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Flash Review 2, 1-29: How Swell
Rodgers, Sylve Swellegent at the State Theater

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Catching up with New York City Ballet this past Saturday afternoon after much too long, I was happy to see them dancing competently, with professional craftsmanship and gratifying fluency. Everyone did their steps; no one was weak or unsteady; and they were musical -- if not precisely together in the unisons -- in the opening ballet, Peter Martins's "Thou Swell," which premiered last Wednesday, January 22.

Martins has concocted an ingratiating spectacle. Dancers wear tuxes and lavish gowns with extravagantly bold-print, black-and-white evening wraps by Julius Lumsden, NYCB artist in residence, who's obviously anxious to earn his keep. Robin Wagner has fashioned a swank nightclub with cafe tables and chairs on Lucite platforms, lit from beneath, and a huge mirror overhead that gives us a bird's-eye view of the stage floor.

The pit orchestra conducted by Paul Geminiani supplements an onstage trio: pianist Nick Archer, bassist John Beal, and drummer Paul Pizzuli, all in white tuxes. Jonathan Dokuchitz in a white dinner jacket and Debbie Gravitte (who swaggers like an Ailey dancer) in a black cocktail dress deliver the lyrics, crisp and clear, from various locations around the stage.

Richard Rodgers's songs, arranged by Glen Kelly and orchestrated by Don Sebesky are the ocean upon which Martins sets his steps afloat. And the steps are mostly conventional ballet riffs; coupes that slouch forward into the hips, high front extensions, and Balanchine-arabesques that twist the torso into full arabesque position while hips remain virtually in second position.

Symmetrical spatial patterns prevail. But real invention emerges in the duets that comprise the ballet's flesh and bones. Martins uses to good advantage overhead lifts, in which the woman switches direction in midair or changes leg positions more than once before alighting. Interludes for four waitresses, carrying imaginary trays on upturned hands, and four energetic waiters occasionally interrupt the duets. Several of these eight sprightly supporting players are apparently apprentices, not listed in the program as full company members.

Sturdy Nilas Martins and winsome Yvonne Borree do a jazzy, up-tempo rendition of "This Can't be Love." Lyrical Darci Kistler and muscular Jock Soto are "Bewitched," (but happily not bothered or bewildered). Rachel Rutherford momentarily abandons her partner James Fayette to flirt with three guys in "The Lady is a Tramp." Elegantly lanky Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard give "Blue Moon" a languorous adagio treatment, which is arguably the ballet's highlight. She dances like a devil-may-care, latter-day Suzanne Farrell, and he, tall and blond, model-handsome is a dashing, attentive partner. Just before the finale, Nilas Martins playfully bumps the piano player from his bench and tickles the keys with a few bouncy phrases of the title song. Although the ballet doesn't particularly need a punch line, it gets (a rather lame) one. After the couples, including the singers, amble romantically, arm in arm, into the night, the four waitresses sneak back on and pose like "rich ladies" at the guests' tables.

Jerome Robbins's serene "In The Night" nicely complemented the bravura of "Thou Swell." Set to Chopin, played sensitively by pianist Nancy McDill and bathed in Jennifer Tipton's sensuous moonlight against a starry sky, Rutherford with Arch Higgins, Jennie Somogyi with Peter Boal, and Whelan with Jock Soto rendered dutifully expressive interpretations of Robbins's delicately qualitative, technically grueling pas de deux. Costume designer Anthony Dowell's flowing gown softened Whelan's alarmingly lean and sinewy muscularity, and the excitement of her daring sensuality carried us away.

Everyone must know the Richard Rodgers music from "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," but I, for one, didn't remember the story of the ballet, which Balanchine, in show business mode in 1936, choreographed for the musical "On Your Toes." Pillars of the New York theatre design establishment, Jo Mielziner and Irene Sharaff, did the original sets and costumes, respectively, and Hershy Kay re-orchestrated the music. Kyle Froman made his debut on Saturday afternoon as "Morrosine, premier dancer noble," who in a heavy Russian accent plots with Gangster, Andrew Robertson, to bump off the Hoofer, Philip Neal, from a box seat in the audience at the climax of the Hoofer's big finale in the ballet. (Fear not, there is a happy ending.) Guest artist Sofiane Sylve also made a debut as the Strip Tease Girl, the Hoofer's main squeeze.

The choreography is pretty thin -- even if it is Balanchine's -- consisting mainly of high kicks and girly-girly poses for the chorines, tough-guy posturing with double tours for the cops, and macho attitude for the Big Boss (Fayette). Nevertheless, Sylve makes the most of it, swiveling her hips and slithering like a musical comedy vamp -- appropriately understated, naturally. One hip-wrenching moment has her whipping repeatedly from high kicks front with a backbend into nose-to-knee penche arabesques (get the hip replacements ready!). She dances with decidedly more show-biz flair than the other NYCB ballerinas, whose solemn demeanors rarely crack. Oh, they smile from time to time, of course, but of the women in Saturday's matinee only Whelan approached Sylve's go-for-broke dynamic attack.

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