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Flash Review 1, 1-22: Eight is Enough
Early Martins Delights on a New Generation of NYCB Dancers

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2003 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- It isn't often that this reviewer finds a Peter Martins effort the most delightful part of an evening at New York City Ballet, so it's a special pleasure to report that two of them on the same program last night at the State Theater turned out to be so pleasurable. "Eight Easy Pieces" and "Eight More" hail from early in Martins's choreographic career -- they were made in 1980 and 1985, respectively -- yet they are fresher and more inventive than the bulk of his subsequent work. Neither slavish imitations of Balanchine nor reactions against him, these two little ballets, each for three dancers, represent in a small but significant way what is meant by a living tradition.

Part of the charm of these pieces is that they are a perfect vehicle for rising young members of the corps de ballet. The first, set to Igor Stravinsky's "Five Easy Pieces" and "Three Easy Pieces" for four-hand piano (charmingly played by Nancy McDill and Susan Walters), featured Megan Fairchild, Glenn Keenan, and Lindy Mandradjieff. The second, set to Stravinsky's orchestrated version of the same music, starred Antonio Carmena, Adam Hendrickson, and Daniel Ulbricht. None of these dancers have failed to catch the eye; a few have been around for a while but have always given the sense that there was much more that could become of them, given an appropriate series of challenges. It was, quite simply, a joy to see them in this setting: more grown up than a couple of years ago, yet still youthful and game, with a ballet to tackle that tested not just their technical mettle but their stylistic breadth as well.

"Eight Easy Pieces" does not lack for references to Balanchine. The three women link arms and run horizontally in parallel position and flex their feet in ways reminiscent of the Muses in "Apollo," and the piano onstage reminds one inevitably of "Duo Concertant," especially when Fairchild stands briefly beside it before her solo. Yet the piece has a serene energy and flow that is Martins's own. Girlish hop-skipping coexists with meditative trios and lush extensions of the arms in a step forward just after a pirouette; in everything there is wit and femininity and a bit of glamour, too. Keenan was sure-footed; Mandradjieff, suddenly grown into her legs, brought her natural vivacity to a sparkling hand-on-hip solo. But it was Fairchild who really impressed: with the pert, wide-eyed face of a 1940s comedienne, she mugged agreeably, yet her expressive upper back and keen musicality brought uncommon richness to her performance. All three women were impeccably in time with each other -- such rhythmic unity is rarely to be seen at NYCB these days -- and they did much more than justice to Martins's fetching interpretation of Stravinsky's play with musical styles (among them the March, Polka, Balalaika, and Napolitana).

By the end of "Eight Easy Pieces," it was clear the ballet was as much a test of stamina as it was an appreciation of Stravinsky's cleverness. The final Galop drove the women until you thought they couldn't go any further -- and yet, there they went!

The men, of course, with a small orchestra behind them for "Eight More," got still more of a challenge. There were grand jetes en tournant and multiple pirouettes to spare, all done with great brio by Carmena, Hendrickson, and especially the dynamo Ulbricht. Variations on the usual leaps and bounds abounded, linked with slower passages in which the men got a chance to show their budding lyricism. (Carmena, in a beautifully poetic solo, presented a high passe in pirouette that was as light and deep as a sigh of love.) Hendrickson has grown taller in the past year and become something more than a bottle-rocket; he's becoming a man before our eyes. Ulbricht's great bounce was used to full advantage here, with Martins's inventive twists on the usual leaps, but it was too bad his role was so full of jokey competition business with the other two. Just let the kid dance, I wanted to say! The conclusion of "Eight More" again asked it all and then some from these three dancers -- it was a test of stamina, for sure, and was passed mightily. As the ballet ended, I began to feel that the two pieces comprised a story of boys and girls growing up in the theater, finding their legs and their personalities, and finding the style into which they had been born as members of Mr. B's extended family -- much like Martins himself had to do, and did in these ballets.

A Martins work from 2002, "Bach Concerto V," opened the evening and was, as many of his recent ballets have unfortunately been, pleasant and more or less forgettable. Darci Kistler and Jock Soto performed a lovely pas de deux, full of pretty promenades, and a corps of eight piqued onto a bent leg again and again. Alina Dronova and Amanda Edge provided the only fire in the ballet, complete with a few impeccable Balanchine-style open-hipped arabesques. I concur wholeheartedly with Nancy Dalva's judgment of "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze,'" seen with the same cast last night, though I found Miranda Weese's performance with Peter Boal not so much sparkless as full of the tensions of no-longer-brand-new love. (And I have to mention Richard Moredock's stunningly sensitive performance of the Schumann score, as well as to reiterate my colleague's point that melancholy is not the same as melodrama.)

Last night's program concluded with Christopher Wheeldon's stylish "Mercurial Manoeuvres," in which the corps appeared less crisp than in earlier performances, in which Benjamin Millepied appeared more relaxed and happy, and in which Weese joined her cool-as-ice technique with something wonderful and new: softness, radiance, and warmth.

"Eight Easy Pieces" and "Eight More" can be seen again on January 29 and February 1 at the New York State Theater.

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