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Flash Review 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 into soupiness.

"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 shadows.

"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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