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Flash Review 3, 1-29:
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
"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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