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Flash Review 2, 5-25: A Sleepwalker
to Wake You Up
NYCB's 'Sonnambula' the Stuff of Dreams -- and Nightmares
By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier
What a night! From the light, sweet
notes of Peter Boal in "La Source" to the fireworks finale of "Theme and Variations"
(the fourth movement of "Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3"), New York City Ballet delivered
a performance full of breathless highs last night. If you thought a State Theater
audience couldn't be roused except by somebody falling down onstage, think again.
It was Balanchine's "La Sonnambula" that did it -- that mad, shocking, shivers-down-the-spine
ballet about a coquette and a sleepwalker and the poet who burns to possess them.
After the third (third!) curtain call for Wendy Whelan as the Sleepwalker and
Nikolaj Hubbe as the Poet, a man behind me exclaimed, "A pretty good way to stay
competitive with the guys across the plaza!" Amen to that, and another cheer for
City Ballet, which last night pulled out all the stops for the house of Balanchine.
"La Sonnambula" premiered on the
Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1946, and even in the melodrama-charged atmosphere
of that company it must have been a killer. It begins, as so many of Balanchine's
"party" ballets do, with a more or less straightforward ballroom scene. But Vittorio
Rieti's score, with strange dissonances edging into its Bellini-inspired sweep,
sends a shiver through the house that soon makes its way into the dance. There's
much more to this party than the pretty girls and boys in masks and heels at first
let on. In the midst of their fitful, steppy dancing, Jenifer Ringer, the Coquette,
rushes in on the arm of Jock Soto, the Baron. In her dress of glinting red and
black, she's the fascinating center of the room. Ringer, making her debut in this
role, was alluring and deadly, with a lifetime of love and scorn (and, most probably,
being scorned a time or twelve) showing in her eyes at every moment. An astonishing
The Coquette mingles with the crowd
until, suddenly, the Poet, in white, appears at the back of the room. He stands
there for a long time, waiting to command the attention of the others, and especially
of her. (As a fellow critic remarked last night, Hubbe, with his great Danish
training, knows what to do when you don't do anything.) It takes some doing by
the Baron to get his lady to come to greet the Poet; there are so many flickers
of feeling between Hubbe and Ringer that they can hardly move through the fire
to get closer together. When they do, his kiss on her hand is both irrelevant
and a flashpoint. For the rest of the ball, both within and outside their enthralled
pas de deux, they don't stop looking at each other. They dance out a passion that
could end, like everything else in this ballet, in myriad ways.
Balanchine brings this relationship
to a near-fever pitch and then releases it. In come two couples (enacted by Elena
Diner, Kristin Sloan, Antonio Carmena, and Craig Hall, all in debuts) for a lovely
Pastorale, followed by Alexander Ritter and a sharp, self-assured Jennifer Tinsley
in a wicked, stylized pas de deux, followed by Tom Gold as the craziest Harlequin
you've ever seen, complete with a double tour into the splits and a bad back.
Everybody dances some more -- I can't quite put my finger on the peculiar half-light,
half-dreadful mood of the dancing at this party -- and then one by one the ladies
take off their masks and everyone leaves the room.
Except the Poet. This ballet is a
series of eerie jolts. The entrance of the Sleepwalker -- through an arch, carrying
a candle whose light we've already seen passing behind the windows above -- is
of a piece with all of them. There's so little to the whole ballet, really, that
you think you must be dreaming the way you feel: giddy, on edge, full of anxious
laughter, your teeth full of metal. The Poet is one of the most complete male
characters Balanchine ever created, and in his subtle, quiet, extraordinary performance
Hubbe revealed its every dimension. In his response to the Sleepwalker he is clearly
the same man who responded to the Coquette, a man both curious (that is, willing
to give himself up to something fascinating) and commanding (wanting to make it
Only here, because the woman is so
very different, we see other dimensions of his personality. Whereas, with Ringer,
Hubbe let a woman challenge and demand things of him -- let her set him ablaze
-- with Whelan as the silent, dreaming Sleepwalker he becomes completely dominating.
As she floats through space in quicksilver bourrees, he spins her and pushes her
and stretches out his leg in front of her to see what it will do to her. She goes
where he sends her. But as is the way with Balanchine women, she's both passive
and purposeful. Whelan controls Hubbe's movement as much as he controls hers,
and even as he fences her in with his arms, we see his passion in its constrained,
almost pathetic, entirety.
The ending of "La Sonnambula" is
among the most shocking and perfectly conceived in all of Balanchine's work. The
Coquette (who's been watching this odd pas de deux for a while from stage right)
frantically whispers something goading to the Baron. Obliging host that he is,
the Baron stabs the Poet with a knife. When the Sleepwalker suddenly appears again,
now in the midst of the anguished revelers, we know something very strange is
about to happen. But can anyone ever be prepared for the sight of the Sleepwalker,
who had seemed to be as light as the moon, bearing the Poet's body in her arms
back through her archway? She simply takes him. We know not where, or for what.
All the shudders that have come before are as nothing compared to the awful, fascinating
shock of this reversal, of the disappearance of this man into this woman's upper
chamber. It leaves you feeling like you do when a candle's been blown out: your
mind full of the fire that was just there, your heart full of terrified excitement.
The audience that had responded warmly
to Margaret Tracey, Abi Stafford, and Peter Boal in Balanchine's "La Source" (a
ballet which Boal is now holding together almost singlehandedly) thus sat bolt
upright and roared for "La Sonnambula." After that, they were hungry for more
-- and so, apparently, was the cast of "Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3," most of which
had probably been standing backstage listening to the ovation for Whelan and Hubbe.
The "Suite" (1970) is a full-blown efflorescence of Tschaikovskian passions --
brooding, ironic, playful, ecstatic. The first three movements ("Elegie," "Valse
Melancolique," and "Scherzo") are made up of cascades of pastel skirts and bare
feet and long hair, in the midst of which some men (Kipling Houston, James Fayette,
and Gold) chase and lose and find their women (Helene Alexopoulos, Kathleen Tracey,
and -- in another virtuoso turn -- Tinsley).
The "Tema con variazioni" which follows
is entirely different in mood and scope: exquisitely formal, sparkling as a diamond
after all that misty whirling. (It was originally choreographed for "the guys
across the plaza," American Ballet Theatre, in 1947.) Miranda Weese wore the most
glittering of all the crowns. Sassy and flashing, she turned in a performance
that even Charles Askegard's nervousness couldn't mar. (Askegard replaced an injured
Damian Woetzel, and though he's ill-suited to this quintessentially Woetzellian
role, he managed it wonderfully). Weese brought out all her sabers: she performed
extra pirouettes, extra balances, extra *everything.* The huge corps seemed to
be hanging on by its fingernails, zipping through Balanchine's most vigorous maneuvers
to Hugo Fiorato's brisk tempi, but the excitement onstage was tremendous. And
that glorious finale -- everybody facing front and leaping and dancing in the
grandest of joy -- left me (as all great Balanchine ballets do) simply amazed,
when such a thing exists in the world, to be alive.
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