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Flash Review 1, 1-21: Making Sad Eyes at 'David'
Nichols Speaks Softly and Delivers a Big Wallop

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva

Editor's note: With this Flash Review, the Dance Insider begins a year of unique, international coverage of the legacy of George Balanchine, leading up to Balanchine's centennial January 22, 2004.

NEW YORK -- Near the end of Alexandra Tomalonis's magisterial and subtle biography, "Henning Kronstam: Portrait of a Danish Dancer" (newly released by the University Press of Florida) there is a wonderful passage in which Thomas Lund recalls being coached by Kronstam: "Henning said that Ashton didn't like smiling. He would prefer to have a polite face, and a mild face. He said, 'Look at the mirror and try to make happy eyes.'" I thought of this directive last Saturday night at New York City Ballet during the Balanchine ballet informally known as "Davidsbundlertanze."

This isn't, to be sure, an odd association, Henning Kronstam and George Balanchine, for Balanchine had a long history of working with Denmark's danseurs nobles, Kronstam included. Not only had Balanchine worked at the Royal Danish Ballet before ever coming to America, but he also set Apollo on Kronstam, as Tomalonis relates, when stranded in Copenhagen after his wife (his fourth, or fifth, depending on how you count them) Tanaquil LeClerq was striken with polio.

There were, in fact, three Danish imports in the 1980 premiere of "Davidsbundlertanze": Adam Luders, Ib Andersen, and Peter Martins, who is now, of course, the head of City Ballet. (The lone American was Jacques d'Amboise.) This all seemed germane to me in seeing the dance again -- the Danes, the wives, the awful prognosis. (Although now the doom accrued to Balanchine, whose remaining useful days were in short number.) But what seemed more germane, oddly, was that little Ashton anecdote. What the January 18 performance at the State Theater of "Davidsbundlertanze" could have used, I thought, was "sad eyes."

Premiered three years before the choreographer's death in 1983, the ballet's proper title is "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze,'" and it is set to Schumann's Op. 6, an eighteen-part piano suite composed in 1837. The music's title translates as "Dances of the League of David," with the latter being an imaginary group Schumann concocted to express different aspects of his personality.

The pianist is on stage during the ballet. Thus does Balanchine clearly plunk down the maker right down in the middle of the thing made -- in this case, an elegiac and sorrowful ballet that can be read as a long goodbye, among other things. Ostensibly the dance celebrates the melancholic Schumann's relationship with his sweetheart (and later wife) Clara Wieck, seen through the prism of four different couples. (The original women were Karin Von Aroldingen, partnered by Luders; Suzanne Farrell, with d'Amboise; Kay Mazzo, with Andersen; and Heather Watts, with Martins.)

Nonetheless, one might just as easily view the ballet's cast as the choreographer (as pianist) set down among his company, propelling the work. One might even want to think of the ballet as being about a virtual League of George -- he being at once all four danseurs, with the clutch of lovely ballerinas representing various women in his life, or just representing themselves. Perhaps, though, one might want to consider those couples as artists and muses. However it strikes you, the ballet is always the same in this: it is beautiful. And like any great work of art, it unfolds before you with all the possibilities you can invest in it. The dance is the patient, and the audience is the psychiatrist.

In that vein, I'd venture that there is currently some acting out going on in "Davidsbundlertanze," and that the ballet would be more mysterious, and more suggestive, without it. The ballet is not a competition, as when couples compete in ballroom events. Nor is it necessary to deliver Balanchine to his audience The audience, instead, should make the imaginative leap towards the stage, which at this performance was occupied by Kyra Nichols and Charles Askegard; Maria Kowroski and Philip Neal; Alexandra Ansanelli and Sebastian Marcovici; and Miranda Weese and Peter Boal.

To see how quiet mastery works, one only had to watch Boal, whose restraint spoke volumes, and who used his eyes (downcast, so you can't tell if they are happy, or sad) to direct yours. His attentiveness to his partner only shifted to call attention to their steps. A more overt, melodramatic approach was taken by Charles Askegard, who threw his head back every time he headed, in despair, for the wings. His is a role first inhabited by Adam Luders, who was a veritable black hole of a performer, as inward as they come. Askegard fills the bill for height, for technique, and for partnering skill, but he's showing, where telling would be better. He could do less, and convey more.

As could Kowroski, whose charming embellishments make her seem superficial. As could Ansanelli, whose enchanting vivacity borders, in this setting, on parody. As for the others, Neal had his hands full with Kowroski, whom he partnered with great elegance, and Marcovici was pretty much ruled by Ansanelli. Weese was shown to perfection by Boal, but strikes no romantic sparks with him.

This leads me to Kyra Nichols, whose romance in this role derives from the music, itself an apotheosis of romanticism. But if Nichols takes her tone from the notes, it is the steps which are her language. She speaks ballet to us. These days, her voice is softer and more low that it used to be, but no less beautiful, and more poignant. You lean in, a little, watching her. Perhaps you hold your breath, as if that might make you see more loudly. If you can bear to deconstruct what you are seeing, you will note the lyrical phrasing, and the same control of our gaze that Boal has. (This is an auteur-like power, and it doesn't wane with age.) Twice in "Davidsbundlertanze," she enacts a signature gesture, securing the hand of her partner, which rests on her hip. (The hand, of course, is Askegard's.) She directs our attention to this by watching what she is doing. Your gaze follows hers, and your eyes sting with tears. She's making sad eyes.

Kyra Nichols performs Balanchine's "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze'" again Friday at the New York State Theater. Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.

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