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Flash Review 3, 1-23: Broadway Orphan
Thou May Be Swell, But What art Thou doing in the New York State Theater?

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Last night, on the occasion of what would have been George Balanchine's 99th birthday (and, sadly, a day that saw the passing of the great dance patron Irene Diamond, who was in her 90s), Peter Martins threw a big bouquet to Mr. B with the New York City Ballet premiere of "Thou Swell," a suite Martins choreographed to 16 songs by Richard Rodgers, whose centennial is being celebrated this season. "Thou Swell" bursts with lavish production values: a live band and singers on stage; detailed set (by Robin Wagner) evoking the Rainbow Room, complete with illuminated tables and daisies made of brushed aluminum, and a monstrous mirrored panel angled so we could see everything in plan; Oscar-ceremony gowns by Julius Lumsden, who worked with It-cobbler Manolo Blahnik to design the women's entrance shoes (later discarded for more practical pointe shoes)... and so on.

"Thou Swell" radiated a sort of Broadway essence that Martins rarely invokes, like the old bottle of cognac in his parents' forbidden liquor cabinet, daring little Peter to take a swig. The sets and costumes are, in fact, quite a bit more elaborate than many you'll see in Broadway theaters, and therein lies an interesting conundrum. As it turns out, Martins is a perfectly adequate Broadway choreographer. But why were we sitting in the New York State Theater watching some of the finest ballet dancers around parade in evening gowns and tuxes, with some brisk waltzing and some stock lifts thrown in?

As demonstrated in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," on the same program, even Balanchine stomached a bit of grotesquerie every now and again. What Martins is decidedly allergic to is ugliness. This may not be a sin, but it sure can be boring. He has built birdcages for each dancer, especially the women, and labelled each one carefully. Maria Kowroski's says "long legs." This gifted dancer is becoming so predictable it's not necessary to watch her to know what she's doing. Anytime her foot leaves the floor it must reach her or her partner's ear, and this we must have witnessed dozens of times during the evening. (She nearly decapitated poor Damian Woetzel more than once.) Darci Kistler's says "lovely arms." Yvonne Borree's says "coquettish," and so on. (Rachel Rutherford substituted for the injured Jenifer Ringer. Promisingly, she doesn't have a label yet.) They were partnered by, respectively, Charles Askegard, Jock Soto, James Fayette, and Nilas Martins. On a bright note, Fayette showed some bravado in his big jazz number, and Soto looked really happy to be there.

"Thou Swell" seemed to be congratulating its principals (many long-time onstage partners) on surviving thus far, but it simply reinforced the qualities we've been observing in them, like a sort of wax museum. Most disappointingly, Martins never developed characters for any of them over the long course of this set of familiar, lovable, romantic tunes. We were reminded of how little time we may have left with these principals when the four cocktail waitresses sat down to daydream at the tables vacated by the current leading ladies. Time waits for no one.

Susan Yung is the Dance Insider's Broadway editor and, with Alicia Mosier, its chief ballet critic.

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