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Flash Review 2, 7-11: Dreaming in
Whelan Ascends to Farrell Territory; SOS to Corps: This is not a Rehearsal
By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier
On two beautiful evenings in late
June, when the heat of the day had cooled into breeze and moonlight, the New York
City Ballet conjured up an enchanted world of its own inside the State Theater
in Balanchine's 1962 "A Midsummer Night's Dream." These days, NYCB breathes fairly
easy in Robbins ballets, and it comes to rapt attention in the works of Christopher
Wheeldon, but it often looks lost and nervous in the Balanchine repertory. "Midsummer"
gave the dancers a sheltered, magic-forest world in which they explored the paths
of Balanchine's choreography much more freely and imaginatively than they can
at present in the bright light of his pure-dance works. Any ballet whose setting
is the bracing, risky terrain of dancing itself seems to be a terror to many of
these dancers. But a ballet with a situation, with "characters," seems to give
the company confidence (as we saw also this season in "La Sonnambula" and "La
Valse."). Its performances of "Midsummer" were a wonder, and the perfume of those
nights still lingers.
On June 27, with Wendy Whelan as
Titania and Damian Woetzel as Oberon, the ballet had a gentle, mature air about
it. These two fairy nobles had been together for a long time, and nothing could
faze them. Woetzel often looks so bored with his daredevil dancing that it's easy
to take him for granted. His Oberon was somewhat unengaged (and certainly not
the witty mischief-maker Benjamin Millepied would make him later in the week),
but in the Scherzo he danced marvelously, with light beats and a fluid, curving
upper body. Whelan was all abandon, every moment of her movement at one with the
music's phrasing. (The score for this ballet comprises Felix Mendelssohn's incidental
music for Shakespeare's play, as well as parts of his other works that Balanchine
himself put together.) The texture of Whelan's dancing grows more and more rose-petally;
it's silken to the touch. As Titania, she was both sprightly and regal, a warm
and elegant queen. Among the dancers, Whelan has a reputation as being the one
of the funniest women in the company; we got to see it in her charming duet with
Kipling Houston as Bottom.
The big event of the week was 20-year-old
corps member Carla Korbes's debut as Titania (originally scheduled for June 29,
though she officially made her debut the night before, stepping in for Darci Kistler).
I saw her on the 29th and was completely impressed. This is a dancer of extraordinary
amplitude and command, with a melting port de bras, a strong and expansive arabesque,
a secure technique in turns, and a ravishing musicality. I liked the youthfulness
and fun of her Titania: in her argument with Oberon, Korbes was full of spunk,
and in the scene in Titania's bower she shared a girlish camaraderie with her
retinue. In a beautiful pas de deux, James Fayette was a perfect Cavalier -- this
strong partner was the ideal choice for the young Korbes. I think Millepied may
be a better Oberon even than Woetzel -- his wit and regality (a la Francaise)
is amplified in the mime sections of this role by the power in his arms and hands.
Millepied darts around the stage like no other, although on June 29 the tempo
of his Scherzo was so quick that he got a bit jammed trying to stay with the rhythm.
My favorite moment: While waiting for Puck to come around, Millepied tapped his
foot in lackadaisical impatience. His Oberon is more a handsome spoiled brat than
a proper King, and I like this interpretation a lot. (The part was originally
danced by Edward Villella.)
The secondary roles in this ballet
gave NYCB's soloists and senior corps members a great chance to show their stuff.
The company is strong right now in its second tier; night after night, it's dancers
like Rachel Rutherford (inexplicably still in the corps), Amanda Edge, Jennifer
Tinsley, Elizabeth Walker, Jared Angle, Stuart Capps, and Kurt and Kyle Froman
who keep a performance together. Both Edge and Walker were beautiful as Butterfly,
and Walker gave the part a particularly lovely lightness. Dena Abergel and Alexandra
Ansanelli (in a debut) were suitably woeful as Helena, though Ansanelli's was
a more rounded character. Rutherford and Tinsley created somewhat different Hermias:
the former smooth and glowing, the latter vivacious and more dramatically varied.
Both women were amazingly strong in Hermia's frightened solo in the forest. Capps
was hilariously exasperated in his debut as Demetrius. Both Angle (looking very
lovely in his wig!) and Alexander Ritter were great as the dopey, lovestruck Lysander.
Houston has been dancing Bottom for more than a decade; his wistful, Eeyore-like
interpretation is quite rightly the standard. Ritter, newer to the role, gave
it a Fosse tinge (a terrific knock-kneed slump), and had a blast with Bottom's
shuffling steps. Tom Gold did his usual Harlequin routine as a funny little Puck
on June 27, while Adam Hendrickson, in a debut on the 29th, used his natural sharpness
to blast his twinkle-in-the-eye sprite right into the rafters. As Hippolyta, Queen
of the Amazons, Jenny Blascovich was good and tough, but she couldn't come close
to the blazing red-gold power Jennie Somogyi brought to the part on the 27th.
Both dancers nailed their fouette sequence, but only Somogyi was able to achieve
a dynamic arc in grand jete and in attitude, her taut back echoing the shape of
her huntress's bow.
As for the corps, it reached its
most disappointing level of the season in Titania's bower in Act I and throughout
Act II. Arms drooped, only incidentally attached to shoulders (much less to any
energy coming from the upper back), as if they belonged to mannequins; bodies
wobbled getting into a simple tendu croise; eyes went blank; knees sagged in bourrees.
These ladies and gentlemen should all get fortune cookies before each performance
containing this message: You are not in rehearsal. (Arlene Croce once wished that
those sitting in the balcony would let down a banner saying to the City Ballet
corps, "WE SEE YOU.") Being at ease on stage is one thing. Being careless is another.
A special thank you to Amanda Hankes for giving us someone to focus on in the
midst of all those bobbles and smudges. The little girls who played the fairies
and bugs were coached by Garielle Whittle and were uniformly splendid (I love
the shushing of their shoes as they run in a circle).
Many consider this ballet's Act II
-- a wedding divertissement at the Court of Theseus -- something of an afterthought,
not really part of the "real" "Midsummer," centered in Act I. After several viewings
in recent weeks (I also saw the Pacific Northwest Ballet production, broadcast
on Bravo), I am coming to think that the twilight pas de deux in Act II is in
fact the heart of the ballet, that it carries into itself everything from Act
I and projects out of itself the shimmering finale, which takes place back in
the forest. This is one of those very special Balanchine duets -- like the "swimming"
pas de deux that opens "Chaconne" or the second movement of "Symphony in C" --
in which time stands still, and in which the deepest meaning of the ballet is
revealed. (The Fall 2000 issue of Ballet Review contains a fascinating 1978 interview
in which Balanchine reveals that he intended this pas de deux as a sort of apotheosis,
or even as the telling of "Bottom's dream," which Shakespeare's Bottom never got
a chance to tell.)
Performances like these burn each
step into your memory. Like many of Balanchine's pas de deux, this one seems so
simple, with just a few elements: some slow supported cabrioles, a pose in an
upstage corner, a series of switch-footed bourrees on a diagonal, a pivoting echappe,
an entrechat quatre, a long promenade in arabesque in which the man and the woman
turn in opposite directions. What it adds up to, though, is magic. On June 27,
Miranda Weese and Philip Neal danced as well as I've ever seen them dance, with
flawless finger turns, clear dimensions in the duet's oblique angles, and a generous
phrasing that gave the dance a gentle perfume, like a breath of lavender on a
Provencal hillside. On the 29th, Whelan went so far into the music (the adagio
of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 9) that *it* was her partner even more than Jock
Soto was. She looked as though she was in love. With her completely liberated
arms and head, the quick action of her hips, and her light steel pointes, she
was like a silver dagger wrapped in blue velvet. Physically, Whelan recalls Suzanne
Farrell in very few ways, but in her independence, musical intelligence, and rhythmic
spontaneity onstage she now stands indisputably with Farrell in the line of great
Balanchine ballerinas. I could hardly stand to leave the world that she created
in the calm passage of this pas de deux -- a world of music, dreams, and perfectly
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