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Flash Review 1, 1-10: Fire at NYCB
Hotter, Jenifer! Stab! Stab! Dim Those Bedroom Eyes, Maria!

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- George Balanchine made "Cortege Hongrois" as a gift for Melissa Hayden in 1973, the year she took leave of the New York City Ballet after two decades as one of its strongest, most vivacious ballerinas. Almost three decades later, NYCB is blessed with a bevy of strong, vivacious ballerinas, one of whom, Jenifer Ringer, made her debut in Hayden's ballet Tuesday night at the State Theater.

"Cortege Hongrois" is a noisy, joyous feast of a ballet, from its grand opening parade (with dozens of dancers in white, green, and gold) to the last tinkle of the bells on the gentlemen's boots. The company's dancers had a ball with it, kicking up their heels in fast, vigorous character steps, chock-full of feisty Hungarian style. But the ballerina role (especially its slow, intoxicating solo) is like the spicy blood-red wine for which Hungary is famous -- and Ringer, with her sweet disposition, is more Chardonnay than Egri Bikaver.

This role is not a natural fit for her, despite her charm and verve. It's really a part for the likes of the fiery Monique Meunier, who has been doing it marvelously of late, or for Jennie Somogyi, to whom it might have made more sense to give the debut. Nonetheless, and although she appeared somewhat tentative in her pas de deux with Damian Woetzel, Ringer got through the ballet splendidly, showing in her lush arms and noble extensions some of the dramatic flair she brought out last year as the Coquette in "La Sonnambula." I just would have like to see her stab the ground a little harder with her pointes -- something she may simply not be made for.

Woetzel, dashing as ever, sailed through his charming variation and was a very attentive partner. Deanna McBrearty and Eva Natanya made debuts in the first and second variations, Natanya giving the more confident performance with her delicate footwork and enchanting smile. With ribbons flying, Kathleen Tracey pulled out all the stops in an excellent Czardas, joined by a lackluster Albert Evans. And my eye kept focusing on Ashley Bouder, one of many in the corps. She moves with grand authority; she's present every moment she's onstage, ready to learn something, show something, eat something up. A thrill to watch.

Just before "Cortege Hongrois" came Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia," which premiered last winter and now seems to be established in the NYCB canon. The ballet has more clever stuff in it than I'd remembered -- the somewhat self-conscious semaphore hands in the last movement, the fugue bits for Jason Fowler and Sebastian Marcovici, the tortured manipulation of Wendy Whelan -- but overall it's a very well made piece that reveals, through all its Balanchine-quoting, Wheeldon's particular voice. The ballet's moments of whimsy, romance, glamour, and longing are all his own. The duet for Alexandra Ansanelli (who looks wonderfully strong once again) and Craig Hall is the ballet's masterpiece; her solo, after Hall leaves her alone onstage, brings tears to your eyes. One of the most promising things Wheeldon showed in this work is his ability to advance a dancer; in this solo, he brought Ansanelli to a new place in her career. All her dancing since the day "Polyphonia" premiered has been marked by her experience in it.

The evening also included Balanchine's last ballet, the 1981 "Mozartiana," with Maria Kowroski and Philip Neal in the lead roles and Daniel Ulbricht in the Gigue. Ulbricht is a very young and very short man (some say no more than 5 foot 6) whose facility with jumps and turns is matched only by his confidence onstage. Here, though, I thought he could have been more playful, less classroom-serious. He tried too hard not to make the part the jester role it seems to be on the surface, and in the effort somewhat overpowered it. He took a while to find his way in his variation's demanding timing; when he finally did, he was quick and cool as the deadliest card-sharp. Philip Neal has never danced so well as he's dancing now. He has somehow integrated his upper and lower body so that his movement has a continuity and a beauty it has lacked in the past. He is still, however, not the best of partners. When he and Kowroski danced together, it was not with the seamless flow this ballet demands (although, to be fair, the Theme et Variations in "Mozartiana" is among the most difficult few minutes in the ballet repertoire). They need more time in the studio in order to make it through that pas de deux with steady legs.

Kowroski, beautiful and gifted as she is, is not, it seems to me, quite ready for this part. Her "Preghiera" -- the ballet's opening "prayer" -- was gorgeous, all airy arms and long slim feet in quiet bourrees. What was missing was a sort of introspection, a sort of private life onstage. (It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but -- to make the unfair comparison -- even in a photograph of Suzanne Farrell in this ballet one can see her *meditating* as she moved.) This is not to say that Kowroski will not one day have something compelling to say in this role; it's just that she hasn't found it yet. (She also looks sometimes as if she's literally not getting anywhere when she moves, like she's stuck in one place. She goes on top of steps, not through them, which seems to be an effect of the length of her legs and the thrown-back cast of her shoulders. Minor technical problems that have major consequences. Ballet masters, take note before it's too late!) In the meantime, I wish she wouldn't look at the audience as if she were trying to get them in bed.

Some of the finest dancing to be found in Tuesday's "Mozartiana" came in the Menuet. The entirety of the NYCB corps seems to have been revitalized. I've mentioned Ashley Bouder, and there are other new dancers (such as Alina Dronova) who are fast coming into their own. In this performance, though, it was a more seasoned class of dancer that really impressed. For years Mary Helen Bowers has hung prettily around the edges of the stage, not doing much of anything. Suddenly she moves like a fine satin ribbon, shining and elegant. With the equally fine Dana Hanson, Melissa Walter, and Natanya, Bowers filled the Menuet with a creamy serenity and a stunning rhythmic aplomb. Extra bonus: before each sissone, there was a deep plie -- they really cared about it. It's those details, after all, that begin to make it dancing.

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