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Flash Review 1, 5-9: The Ballerina
Plays the Fool
Kowroski Gets Her Goof On
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
With her mother Cindy and sister
Amy looking on, New York City Ballet ballerina Maria Kowroski last night stepped
into perhaps the most challenging role of her career, precisely so because it
demanded that she abandon grace and play the ballerina buffoon. "It's a role you
have to grow into," Kowroski said moments after the curtain fell. While this may
be true, her debut at the New York State Theater as the crazy ballerina in Jerome
Robbins's "The Concert" is one she should be proud of.
"The Concert," choreographed in 1956,
has a simple premise that presents a complex task for its lead dancer. For those
of you unfamiliar with the narrative: As the pianist (Last night, a hammy but
not caricatured Cameron Grant, in a role he now owns!) begins to play a series
of Chopin etudes, a cast of eccentrics one by one enters "the concert," each carting
his or her own folding chair. There's the purist, the gabbing, paper-crackling
pair of women who disturb his serenity, the timid nerd (Tom Gold, also an owner
of this role), and an ice-maiden wife and her crass, lecherous, cigar-chomping
husband. And most of all, there's the over-the-top ballerina wannabe who gavottes
in and rests her arms and head on the piano. Then what happens -- I'm short-cutting
-- is a dreamy reverie, in which each plays out his/her fantasy.
As the crazy ballerina, Kowroski
had some tough competition in winning over this reviewer. I first saw this ballet
with Joanna Berman, perhaps the best comedienne in ballet today. If she wasn't
also one of San Francisco Ballet's most supple and liquid dancers, Berman could
no doubt make a living as a comic actress. On City Ballet, I first saw Paris Opera
Ballet guest artist Isabel Guerin take it on, with typical Parisian humorous aplomb.
Some schticks are easy to get a handle on because of their overt visual humor,
such as when another character pulls the chair out from under the dreaming ballerina,
and she continues sitting on air for a second, her head and arms supported by
the piano, before she realizes it. Double-take! Requiring more subtlety, tho,
are, for instance, a scene where several hats are handed to her by two clerks
(played with pinpoint timing and reserve last night by Gold and Arch Higgins),
she finally selects the most flamboyant, fuzzy one, and struts away, only to slink
off when another woman wearing the exact same model crosses her way. For me, Kowroski
didn't quite catch the subtlety here. It's a scene that relies as much on a deep
sense of the droll as on being able to play physical humor, and Kowroski's not
quite there yet.
Having said that, tho, Kowroski meets
the main challenge of this ballet: This artist who is arguably the hottest star
in ballet right now, who for five years has been knocking critics and audiences
dead with a combination of physical dexterity and prowess, precision, musicality,
spirit, effort, charm, sexiness, beauty, and, depending on the situation, stark
darkness or tarty coquettishness -- this essentially beautiful ballerina transforms
herself into the soul of clunkiness. Not just clunkiness, but clunkiness that
thinks its grace. She hits it right on from the get, when she glides across the
upstage with her back to us and wiggles those long arms Dying Swan-like. She also
does and repeats a convincingly (and deliberately) tacky fluttering thing with
her hands. And she hits it with the weight she adds, moving with a new heaviness
-- but, again, heaviness that thinks it's graceful.
I hope it's clear what I'm acclaiming
here, which is that, like any truly committed actress, Kowroski is not afraid
to play the fool in the service of the ballet. Let's face it, many ballerinas
can be beautiful -- but how many have the fearlessness to play the clown? Kowroski
last night joined their rarefied ranks.
Unfortunately, we can't fairly offer
a complete evaluation of her performance because this is a role, hammy that it
is, that relies a lot on what she's getting from her partner -- the dancer who
plays the lecherous husband. In past seasons at NYCB, Robert La Fosse has owned,
and I mean, defined, this role for modern audiences. La Fosse's middle name is
Camp, and, together with his role in "Union Jack" and "Nutcracker," this part
is one in which La Fosse makes an invaluable and, it would seem, irreplaceable
contribution. You can't hold back here, either on the ribald spirit or playing
the physical comedy to the max. Kipling Houston does hold back, as if he's not
quite comfortable in this role, afraid to go as low as is required. He blurs the
mime. My companion last night noted that she couldn't see what Kowroski's crazy
ballerina would find to be attracted to in this character. I explained that when
La Fosse does it, she has no choice -- he just carries her away with his irresistible
macho gusto and brio. Kowroski has made a great start here; this is a pretty serious
dancer, in demeanor as well as ability, and I frankly didn't know beforehand whether
she possessed the comedic chops required for the role. Well, she did; she did
herself (and her family!) proud; now I'm dreaming what will happen when she's
given a partner who can match her in charisma, precision, and -- most important
-- fearlessness of playing the fool.
The supporting cast held up its end
on the pantomime, particularly in the passage where a group of men, a la movers,
cart on a pack of immobile women in various crumpled doll phases. And where the
women then essay a stumbling dance in which they can't seem to get the positions
right -- kind of like a school recital in which everyone's forgotten something.
Here and earlier Jenny Blascovich wasn't quite playing it to the max.
Speaking of partners, my companion
looked at me a little startled when, after the Spring duet in Robbins's "Four
Seasons," to Verdi, I didn't say anything about Jenifer Ringer. Well, it was because
I already KNOW I love her, and then she can usually be counted on to turn in a
performance of free beauty. So last night I thought I'd watch Ringer's partner,
Philip Neal, who I've enjoyed watching for a while. That's because from year to
year, from performance to performance, I can watch him, like a favorite plant,
growing. I don't mean that to sound patronizing. What I mean is here's a dancer
who doesn't depend on ready sex appeal or tricks, but who is a WORKING dancer.
What worked for me last night was precisely that in his handling of Ringer in
her turns, you COULDN'T see Neal working. Too often, men turning women seem to
me to be regarding them as meat on a spindle they don't want to get too close
to. Neal was paying attention, sure, but he was also watching her dance, as he
showed by the "bravo" look he gave her when she completed one sequence.
There were lots of looks between
these two -- "ready, okay, let's step back and see how we'll like this one; wow,
I can't believe we did that" -- which gave their pas de deux a joyous organic
feeling. And the many furtive knowing glances were delicious. In their gauzy lime-green
Santo Loquasto blouses, this couple was giddy Spring incarnate -- you know, when
you suddenly start giggling, and you don't know why. Ringer and Neal are a sensational
combination -- I think it's the breeziest I've seen either of them dance with
partners. Which is not to say there was a notable lack in their other pairings,
but that Ringer-Neal is a match made in Heaven; it's obvious they enjoy each other's
company, and that joy is infectious.
Carrie Lee Riggins, hailing Winter,
was also organically comic and tart, a winter sprite who's spry despite the chill.
The dry ice came, unfortunately, from Jason Fowler, who starts the seasons going
as a kingly Janus. Seeing his limp welcoming arm gestures, I had to think, how
was he made king?
As one half of Summer, Helene Alexopoulos
was sultry heat indeed, with plenty of scorching gazes at the audience. The years
keep going on, and those legs keep going effortlessly up up up, that torso leaning
luxuriantly back. James Fayette, opposite Alexopoulos here and later oppose Kathleen
Tracey in Robbins's silent dance "Moves," seems to have taken on a new fire. Lots
of clean fierce angles. I've already recently sung the praise of Tracey and of
Rebecca Krohn in this ballet, so for them I'll just second my own emotion and
refer you to my previous Flash. My only emendation concerns
Rachel Rutherford, in a duet with the rugged Jonathan Stafford. It's a poignant
lover's argument here -- sans words and music. Which makes the repeated thuds
of Rutherford's feet all the more decipherably effective -- stop, stop, stop,
she seems to be pleading. When she tremulously rises on pointe, her legs trembling,
as he exits, she breaks my heart.
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