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Flash Review 2, 2-12: Job or Joie?
Is New York City Ballet Showing up for Work, or Love?

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

It's getting late in the season at New York City Ballet, and after six weeks of consistently good dancing the company's weaknesses are starting to make more regular appearances. The two performances I saw at the State Theater last week included "Fearful Symmetries," "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze,'" "Brandenburg," "Prodigal Son," and "Dances at a Gathering" -- tough ballets all, and five pictures of very different eras in the company's history. In many ways it looked like City Ballet was standing back and curating a show about itself. But then, for a few moments, everything would come together, and the thing would be alive.

The second-cast performance of Peter Martins's 1990 "Fearful Symmetries" on Friday night was so different from the first, on Wednesday, as to make it look like a different ballet -- different, and better. For one thing, everyone was dancing full out. (This is often regarded as having a beneficial effect on a performance.) The corps women were actually counting. The orchestra, under the direction of Paul Mann, kept vigorous time. And Kathleen Tracey, Jennie Somogyi, Charles Askegard, and Albert Evans looked utterly secure with one another and made the very most of the direction-shifts and swoons in Martins's choreography, with none of the somewhat heavy quality Miranda Weese, Monique Meunier, Nilas Martins, and Askegard brought to the task Wednesday.

The biggest surprise, both nights, came in the third couple: Carrie Lee Riggins and Alexander Ritter on Wednesday, and Yvonne Borree and Benjamin Millepied on Friday. Riggins's performance was a masterpiece of articulate timing, and although Ritter really needs to work on his partnering, his jumps and turns were full of surprises. When I saw Borree's name on the program I was a little skeptical; what was this delicate woman doing there? But she rose to the occasion: focused and fierce, she matched Millepied's energy step for step. Ellen Bar stood out in the corps on Friday night. And the red-clad male threesome has been dynamite; last week, out of the six who danced it, it was Antonio Carmena, Daniel Ulbricht, and Aaron Severini who impressed the most.

"Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze'," created by Balanchine in 1980, received another interesting performance Wednesday night. The women -- Helene Alexopoulos, Maria Kowroski, Kyra Nichols, and Jennie Somogyi -- were lost in a world of magic. Alexopoulos was ravishing in a back-bending duet with Arch Higgins (who made a fine debut), and Somogyi brought intense emotions to her part. The men -- Philip Neal, Higgins, Askegard, and Martins (kudos to the last two for pulling double duty here after "Fearful Symmetries") -- just seemed a little lost. I missed the connectedness and solicitude Jared Angle showed in this ballet two weeks ago. Everybody seemed to be on their own. Kowroski, who regularly seems more alone onstage than the others, was even faster and bolder than in her earlier performance in this part, so much so that it sent her crashing to the floor at the end of her solo. But her confident recovery was more astonishing than the fall, and it was good to see the other dancers pull together to bring the atmosphere back to rarefied and the audience back to attention. Cameron Grant was the superb pianist.

As for the other Balanchine work I saw, the 1929 "Prodigal Son," it quickly became apparent that this ballet has a life now only at American Ballet Theatre. At this point in its history, it needs to be danced with a dramatic seriousness that simply does not exist at NYCB. It received a perfunctory performance Friday night: there was no menace, no earthiness, no emotional force. Despite all their various perfections, Peter Boal as the Prodigal, Alexopoulos as the Siren, and Higgins and Ritter as the Prodigal's servants couldn't make a live beast out of this 72-year-old creature. (Although it should be noted that James Fayette's Father was eloquently poignant, especially considering that the make-up makes his facial gestures hard to discern.) Contrast that with the performances by ABT last fall at City Center, in which Ethan Stiefel, Angel Corella, et al. charged the house with animal energy and a kind of moral purpose. The smaller City Center stage helped with that effect, but the main difference was that those dancers believed in the ballet; they took it as seriously as they take "Giselle."

The main events of the week were two Jerome Robbins ballets, "Brandenburg" (1997) and "Dances at a Gathering" (1969), both returning to the repertoire this season. It's hard to imagine that the notoriously perfectionist choreographer of "Brandenburg" would have allowed this ballet onto the stage looking like it did Wednesday. Part of the problem was the soupy, droopy rendition of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos given by the orchestra under Richard Moredock. Part of the problem was the choreography itself, which consists of long passages of not much followed by short bursts of something, all jaunty and pretty and without much rhythmic energy. Part of the problem had to do with counting. The beginning of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with which the ballet opens, has a fairly straightforward beat, to which Robbins has sixteen dancers, in unison, execute plies and tendus from fifth position. The counts are a little bit syncopated, but it would be tough to find a less complicated beginning. Nevertheless, a good three or four of those sixteen dancers were going up when they should have been down. What is the deal? Maybe Robbins, may he rest in peace, was right to be a monster in rehearsal; apparently it takes someone literally beating the counts into them to make these dancers move on time!

There was a larger problem, too, of which I was reminded again in the performance of "Dances at a Gathering" two days later. There's a quality in many of Robbins's ballets -- in these two, "2 & 3-Part Inventions," and others -- that might be called Serious Play. It's a quality you can see, as well, in the films of Chaplin and Keaton, or in the work of a veteran trapeze artist or a great French clown. It comes from the security of perfect training, which allows dancers to indulge in all sorts of risks and dangers. They can be out of control because they're absolutely in control, and the effect is devastating and delicious -- pure theater. Robbins loved this quality in dancers, and he loved to play it up in his ballets. Only Peter Boal really got at it in "Brandenburg." It was as if he were channeling Robbins's private jokes. In the midst of a complicated step he'd look straight at the audience or at his partner Wendy Whelan, mock-serious, hands on hips, in effect saying "Hey you!" in perfect Brooklynese. Kowroski and Neal (who was making a debut) did a nice job in a lovely sleepwalkers' duet. But the corps didn't get it at all. They were either very sober or just goofing around -- never both at once. Whether this comes from first-night jitters or from something more serious (such as that they're actually not secure, or that they don't know how to *play*) is hard to say.

The cast of Friday's "Dances at a Gathering" was one to make the heart beat faster: Alexopoulos (in mauve), Kowroski (in green), Nichols (in pink), Jenifer Ringer (in yellow), Pascale van Kipnis (in blue), Higgins (in green), Millepied (in brick), Neal (in purple), Fayette (in blue), and Damian Woetzel (in brown). All these dancers are "Dances" veterans, and they'd been rehearsed within an inch of their lives by Victor Castelli. They had the formidable Cameron Grant at the piano. They had beautiful costumes, newly refurbished. What they didn't have was the memory of Robbins himself fresh in their minds. It has been more than two years since his death. After this performance, I think everyone missed him anew.

The last time NYCB performed "Dances at a Gathering" at the State Theater was during the company's 50th Anniversary celebration in 1999. Again, it's getting late in a very long season; plus, if Jennifer Dunning's story in the New York Times last Friday is any indication, the pressure on the cast has been enormous. That there was some hesitation in this performance was not surprising. In-between steps were often awkward, so that dancers ended up posing rather than phrasing. Awkward, too, were a couple of the partnering match-ups (Higgins, like Ritter, needs help in this department). But there were wondrous moments: Woetzel's dreamy opening solo and his later whirling-dervish variation; the extraordinary duet between Ringer and Millepied that nearly brought down the house, not so much with its smarty-pants tricks as with the mounting exuberance the pair brought to it; the mature, luxurious pas de deux between Woetzel and Nichols; the astute shifts of speed Kowroski brought to her piquant, odd-girl-out role. Alexopoulos's dancing was courageous throughout (though she looked tired after dancing in "Prodigal Son" earlier in the program), and Fayette's manly generosity with all his partners was a godsend.

There's a sense in this ballet (in which nothing much happens for 50 minutes except one person playing Chopin and ten people dancing together -- as if that were nothing much) that this may be the *last* gathering, colored by a communal sense of bittersweetness, of wistfulness, of how lovely it has been, in spite of everything. But I felt the same thing in this performance that I felt during 'Davidsbundlertanze': these dancers weren't dancing like a team. Where was the spontaneity, the playfulness, that would come from a meeting like this? Where was the love? This is a ballet about the revelations of the everyday, about how simple the sacred can be, how things that don't seem like very much can be the most important. It's a ballet, in part, about the magic of ballet. It was strange not to see all the dancers letting themselves go with that idea all the way through the piece, and I wondered how it might have been different had Robbins been around. But it was only the first performance of the season. There are three more to come. This is a ballet that takes some settling into, especially for an institution that has sometimes appeared to be sending the message that the "job" of dancing is more important than the joie.

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