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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.

For casting and schedule information on the NYCB season, please visit the company website.

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