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Flash Review 2, 5-15: Poof Goes the Wheeldon
A Week at NYCB: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

The New York City Ballet spring season continued its promising start last week at the State Theater. Of the seven ballets I saw, the three minor ones ("Tributary," "Zakouski," and "Ash," all seen Wednesday night) were performed with great pizzazz. The rest ("Stravinsky Violin Concerto," "Divertimento No. 15," "The Concert," and Christopher Wheeldon"s new "Variations Serieuses") offered somewhat more interesting challenges, on which the company confidently delivered.

One of the biggest of those challenges was "Violin Concerto," choreographed by George Balanchine for the 1972 NYCB Stravinsky Festival. This is a ballet that would be easy to get wrong. Full of jitterbug steps and kooky transitions, it asks a lightness and brightness of the dancers that could well be substituted for with flippancy (or ruined by a lack of attention). It's one of the liveliest dances Balanchine ever choreographed, and one of the deadliest. There are mean entrechats six (given perfect punctuation Wednesday night by Monique Meunier), bright Xs of arms and legs, "Scherzo a la Russe" arms, and quasi-time-steps that would have looked just right in "On the Town." In a pas de deux with Albert Evans, Meunier folded herself into a promenade of backbends; later, she smiled and waved hello to the corps before they lined up for a passage that might have been called "The Corps de Ballet Goes to the Psychiatrist." Here, a dozen or so dancers stand in a line for a while, holding hands and twirling their arms willy-nilly from the shoulder. When you know that in any conventional ballet they'd be doing what people holding hands in a line are supposed to do, namely braiding around each other in a calm procession, this plays as high humor. Miranda Weese, making her debut in one of the ballet's two principal female roles, overcame the tough demeanor of her past seasons' work and gave a performance that was smooth, brisk, and sly. It was a perfectly calibrated effort: all the ballet's smarts came sparking out, and she started it all.

Before that extraordinary "Violin Concerto" came a couple bits of debris from experiments past: "Tributary," choreographed by Robert Garland and Robert La Fosse for last year's collaboration with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and "Ash," one of those Michael Torke/Peter Martins slam-dances that made up City Ballet's stock of new repertory in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "Tributary" looks less interesting than ever without the DTH dancers present. Jenifer Ringer and Nikolaj Hubbe (back at last, in excellent form) made the most of it, but it was embarrassing to watch such fine dancers made to do such plodding, classroom-exercise steps. "Ash" had Jennie Somogyi and the refined Jared Angle splayed out all over the stage, along with a very young corps (Ashley Bouder, Antonio Carmena, Carla Korbes, Stephen Hanna, Carrie Lee Riggins, Sean Suozzi, Abi Stafford, and Jonathan Stafford) who looked appropriately harried, plus somewhat under-rehearsed. Even more so than in "Tributary," I hated to see such young dancers put through such ugly paces.

There are a few dancers at City Ballet who seem always to be just on the edge of really fine. With some of them, I'm tempted more often than not to give up hope. Margaret Tracey is one of those, but last week she proved appealing in everything she did. She appeared Wednesday with Benjamin Millepied in Martins's "Zakouski," a quiet duet that quickly turns big and virtuosic. There's a solo for Tracey full of doll-like moments, in which she took charge of the stage and freed up her spirit in a way she hasn't in some time. She also shone with her sparkling little steps in the sixth variation of "Divertimento No. 15," a fine-spun ballet whose filigree patterns are seen better from higher up in the house. "Divertimento," seen on Sunday, looks like jeweled panels opening and closing with the grand, lucent rhythms of Mozart's music. The theme and six variations grow more and more expansive, moving into a minuet for eight women (among whom Amanda Hankes was a charming presence), then five lush duets that conclude with all six principals lined up close together, the women unfolding one leg to the front, then to the back, perfect as the reredos in a Baroque church. All the principals (Yvonne Borree, Ringer, Somogyi, Kathleen Tracey, Margaret Tracey, Angle, Arch Higgins, and Nilas Martins) did well by this ballet. Especially in Ringer, Somogyi, and Angle, one saw the music and the movement radiating meaning.

I realize that it's the practice to schedule a repeat performance of a new Christopher Wheeldon ballet on the Sunday after its premiere. But didn't anybody *watch* "Variations Serieuses" before putting it on the same program with Jerome Robbins's "The Concert"? That's a bit of programming so awful that it looks like sabotage, but I reckon the reason for it was less malicious plotting than lazy oversight. Both ballets are, broadly speaking, comedic. "The Concert," however, is one of the great comic masterpieces of the 20th century, the main lines of which PBI sketched in his review of Maria Kowroski's debut in it last week. To say the least, "Variations Serieuses" suffered by comparison.

Set to syrupy music by Mendelssohn, the piece takes place backstage at the ballet. We have a side-view of a "stage," bordered by a curtain and a scrim; we look onto it as if from the stage-left wing. The ingenious set by Ian Falconer comes with a huge set of perspectival challenges. Dances that have to play to the "front" of the imaginary stage, i.e., true stage left, also have to play to the real "front," i.e., to us. These problems are almost too clever, but Wheeldon handles them so deftly that they end up more intriguing than irritating. The premise is that a ballet master (Stuart Capps) is rehearsing a new piece, a flowing, pink-tinted riff on "Les Sylphides" (among other chestnuts), which is performed in its entirety at the end of Wheeldon's ballet. There's the predictable premier danseur (Damian Woetzel), the prima donna ballerina (Kowroski, brilliantly funny in a big pink skirt and a series of temper tantrums), and the young dancer who gets a big break on opening night (a perfect Alexandra Ansanelli). There's also an independent-minded pianist, a dresser, several understudies, and best of all, Kathleen Tracey as a stage manager in headset and overalls who breaks out, Ginger Rogers-style, into a spontaneous spot-lit dance with four stagehands pushing mops. Tracey's dance was the only moment when all Wheeldon's elements -- music, set, idea, choreography -- came together and came to life, and Tracey mugged it wonderfully.

While the laughs in "The Concert" are, well, Jerry Robbins sorts of laughs -- sassy bursts of Sid Caesar-worthy wit -- the laughs in "Variations Serieuses" are warmer, more composed, more hesitant, and less funny. It's no crime to be less funny than Robbins (who ever was his equal at City Ballet but Tanaquil Le Clercq?), but Wheeldon's self-professed lack of irony doesn't serve him well here. There are a lot of lame dancer jokes. (Corps girl forgets her headpiece! Partner fails to catch prima ballerina!) He sets us up for a spoof, then holds back. After the first part of the piece, a scrim comes down at the front of the stage, and Kyle Froman crosses in front of it pushing a mop. A perfect set-up for some clowning, right? Why else would you put him out there like that, except to use up time? We were all waiting for him to break into a frenzy of tap-dancing, but all he did was look at us, do a little shrug, and start to whistle. At the end, after the meta-ballet "ballet" (which includes two stunning solos for Woetzel and Ansanelli), all the characters who've been absent for the length of it come running back on stage for a quick concluding tableau. A thoughtless ending to a charming piece. That was the impression I began to have of the entire thing: it's a perfect pink poof of a ballet, from which all the air slowly leaks out.

Wheeldon may have earned himself a breather, but here he's tossed off a bit of fizz that I can't imagine wanting to see more than once. (Not that a little fun is unwelcome at City Ballet!) At the end of Sunday's program, by the time Amanda Edge was gritting her teeth and ever-so-slowly correcting her arms in the final moments of the "Mistake Waltz" in "The Concert," by which time I and the gentleman sitting next to me were laughing so hard we were practically leaning on each other for support, "Variations Serieuses," nice as it was, had flown out of my mind.

"Variations Serieuses" repeats tonight at 8 p.m.

 

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