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2, 5-24: Balanchine's House of Love
City Ballet Gushes in New Baynes
By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier
NEW YORK -- On Wednesday night at
the State Theater, the house of Balanchine rediscovered its glamorous, romantic
side, that aura of pearls and perfume which so often marked New York City Ballet
in the master's glory days. (Think "Liebeslieder Walzer.") These days, "Romance"
is a word not frequently associated with NYCB, hub of modernism that it is. More
often it's applied to the ladies and gentlemen across the plaza, with their Wilis
and Russian countesses and such. But NYCB has been doing some surprising things
this season -- not least of all (surprisingly enough) in the Diamond Project,
to which, on Wednesday, Australian choreographer Stephen Baynes contributed a
beautiful new ballet called "Twilight Courante."
Baynes, resident choreographer with
the Australian Ballet, danced with the Stuttgart Ballet in the 1980s, during which
time he worked with both Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe, choreographers who
have represented the two most promising (and divergent) directions for ballet
in the post-Balanchine era. Baynes has taken the Kylian path, opting for a more
recognizably "classical" -- and emotional -- vocabulary, eschewing the abstract
angularity of Forsythe and his disciples. Given the abundance of angles and abstractions
already present in the NYCB repertory, a new work of Baynes's sort is most welcome.
Set to seven of George Frederic
Handel's suites for the piano, "Twilight Courante" takes place in a world of smoky
purple, with eight dancers in lavender and plum drifting on and off the stage
in pas de deux that are spare, sprightly, sweeping, and stately in turn. The ballet
opens with several dancers walking slowly, almost distractedly, across the floor
-- an unoriginal beginning, but one that establishes an atmosphere of meditation
which suffuses the piece. Soon the dancers -- moving together in well-ordered
duets, each often framed by his or her partner's arms, their hands linked -- begin
to resemble figures in a Renaissance tapestry that has suddenly come to life.
The simple, graceful costumes by Holly Hynes contribute to this effect (the women's
sheer dresses feature airy puffed sleeves and sparkles at the breast), as do the
courtly arm positions and restrained, though not restricted, scope of movement
in the lower body.
Baynes's past work has been described
as "seamless," which seems to me an apt description of this new ballet, as well.
Its seven movements flow smoothly from one into another: a triple pas de deux
dissolves into a trio for two men and one woman, which expands into a group romp
and then into a series of duets in very different but stylistically continuous
moods. Within each movement there are tilts and turns and promenades that keep
their focus even as they're swept together. There's not a hint here of Forsythian
brute force, but neither is there the sentimentality and portentousness that sometimes
plagues the Kylian crowd. Rather, Baynes's choreography responds to the affecting
clarity of Handel's melodies, touching varieties of emotion without descending
"Twilight Courante" depends for
much of its structure on Baynes's appreciation of the particular "perfumes" of
his chosen dancers. Paired with Alexander Ritter, Rachel Rutherford is delicate
as a rose petal; their duets are modest, simple, almost shy. Benjamin Millepied
and Abi Stafford have a showstopping pas de deux full of darting legs and pert
mirror-image sautes. Jennie Somogyi swoons into Sebastien Marcovici's arms in
a dramatic duet. And Nikolaj Hubbe can hold Wendy Whelan for only a second before
she escapes his gentle grasp. In an amusing episode, Millepied -- cavorting merrily
on those quickest of feet -- tries to attract the melancholy Whelan's attention.
When he exits with a "well, back to Abi!" shrug, Hubbe enters and lifts Whelan
from the floor into an elegant whirl. Each couple has subtle choreographic motifs
that return in the ballet's finale, when all the dancers find their way back onto
the stage, two by two, then exit as they entered, walking quietly through peaceful
"Twilight Courante" is not a "sophisticated"
work in the sense in which we usually use the term. I never once found myself
struggling to understand what was being "said" or asking what the choreographer
was "trying to do." That's not to say meanings did not suggest themselves, for
indeed they did. But it's not Baynes's way to jab at conventions or get a rise
out of the audience. True, this piece has moments that are ho-hum, even soporific.
(Mark Stanley's lighting is a gorgeous dusky mauve, but a bit too dim, which doesn't
help.) They are, however, very few. The style of "Twilight Courante" might be
described as chivalrous, which for many puts it in the category of "traditional,"
and, by inference, unprovocative, unmodern (thus "limited"). But such things need
not always prevent a piece from ascending into beauty; they certainly do not here.
Beauty abounded, too, in the two
other works on Wednesday's program. Whelan and Damian Woetzel (substituting for
Maria Kowroski and Philip Neal) shot themselves straight into the vortex of the
music in Balanchine's "Mozartiana" -- Whelan luxuriating joyfully in the choreography's
deep play with timing, Woetzel pouncing on every step with crisp technique and
intensity. In the Gigue, Tom Gold was composed and vigorous. (With his class-picture
haircut and calmly ironical presence, he looked a bit like Tobey Maguire in the
new "Spiderman.") Andrea Quinn led the orchestra in Tchaikovsky's score, exulting
in its shifts of mood and playing up the rubato. (Too bad about the unfortunately
off-key violin solo that marred the end of Whelan and Woetzel's bold, clean, risky
pas de deux.)
The evening closed with Balanchine's
resplendent "Vienna Waltzes," in a performance notable especially for the rendition
of the forest-fairyland "Fruehlingsstimmen" movement by Peter Boal and a triumphant
Alexandra Ansanelli. Boal is a good partner for her; he gives her stability --
which, added to the depth and moxie she already has, makes her an unstoppable
force onstage. As she whirled and vaulted and came sweetly to rest on Boal's shoulder,
Ansanelli was ecstatic; by the end of the movement, we were too.
In her debut in a role often danced
by the recently retired Helene Alexopoulos (the "Gold und Silber Walzer"), Darci
Kistler seemed not entirely comfortable, perhaps because her scheduled partner,
Jock Soto, who was also to make a debut, could not appear. Soto was replaced by
a dashing Charles Askegard, but Kistler could find neither her timing nor her
character in his arms. Needless to say, she was still stunning in that jet-black
gown; I just missed the glamour and world-weariness Alexopoulos always brought
to the part. Kistler was more "Hello, Dolly!" than Marlene Dietrich.
I'd told the friend who accompanied
me Wednesday that she -- a hopeless romantic -- would love the conclusion of "Vienna
Waltzes." When the Gold and Silver Waltz ended, she let out a sigh of happiness,
and I realized she thought the ballet was over. I whispered, "There's more!" And
was there ever. This ballet builds and builds from its genteel opening (Monique
Meunier et al. in sweet pink dresses, waltzing with Robert Lyon et al.) through
the "Fruehlingsstimmen" to the goofy "Explosions-Polka" to the smoky Gold and
Silver ballroom until you think there can't be any more variations of the waltz
to explore. And then Balanchine builds in a gleaming caesura (Wednesday night
in the form of Kyra Nichols, in a part originally made for Suzanne Farrell), one
woman alone in a cream silk gown and diamonds, who neither seeks nor rebuffs the
lover who comes to her (Philip Neal), who does very little at all, but who embodies
all the blushes and ecstasies and jokes and sorrows that the waltz can express.
And then, if she is Kyra Nichols, she adds to all that has gone before her own
majestic presence, which makes you hold your breath -- until she disappears into
the rustling crowd of dancers (corps members Lindy and Pauline and Daniel and
the rest) who burst upon the stage, each with his or her own smile or pensive
glance, carrying the waltz into a heaven that teems with all the varieties of
human emotion and surrounds them all with joy.
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