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Flash Review 1, 1-31: Euphoria at the Ballet
New York City Ballet Unbound

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

A peppy Jerome Robbins "Fanfare" (most notable for the amazingly witty and elegant performance of Amanda Hankes as the Harp) closed the program last night at New York City Ballet. It was meant to be a crowd-pleasing ending, and it was. But two late Balanchine works, "Walpurgisnacht Ballet" and "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze,'" were the serious business of the evening at the State Theater, and after the euphoric performances both of them received there was little space for "peppy" left in anybody's heart.

"Walpurgisnacht" is one of the "unbound" Balanchine ballets: luscious music, pink gauzy dresses, long hair flying, maybe a bonfire burning somewhere in the distance, somebody making daisy chains. It's a guilty-pleasure genre that brooks no spoilsport analysis. To music from Charles Gounod's "Faust," Balanchine choreographed a May Day celebration that's less a dancing party than a cascade of womanly glory. The ballet is pure gorgeous revelry; its charms are large-scale, despite its "minor ballet" feeling.

The corps of twenty women were led last night by Carrie Lee Riggins and Kristin Sloan (both new to their roles), and by Janie Taylor, who replaced Alexandra Ansanelli (who was to have made a debut). Several of the corps women were brand new. They were nice and bouncy, but what's with the broken wrists and melting-popsicle arches? Riggins and Sloan danced well together, different as they are -- the former with her sweet "I dare you" attitude and sparkling footwork, the latter, newer to the company, with her warm expression and ample phrasing (though with slower feet). At her best Taylor has a marvelous floating quality and an excellent, high jump. She had those things last night in a difficult soloist part, a cousin to the one in Balanchine's "La Source," full of hops on pointe and leaps and high-speed twirls.

Wendy Whelan, queen of the wood, came furling out of the wing in rapturous rubato. Her partner Philip Neal was as non-incidental as a man can be in this ballet: he is on stage for approximately 20 seconds and gets exactly one (brief) solo and a part in the glorious concluding tableaux, all of which Neal executed exuberantly. But really, does anybody want the man to have more say around this forest? Any more time on stage and he would have just gotten in Whelan's way, which no one, man or beast, was about to do. This is a devilishly taxing part, but Whelan grew more and more ecstatic as the ballet went on: minuscule spins, shimmering leaps, a backbend here, a darting arabesque there. She's modest with her use of the stage space, rarely taking more than she needs to do the steps. She is not in the least a show-off, but here, in a way, I wished she were more of one. By expanding the power coming through her lower body, she might have gone vast as well as vertical, and the role would have been hers completely.

After the burning bliss of "Walpurgisnacht Ballet," it was a silencing shock to enter the world of Robert Schumann, the Romantic composer whose last years were spent in madness. His works for piano, in particular, are masterpieces of emotional subtlety and intensity. In an essay called "Loving Schumann," Roland Barthes writes that in this composer's music "nothing lasts long, each movement interrupts the next: this is the realm of the intermezzeßwhen the matrix is experienced only as an exhausting (if graceful) sequence of interstices." "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze,'" choreographed (like "Walpurgisnacht") three years before Balanchine's death, is a ballet about those interstices: two points or personalities meeting (or almost meeting) and shifting (or failing to shift) each other's trajectory. It is perhaps as intimate and inscrutable an experience as one can have at the ballet: each of its eighteen episodes is like a small envelope containing a love letter, from which you catch only a whiff of perfume and a line or two of script, in which you catch a glimpse of a life.

Schumann wrote his "Dances of David's Band" in 1837 and revised them in 1850 for his new wife, musical interlocutor, and lifelong muse, Clara Wieck. (David's Band was an imaginary group of artists Schumann invented to take on the Philistines, those he perceived to be the enemies of art.) The ballet offers four "views" of Robert and Clara: the two main couples, usually taken to be the composer and his wife in their artistic and domestic lives, respectively; and two other couples who are more similar to each other, representing (so you are free to imagine) a state of equilibrium. These roles were danced last night with passion and concentration; I can't wait to see how these dancers develop in the ballet in the next few weeks. Making debuts as the two secondary women were Miranda Weese and Jennie Somogyi, the latter of whom has the makings of a true romantic ballerina. Weese danced with Jared Angle, who was also making a debut. Angle is proving to be a very good partner, especially fine in the "moody young gentleman" roles he's being cast in this season. The care he took with Weese -- setting her down feather-light from a lift, looking into her eyes -- turned her from wooden to warm and weighty by the middle of the ballet. (The pianist, who plays onstage at the corner of Rouben Ter-Arutunian's magnificent set, was Richard Moredock.)

The dominant women in the piece -- Clara the artist/muse (Maria Kowroski) and Clara the loving and beloved wife (Kyra Nichols) -- share no obvious characteristics. The former (a part created on Suzanne Farrell) is dynamic, bold, a life-giver; she has a solo, fast and vivacious, that ends with a finger pointed up like a fairy's wand. Her dances with Robert No. 1 (Jock Soto ) rise and fall in ravishing arabesques. Kowroski, with her tiny dovetailed waist, has an arabesque that looks like it's pulled by invisible strings from her wrist and her ankle; it's soft in the middle, but the upward lift is huge.

Nichols stays closer to the ground. Her solo comes very near the end, after all four couples have had countless little conversations in which they miss each other's hands, run toward each other and suddenly switch direction, lay a head on a shoulder, open up and then close down. We see the "real" Robert (a rough-and-tumble Charles Askegard) endure a horrible vision of madness, then return very suddenly to dance a formal dance with the other couples; Kowroski and Soto have a duet that ends in a look of troubled clarity and a slow sweep offstage. "In this fragmented world," writes Barthes, "distorted by whirling appearances, a pure and somehow terribly motionless element occasionally breaks through: pain."

Nichols's solo is as still as it could possibly be without her ceasing to move. In a passing gesture near the ground she seems to be disturbing the waters (the waters of the Rhine, perhaps, into which Robert Schumann once threw his wedding ring, and tried to throw himself); she does long, long piques, the kind that only Nichols can do, and covers her eyes. When Askegard enters for the last time, we see her move his arms and legs to waltz, but even she, his wife and inspiration, can't keep him in the circle. He backs away in anguish, leaving her alone, reaching out in a shadowed pool of light. Nichols in this role is a miracle of sensitivity, at once evasive and honest, protective and brave and exposed. Her performance gave the ballet its existential center, a quality that might simply be called purity. We may not see its like for many years. No matter what else is on the program: go and see Nichols in this role.

For information on upcoming performances of these works including casting, please visit New York City Ballet's web site.

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