrea Quinn as its new full-time music director, the orchestra begins a new phase in its remarkable, sometimes rocky, history. If her performance in several guest appearances -- most recently, last week in "The Four Temperaments" -- is any indication, Quinn's effect on the orchestra, and, in turn, its effect on the company it serves, could be enormous.

The orchestra's recent troubles are well known. Its two major strikes, in 1976 and 1999, caused an uproar in the company and the artistic community. In 1976 the debate was over salary increases. In 1999 it had to do with the much more questionable demand that members should regularly be able to send substitutes to rehearsals and performances. As music critic Anthony Tommasini reported in the New York Times, on the night that strike began "22 of the 62 musicians in the pit would have been substitutes." Needless to say, the quality of the orchestra's playing had suffered tremendously as a result of this practice. They stopped playing altogether on November 23, 1999: the opening night gala performance was cancelled, and for a few weeks the company performed "The Nutcracker" to taped music.

But the orchestra got very little public support for its cause -- in part because it struck at the heart of what NYCB was all about: musical integrity. In exposing the flagging commitment of the musicians, the 1999 strike occasioned a reconsideration of the orchestra's role in the life of the company, which in turn accelerated the resolution to bring in new leadership. After 41 years of working with the company, Gordon Boelzner, its music director since 1990, will continue to have an important part to play in the institution. But its future is now in the hands of Quinn -- she's 35 years old, fresh from a job as music director at the Royal Ballet in her native England, and an unabashed lover of the contemporary musical tradition that has pushed NYCB forward for over 50 years. She is also prepared to give the company's dancers an energy source that they haven't even known they needed.

For quite some time before the latest strike, it was widely perceived that the NYCB orchestra was playing as if their performances were (to quote Tommasini again) "just another gig." That's a far cry from the value Balanchine put on their role. It used to be that the reason nobody in the world danced like Balanchine's dancers was that nobody cared about music like he taught them to care about it. There was no other ballet choreographer so attuned to the possibilities inherent in a rhythmic dynamic. Even the way he taught a basic tendu - as not pushing through the ball of the foot, Russian-style, but zipping out from an impulse in the ankle so the pointed foot arrived, so to speak, on the "a" of the "and" in the count "and-one" -- indicated his interest in the body as an instrument of musical action and timing. Music, in Balanchine's aesthetic, was precisely what the audience was supposed to SEE. ("See the music, hear the dance" is another Balanchine maxim that has acquired a good bit of moss.)

Clearly, a part of the explanation for the detached, sluggish, patchy quality of the dancing at NYCB in the past several years is precisely the absence of a unified, wholehearted, energized musical impulse from the pit. (The musicians are now required to attend around 75% of their rehearsals and performances.) These dancers simply aren't used to having that sort of musical attention offered to them -- or asked of them. It's going to take time for the musicians and the dancers alike to wake up to what Andrea Quinn is giving them. But one can see them stirring already.

Last year, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and NYCB gave a joint performance at the State Theater. Among its many excitements, the most red-hot was Quinn's rendition of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." The music popped and sizzled out of the pit, and the dancers exploded on the stage. It was no coincidence. Last Thursday she took on "The Four Temperaments," Balanchine's landmark ballet of 1946 set to (melded with, really) Paul Hindemith's theme-and-variations score for piano and strings. The cast featured Peter Boal in "Melancholic," Miranda Weese and Jock Soto in "Sanguinic," Albert Evans in "Phlegmatic," and Monique Meunier in "Choleric." The pianist was Richard Moredock. And the performance was electric.

It is impossible for this work to be uninteresting, even if a performance of it lacks the driving, keening, intimate yet cosmic force that comes from the heart of the music and makes the ballet really live. Fortunately, on Thursday night, neither the musicians nor the dancers were satisfied with merely doing something merely not uninteresting. Nor, however, was it a fully integrated performance. The orchestra was occasionally muddled and indistinct, and with some of the dancers it was like watching them being shaken out of sleep. They were all there, concentrating hard, but somewhat bewildered by the vividness of the world into which they were being led.

For instance, in the opening of the Theme, I could hardly see that talismanic flex-and-point from Rachel Rutherford, dancing with Robert Lyon. But then there were Dana Hanson and James Fayette, as clear and mobile as Picasso sketches in the Theme's third part, after Pascale van Kipnis and Arch Higgins in the second. There were the new corps dancers Faye Arthurs, Glenn Keenan, Carla Korbes, and Lauren Toole thrusting and blocking in "Melancholic" like it was a nightmare cheerleading routine. In the midst of them, the deeply musical Boal looked even more alone as he enacted the score's relentlessly falling notes. We saw the orchestra's heavy bass line figured in Boal's elbows, pulled down and down by inexorable gravity. With Quinn's help, he revealed a basic ballet principle embedded in this variation: "Up to go down."

In the "Sanguinic" variation, Quinn made the most of the music's rhythmic possibilities, bringing a dramatic rubato to those high strings at the movement's beginning, tearing forcefully into the whirl of its middle sections. Weese was all attack, more tough than spirited; the force in her turns and direction-switches was blinding. Neither she nor Quinn has any fear of speed, and they challenged each other perfectly Thursday, though both seemed to prefer pure energy to the bounding warmth that can also characterize this part. Soto betrayed no hint of effort in his flawless beats and turns -- his movement flowed as brightly and thoughtlessly as "sanguis," as the blood.

Quinn's gift for digging up the humor in a score came through in "Phlegmatic." The playing here was brilliant, and the corps girls were as well. Ellen Bar, Saskia Beskow, Mary Helen Bowers, and Rebecca Krohn were perfectly snotty, luxuriating in their mincing steps with a silky but not-quite-self-absorbed-enough Albert Evans.

And then it was Meunier, her powerful body hurtling downstage to angry violins, breathing fire and pure oxygen. Those hyperventilating pizzicato strings, those four quiet piano chords, Meunier's arms in the air, then her head to the ground.... Her cleansing rage was volcanic, a force of nature. (I was reminded that "Choleric" was originally made on the late Tanaquil LeClercq, another ballerina with elemental gifts.) At the end -- that almost unbearable end -- the orchestra achieved an intensity I've never heard from them before. The impression was of Quinn pushing musicians and dancers alike to go Further. With her huge energy, she challenged the dancers to react to what they heard, to attend to the drama of tempo and phrasing -- in other words, to use their "floor" instead of just skimming over it. The result, while at this point still uneven, promised great things for the company that now has her as its musical guide.

"The Four Temperaments" came at the conclusion of what was, all in all, a fine evening of dancing. Margaret Tracey was much improved since her last outing in Peter Martins's perfunctory "Concerti Armonici"; Jared Angle gave another modest, pleasant, yet forceful performance as her partner. Maurice Kaplow, who conducted, did his best with fairly uninteresting music. He did well, as well, with the Alban Berg violin concerto to which Jerome Robbins set "In Memory Of ...." Guillermo Figueroa put longing and passion into the challenging violin solo, and Darci Kistler brought her special sense of wonder and aloneness to the role of the young woman. Kistler is beautiful in retreat: Here, pulling back and back from Charles Askegard's brutal Death figure, she pointed to the cruelty of fate.

It's somewhat chastening to realize that a lot of the current excitement at NYCB is coming from the advent of two Brits, Andrea Quinn and Christopher Wheeldon. On the other hand, that these two are being so encouraged may be a sign that, after years of pretending it could make do with half-hearted efforts (or not even noticing that they *were* half-hearted), the company is coming to its senses. In taking these small but important steps -- hiring a vigorous new music director, giving a gifted young choreographer a post in which he can develop -- NYCB may be realizing it needs to say to itself what it said to its orchestra: No more substitutes. We're in this together. From now on, let's try for the real thing.

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