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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
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
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
"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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