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Flash Review 2, 6-5: New from the Newbies
SAB Does Woetzel Does Copland

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2002 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK -- George Balanchine's "Ballo della Regina" (to music from Verdi's opera "Don Carlo") opens with a beautiful tableau for the corps de ballet, and from the first movements in the School of American Ballet annual workshop performance Saturday at the Juilliard Theater, the SAB cast has the bearing and awareness of the real thing. Merrill Ashley (who staged the ballet and, presumably, rehearsed them) has done a stunning job here with the material, in which she starred at its 1978 premiere. And as far as dancing goes, the rehearsals and coaching have paid off: the cast's clarity in thinking like a group reveals Balanchine's re-inventive magic in another Classically-dressed Trojan horse. I think the man was amazing in how this ballet in tulle skirts and jewels, beginning with a symmetrical pose, can be so inventive and musical with a group of dancers. As I started to say, immediately the corps girls were really wonderful, balancing their exuberance with discipline and starting things out on a very high level. (Indeed, this was the first time this ballet had been performed by any students, anywhere.)

Upon this rich tapestry appeared our principal couple, Jessica Flynn and Christian Tworzyanski, and their dancing expands further Mr. B's legacy for fresh technical and artistic challenges in the ballet idiom. I was happy that Ms. Flynn and Mr. Tworzyanski kept their end of the bargain through some hard passages meant to look easy. They navigated through the twists and turns well, and did a good job with the partnering for the most part, considering this ballet isn't really part of their repertory yet, in terms of the surety of taking some risks.

Solos then: more Balanchine/Ashley/Verdi magic, showing developments of the themes in a series of very challenging divertissements, simple in format perhaps, but always with a delicious musicality and very unconventional steps (far along there too, in Balanchine's many miles of innovation!) Here, after four exciting solos for cast women, the principals again reigned, in primo material: for Mr. Tworzyanski, there was a beautiful solo, that capitalizes on speed, strength, and lightness (so emblematic of NY City Ballet's male stars from the very beginning, a New Deal with gravity). I though "yikes, tricky steps!" but he did really dance it full-on. (But the shoes, my man!) Truly thrilling dancing then, more Prima work from Ms. Flynn -- throughout the rapid pointework embroideries and the wild manege and pirouette sections, she was tall in the saddle and launching into it. A big "Brava!"

Another thrilling coda and group conclusion finished the representation of this ballet -- excellent work all along! I'm glad to have seen Ms. Ashley bow again, after having enjoyed her dancing so much.

A Peter Martins ballet, "Les Gentilhommes" (1987) was next, to beautiful pieces of G.F.Handel's music. Nine young gentlemen, all in white and standing in tight perfect fifths meet us, and throughout in lovely baroque echoes they leap through more challenging material. (The SAB workshops are not a graduation exercise; there is no guarantee of casting in anything, I presume, and thus these are probably coveted opportunities to perform some big, big stuff!) I liked "Les Gentilhommes" a lot for the use of the Danish strength -- as I see it -- of a unique independent lower-body power. Acquiring this strength is a valuable asset for these students and stars-of-tomorrowdom. Clearly, Benjamin Griffiths was their leader, a dynamo with control. Harmonizing with the orchestra, Griffiths personified the largesse and grace for such a dance, (I could see the good example of Peter Boal, too!) and I thought his dancing was superbly elegant. In all, the dancing was very good, and I could appreciate Mr. Martins's work quite well through it.

I was anxious to see Damian Woetzel's "Copland Portrait." I've been a Copland junkie since high school, so I craved a live performance of some and also wanted to see choreography by a dancer whose dancing I enjoy so much. "Copland Portrait" was born just this spring at NYCB's New York Choreographic Institute, and this performance was its premiere, in the hands of the students Woetzel created it on. It's comprised of twelve solo piano pieces that Aaron Copland composed between 1921 and 1982 -- such an overview! Woetzel's ballet was quite illustrative of these varying works, as an arcing suite of moods, but I felt that his work was in the custody of a cast a little less sure. I thought some of the dancers could've conveyed the message with just a little more zeal, as some things seemed right on the edge of blooming there among the not-familiarly-classical. Still, it was an opportunity for others, like Adrian Danchig-Waring, who obviously latched on to the relaxed push and pull of the music and the movement -- very pleasing indeed. I loved the duet with Ms. Flynn (and Mr. Danchig-Waring) to "Three Moods: Wistful" and the men's trio "The Young Pioneers." All told, I thought "Copland Portrait" worked well, and surely provided the cast with the real creative process in-studio, as well as a look ahead to the subtler sorts of dramatic demands they'll encounter. A more open outlook and willingness to commit will certainly stand them in good stead, as purely classical repertories become rarer.

A word or two about the afternoon's music. The Copland for "Copland Portait" --those decades of it - -was beautifully played by Whit Kellogg. The sensitivity and aggression, the rise-and-fall of the pulse of it was beautiful. It's a lot of music, and Mr. Kellogg was masterful in its many changes of density and mood. These piano pieces are complicated, and their choice at all was a challenge. (I think that the musical -- or at least aural -- response is pretty undeniable from dancers and watchers, a propulsive force that our heads impose, dancing or watching, even if our ears cannot hear it.) The learning curve here for dancers would be much shallower, slower, than grabbing onto the rhythms of the Verdi or Handel, even when played so well. Copland's deceptive changes of pace were a necessary stretch of SAB's dancers, and a welcome fountain for fans, performed live and so well.

For all other works this afternoon we had a full orchestra, conducted by Richard Moredock -- it sounded glorious as well, first to last.

Concluding the 2002 Workshop were the third and fourth movements from "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet," choreographed by Balanchine in 1966. Again in a full-on , Big Ballet style, the dancers were more in their element, and showed strong ensemble work, thank you again, ladies of the corps! The third movement, the Andante, was a sweeter, velvety affair, tender, while the fourth (Rondo a la Zingarese) was strongly spiced with folk and Gypsy quotes and attitudes. Fine dancing throughout, especially in the ensembles here.

Good good signs of life there in the Hotbed of American Ballet. It was a production full of high standards and barrier-breaking demands, a brief weekend's treat as June rolls in.

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