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Debuts and Debauches
All in a Night's Work at City Ballet

By Diane Vivona
Copyright 2001 Diane Vivona

It's a funny thing to review the New York City Ballet: Everything old as new again. Wednesday evening's performance was to be noteworthy in view of several debuts -- most notably Wendy Whelan in "Donizetti Variations." But Whelan was replaced by the steady Miranda Weese; therein the square dance began. A change of cast, a shift of focus and the quest for what possibly could be newsworthy is on.

The program itself was moody and vaudevillian in tempo. "Donizetti Variations"' is George Balanchine on speed via Denmark; Jerome Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun" is minimalist social commentary; Peter Martins's "Slonimsky's Earbox"' is awkward and clueless; Balanchine's "La Valse" a romantic fantasia. In each the dancers appear physically facile as well as exceptional in their individuality. Their attack and panache fray seams and rip rough edges and the effect verges on obscene distortion. Indeed, perhaps this is what is newsworthy: the execution of relatively old (1951, 1953, 1960, 2000) choreography with a 21st century appetite for the extreme.

"Donizetti Variations" is a funny piece. Balanchine seems to be creating a matinee crowd pleaser: Bournonville with a few jazz swings and wink-wink asides in the guise of stage whispers. The men in the piece look unfortunately preadolescent in their tunics and sailor ties; the girls look like escapees from "Coppelia." Principals Miranda Weese and Philip Neal have their work cut out for them. In addition to having to pull off numerous tricks at breakneck speed, they also have to maintain the illusion that they are cute, youthful and flirtatious. Weese has a lovely way of sustaining and elongating the end of a bravura flurry that creates a soothing lushness after a brisk cold air. All appears easy for her. Neal is winningly boyish and seems to enjoy showing off his etched jumps and crisply executed turns. At one point he bounces through a series of batterie, smiling coyly between each as if to say, "And here's another, if you don't mind. And, well, one more, or maybe shall I make it two?" This attitude may be tiresome and sophomoric, particularly considering the age of the dancers; however, this is not reality, this is ballet -- swallow that sugar pill and move on.

Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun"' is up next with Sebastien Marcovici making his debut as the male Narcissus figure. Marcovici has a beautiful face and an expressive upper body. His partner, Alexandra Ansanelli, has legs as long as the river Nile and a face unmarked by life's experiences. Together they are creatures of another world in a fleet meeting of limbs and poses. Robbins's choreography is minimal and exposing. Marcovici and Ansanelli ably strike the positions and execute the steps but to little avail. The meaning within the movement is lacking. Ironically enough, this work about adolescent narcissism requires a more developed maturity than either of these young dancers currently possess.

"Slonimsky's Earbox" is a real disaster. If it had subtitles they would read: "Jump! Jump! Jump around! Turn a bit! Turn and jump together!" And then they would repeat. It is enough to create instant nausea. Martins seems to be going for Twyla Tharp's go-for-broke crazy technical wizardry but he lacks her imagination, intelligence and wit. The dancers do their best to take these unkinetic phrases and make something of them but even they seem to tire of the inherent awkwardness. To his credit, Damian Woetzel never gives up and his subtitle of "Jump! Jump! Jump!" never loses its exclamation point. "Slonimsky's Earbox" is so disjointed that you can almost see the rehearsal breaks in the choreography. It seems Martins just doesn't have any original movement in him. And so it ends: "Turn, turn, turn. Pose! Jump! Jump! Jump and turn together! Turn and jump in partners! Pose! Curtain." (Phew)

"La Valse" featured the debuts of Jared Angle, Amanda Edge, Alexander Ritter and Christopher Boehmer. Of these, Angle can be singled out for his musicality and his appropriate framing of principal Darci Kistler. I do not envy the men of this company, who forever have to compete with Balanchine's statement, "Ballet is woman."; but I do admire them. "La Valse" is a macabre romantic fairy tale -- women dance in a dark forest; lovers meet and swoon; death comes with tempting jewels and sweeps the beloved off her feet, literally; after death, everyone dances in a ritualized circle; the curtain lowers and the dead maiden's body rises. This is a strange piece -- Byron on opium -- but, nevertheless, engaging. Darci Kistler as the lover/angel sparkles and shines; each movement is a diamond-cut gem. Fireflies spark from her fingertips and immediately catch light. Invisible flashes of fairy dust emanate from her legs and feet. She dances and you can't take your eyes off her. Truly Kistler is the stuff that Balanchine's dreams were made of.

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