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Flash Review 2, 1-23: Saved by Dance
Seeing the Light at City Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

After listening to the incoming, Jew-free Republican administration declare that while America is for all of us, salvation is only for those of us who accept Jesus Christ as our savior, I was hardly in the mood Saturday afternoon to promenade up Broadway to the (New York City) Ballet to watch young men and women frolic around in tutus and tights. And after hearing none of my brethren in the political media express shock that the men of the cloth opening and closing the inauguration had explicitly invoked Jesus Christ, I was having a bit of an existential crisis: Not over my pending damnation, but over my decision six years ago to abandon investigative, political journalism for dance. My flashlight, it seemed, was needed more in the political realm, to yell, "J'accuse."

As I passed the site of the new Reuters building in Times Square, I reflected on why I had abandoned general journalism in the first place, for the loftier call of dance writing: It was 1994, and I was embroiled in a legal battle with my employer, Reuters. Because the company didn't have a case on the merits, it was slinging whatever other kind of mud it could find at me. A lot of negativity was descending. Suddenly, because of a story I had written the year before on the Sixtieth Anniversary of San Francisco Ballet, I got comped for the entire season. As I began spending my nights at the ballet, after days filled with the darkness of the legal battle, the dancers rescued me with a reminder of how much extraordinary light there was in the world, for those who have eyes to see it. Seeing their bodies and souls soar, I was reminded of the potential in every moment forâjoy. I wanted to turn more people on to this potentialâso I decided to dedicate myself, and my journalism skills, to dance.

While my belief in dance's potential to elevate has not flagged, my conviction in ballet in particular as the vessel has wavered -- specifically, quite frankly, because the main ballet companies I see are the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. I couldn't get enough of these companies my first two years in New York, but in the last two, I've found that far from raising my spirits, they've more often disappointed me, so devastating is it to see dancers apparently unmoved by beautiful music, as has too often been the case.

So the odds were not good, Saturday, as I neared the New York State Theater, that my belief in dance writing as a noble calling would get a needed restorative.

In recent years, one of the dancers I've always been able to count on to restore my faith is Wendy Whelan. Well, it didn't look good Saturday: Whelan, scheduled to dance Peter Martins's "Concerti Armonici," was out with an injury. Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony" was substituted.

From an audience perspective, one of the perks of having NYCB as your resident ballet company is that, especially for a relative newcomer to the scene like me, every season brings at least one Balanchine ballet that's new.

On Saturday, the opening ballet was one of these: "Kammermusik No. 2," choreographed in 1978. And I wasn't the only one to whom this ballet was new. It was also new, more or less, to principals Maria Kowroski and Monique Meunier, who had made their debuts as the female halves of the two main couples earlier in the week, opposite Charles Askegard and Philip Neal.

Meunier, like Whelan (but with more extroverted panache and aplomb) embodies that spirit I'd like to clone: alive, happy to be there, joyously responding to the music and then offering it to us, interpreted by her body with supple, emotional expressiveness. Even rapid movement -- as that given to her Saturday -- she is somehow able to finely etch and articulate, without sacrificing speed and dash.

I was an early fan of Kowroski's, in 1996, when she burst on the scene. More seasoned watchers than me warned that it was a bit too early to anoint the 20-year-old from Michigan as the next Suzanne Farrell. But what compelled me about Kowroski went beyond her luscious form. It was the way she seemed to feel and exude the music, whether fancifully as Titania in Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream," her languorous arms palpitating slowly on the air even when she wasn't center-stage; yearningly as his Swan Queen, a leg jutting up as she grasped Siegfried, even as she was drawn inexorably towards Von Rotbart; or coquettishly as the Green Girl in Jerome Robbins's elegiac "Dances at a Gathering." She made her debut in the difficult second movement of Balanchine's "Symphony in C" look like it was not a debut.

But in the last year, Kowroski has struck me as dancing scared, lacking confidence, and not a little deficient in warmth. She's seemed overly concerned with reaching positions, so much so that her dancing has lost its silk and taken on a jagged edge.

At the beginning of "Kammermusic No. 2," I didn't see much to make me change my point of view. Where Meunier was able to hold even fleeting positions, Kowroski raced nervously through and blurred them, particularly in her hands. But then, suddenly, starting, I think, in a duet with Askegard, the sensual, sensitive Kowroski emerged once again, like an old friend. Exiting, with Askegard, she suddenly turned and ever so furtively -- but pointedly -- cast him a glance before again lowering her head; the second time, she extended a hand, held his, and meant it.

Then the playful Kowroski returned in a passage where she stood in front of Meunier, her hands playing at the side while Meunier's took the vertical space.

By the end of the ballet, these two were totally in synch, even when that in synchness called for them to be slightly out of synch. We were watching two powerhouse ballerinas, at the beginning of their reigns, and at that golden period of ballerinas: when they are young enough to dance with reckless abandon, but mature enough to make it mean something beyond vacant athleticism. The signature moment in this regard came when Kowroski tossed up a leg and threw her head back, not mechanically, but in a mood that seemed to celebrate the abilities of her body and the breadth of her limbs. Young enough to shoot for the moon, and old enough to appreciate the distance.

Of course, even past that first early twenty-something flush, ballerinas still have much to give us. A continuing reminder of this is Darci Kistler, whose maturity and sophistication and worldliness and selflessness were definitely in the house in "Duo Concertant," another seventies-era Balanchine ballet that, I think, depends upon the inner strength of the dancers (and musicians) to give it weight. In this mini-recital to atypically melodious music by Igor Stravinsky, the dancer couple and the musician pair -- in this case Guillermo Figueroa and Cameron Grant on, respectively, violin and piano -- are presented as equals. We get a whole interlude of music where the dancers are still, Kistler and partner Nilas Martins standing behind the piano. Finally they dance, and for the rest of the piece alternate dancing with simply standing and appreciating the fine musicians.

Often in these types of dances, i.e. where the musicians are given equal placement on stage, the deference of the dancers seems forced, as they appear to be simply waiting, woodenly, for this part to be over so they can do what they're comfortable with, and move. But here Kistler showed a true -- and not just cloyingly indicated -- wonderment at this music, and at the playing, which deserved it. I thought about how the mark of a true ballerina isn't just how she moves, but her bearing even when she's still. Not that Kistler's musical heart showed through just when she was immobile. The most lovely, honest marriage of music to dance moment came when Kistler seemed to spontaneously watch a note rise from Figueroa's instrument, following it until it disappeared into the ether, and there was nothing for the ballerina to do but pursue it aloft.

In an ingenious bit of programming -- kudos to NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins here -- the "musicless" Robbins piece "Moves" followed this celebration of dance-music harmony. Dancing to silence is not that unusual for modern dancers, but I was curious to see how ballet dancers -- particularly in a company where music is so central as it is in this company co-founded by Balanchine -- would move without it. After what I saw, it occurs to me that this is a company which, much as it seems to walk through some chestnuts, rises to the occasion with the big challenges you'd think might defeat it.

Here Kathleen Tracey, who has assumed a new confidence in the last year, set the tone for concentration, giving weight to each moment even without music. My favorite Tracey moments were when she fell splat to the ground, face-first, an on-its-face undignified motion for a ballet dancer which she made dramatic; and another where, curled in James Fayette's arms, head resting as if she's asleep, she gently but steadily began cycling a leg as he carried her off-stage.

But it wasn't just the leads who delivered "Moves" without music. For, though there wasn't any music I could hear, Rebecca Krohn -- a "Nutcracker" stand-out the last two seasons for her reckless Snowflake (that's a compliment) -- was definitely hearing something in her head. It was almost as if the late Robbins himself were whispering in her ear, possessing her with the intent of each angular move, no matter how sudden. This intensity, appearing early on in the "Dance for Women" section, definitely set the tone among her colleagues, Amanda Hankes, Carla Korbes, and Rachel Rutherford. I'd use the word "robotic" simply because Krohn didn't let up, but it wouldn't do justice to her large-eyed emotional investment in this short solo, which was anything but robotic, and which she made important.

The cast of "Scotch Symphony" acquitted itself well enough, and that dismissive summation shouldn't be taken as a dis of the dancers, who did their best, led by Margaret Tracey and Nilas Martins. This is one of those ballets that always strikes me as something Balanchine must have delivered on a dare, or as a joke. As if co-founder Lincoln Kirstein had needled him: "Betchya can't make a ballet with kilts, huh, can ya?!" And Balanchine had answered, "Those philistines in the audience will never know, they'll applaud anything."

The audience at the New York State usually does, in fact, respond like well-trained puppy dogs: you can count on two whole-cast curtain calls, and two leads-only calls before the fallen curtain. Ironically -- to this atypically enthused audient, anyway -- Saturday afternoon's crowd was unusually stingy. And this time, if it weren't that the dancers had worked a reversal in my mood from gloomy to glorious, if I had any scolding to dispense it would have been directed towards the curmudgeonly audience. These dancers were working, folks. I entered that theater in a rut -- a rut not their fault, and which it was not their responsibility to unburden me of. They're only responsibility is to dance, with heart and brio. But when they achieve this, serendipitously, it does have the power to lift us -- even if we entered the theater pursued by the darkest of clouds -- out of the darkness and into the light.

Among some modern dancers, and even more among many in the non-dance-initiated world -- and folks, reality check, they're in the majority! -- it's common to pooh-pooh ballet as being unreal. Just so much froth. This concert, and these dancers, reminded me that that's not the point. They might not contract their guts in obvious angst and torment, but these dancers, by their spirit, by their beauty and their ability to express it in their bodies, can, when they allow themselves to be, be transported by the music and elevated by the choreography. When this happens, they also elevate us, and take us out of a world where reality often bites, kissing us selflessly with their art.

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