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Flash Review 3, 1-29: NYCB Inferno
Scorched at the Ballet

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

It was an evening of scorching Balanchine ballets Friday night at the State Theater. Whoever it was at New York City Ballet who came up with this program -- "Allegro Brillante," "Duo Concertant," "Episodes," and "La Valse" -- really had it in for the audience. These are ballets of maximum effect, visually and psychically and otherwise; there's no way to be prepared for what they do to you.

"Allegro Brillante" is in motion before it begins. The curtain rises on four couples running in a circle, and the whole thing -- thirteen minutes of effervescent classical dancing -- just takes off from there. That small corps of four women (Dana Hanson, Deanna McBrearty, Eva Natanya, and Rachel Rutherford) and four men (Stuart Capps, Jason Fowler, Craig Hall, and Stephen Hanna) were so well-rehearsed, so musically alert, and so exuberant that at first I thought I was watching the wrong company. A quick check of my program confirmed that I was in the right place, and the excellence of those eight dancers throughout the ballet made me wonder what had happened back there in the rehearsal studio, and why it couldn't happen more often. They looked, for a change at City Ballet, like happy, lively people doing difficult steps that made sense to them, in a vigorous classical style. And this was only the ballet's first performance of the season.

Wendy Whelan had been out with injury earlier in the week, which explained her sometimes cautious footwork in the uber-allegro principal role. But the woman is a trooper: you could see her working herself up to those unbelievable pirouette combinations, then attacking them like a little girl unwrapping a birthday present. She had the same dreaming, headlong quality here as in her other tough Tschaikovsky roles (the "Pas de Deux" and the "Piano Concerto No. 3"). Whelan pulls these parts off by hook or by crook, but always with a womanly smile. Here, her newly dramatic port de bras was almost her whole performance. Damian Woetzel, in fine fettle when leading the men in their dynamic, "Russian"-style patterns, dispatched his partner nicely. But Whelan was way beyond him.

"Duo Concertant" is one of the strangest little ballets in NYCB's repertory, one in which almost everything depends on the man's performance. With Peter Boal in an invigorating, sprightly mood on Friday, the atmosphere was less bone-chilling than in some performances with Nikolaj Hubbe or Nilas Martins in the male role. Boal was full of wit and tenderness, and he brought out those same qualities in Yvonne Borree, whose pert little body made wonderful sense out of this ballet's tiny steps. With her arms in high fifth position, looking into her hands, she appeared to be offering a gift to the heavens. But not even she could match Boal's incandescence, not to mention his technique. His solos were lessons in the Balanchine style: perfect precision in the midst of impossible speed.

From the tick-tock motions of the ballet's second movement to the heart-stopping end, the pas de deux in "Duo Concertant" are almost entirely about the man leading, guiding, placing, blocking, blinding, and rebounding the woman. In this performance, even at the end, that relationship had a very gentle air about it. The music, a Stravinsky duet for violin and piano (played with real passion by Guillermo Figueroa and Cameron Grant), has the serene, joyful quality of a pastoral poem, but it has a modern ache and a little bit of frenzy at its heart. The ballet's magic? All of that is there in the dancing, and then some.

The modern sensibility represented by Anton von Webern is that of a world "in extremis," all molecules and atoms, with the life once thought to be coherent now broken into random flying bits. Balanchine's 1959 "Episodes," set to four of Webern's orchestral works, leaves you with a mind so stretched and strained in various directions that you have to get your bearings before you try to stand. In 1959 Balanchine was still teaching his audience to appreciate the art form. One of the ways he taught them was to show it to them inside out and upside down -- to show the dimensions of classical ballet. From the way "Episodes" is danced today, one gets the sense that the dancers understand "upside down" better than "right-side up" -- that is, they come to it not from the direction of classicism but from the opposite direction of post-modernity. Why *shouldn't* a woman do beats in fifth position with her feet in the air and her head where her feet should be? Forty years ago it was a serious question. Today's dancers arrive at "Episodes" after the surgery Balanchine performed on ballet has been completed, and after his revelations have been absorbed into the art form's rites. They tend to treat it not as a challenge to their understanding of the art, but as another exercise in Balanchine Chic.

All of which doesn't change the fact that the ballet is still a challenge. The truth is that there are steps in "Episodes" the dancers cannot do. They look daunted. Attitude stands in for style. In the first movement there were women coming in early and losing the beat. There was very sloppy partnering between Philip Neal and Miranda Weese, the latter of whom gave everything the same brute force. But the shock of the steps was still present. I love the unbelievable "echappe" the women do, or try to do: they switch, on pointe, from fifth position into second, without a plie for preparation in between.

In the second movement, Helene Alexopoulos and James Fayette were more secure, more detached -- and thus (in the strange way things can be in Balanchine's world) more wild. It's a nightmare circus they're moving in; they enter from opposite corners as if on a high wire, and after they meet in the center the woman is left bent over with one leg bent behind her, an uneasy image which makes the audience giggle. There are weird snare drums and cymbals at the edges of the music. The famous final image, as enacted by Friday night's cast -- Fayette's black-clad body and startled head and splayed fingers, with Alexopoulos's white legs pointing up behind his shoulders -- is both awful and fascinating.

From there it's back to the brighter black-and-white of the first movement. But now, having spent some time in the second movement's mad and slightly sinister world, bodies seem even more stretchable, less predictable, than they did at the beginning. Jennie Somogyi and Jock Soto were excellent in a pas de deux that redefines the concept of "off-balance." Somogyi's dancing was clear and composed, her confidence showing even in all the manipulations Soto put her through. With Melissa Barak, Amanda Edge, Andrea Hecker, and Carrie Lee Riggins, they pushed their way through this section's impossible pretzels and flexions and mind-boggling distortions.

Just when you think you're never going to see straight again, Balanchine hits you with Bach -- it's the fourth movement, set to Webern's orchestration of the Ricercata from "A Musical Offering." I can't remember ever hearing a sound so strange as the sound of Bach after all those microscopic notes floating in the atmosphere. It was the sound of restoration, of objectivity, of the artist's gift for putting the world in better, more beautiful order than it can put itself.

And it's been a while since I've seen anything so lovely as Maria Kowroski doing a tendu in the middle of the stage, her arms in fourth position, fourteen girls in a fugue behind her. For the last couple of years Kowroski's gifts have been somewhat obscured; she's been dancing loose instead of lush, and not maturing. But here, in her debut in this role, it was as if she found her voice again. All her natural qualities were in evidence: sweetness of temper, musicality, unsimpering delicacy. When she got stuck once or twice with partner Charles Askegard, it looked like she'd been so absorbed in the music that she just forgot to pay attention to the mechanics of the thing. I wanted that final movement to go on forever. There were moments when it seemed that, even after the curtain went down, it would.

The evening ended with "La Valse," with the same cast as last Wednesday, except that Kathleen Tracey replaced Pascale van Kipnis who replaced the injured Dana Hanson, and a careful, wooden Jason Fowler replaced Robert Lyon as the young man who gets devoured by the three girls at the end of the first part of the ballet. Apart from the wonderful performance of van Kipnis, I found the dance-acting in the first part unengaging. In a Britney Spears sort of world, it's hard for young people to find contemporary touchstones for this anxiety-riddled, decadent, death-wish waltz. Maybe they should be assigned some reading before they go onstage -- perhaps Thomas Mann?

Only Darci Kistler, Jared Angle, and Jock Soto let themselves go in Ravel's "edge of a volcano" mood; they made their manner deluxe, almost mock-dramatic, and it worked. The whole style of Kistler's dancing changed after she bumped into Soto's Death figure, who sneaked up from behind. She let out a genuinely startled "Oh!" and all of a sudden, after her ethereal beginning, she was glinty and reckless, like she didn't know what she was doing and didn't care to know -- all she knew was that she liked it, no matter what the price. That's the sort of decadence Ravel and Balanchine explore in "La Valse": it's smart, thrilling, terrifying, cruel. It's a world that imagines it has outgrown death -- who, nonetheless, kindly stops for it anyway.

All four of these ballets will repeat in the coming weeks, though not in such potent combination. Please visit NYCB's web site for more information.

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