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Flash Review 2, 5-19: Guide to Strange Dances
Playful 'Carnival' from Wheeldon (and Lithgow)
By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung
NEW YORK -- Christopher
Wheeldon was clearly permitted to be the proverbial resident choreographer
in a candy store while creating "Carnival of the Animals," the first
of his two premieres for New York City Ballet this spring. To Camille
Saint-Saens's familiar, quote-peppered score, the work is resplendent
with subtly zoomorphic yet sophisticated costumes (by Jon Morrell),
wickedly clever casting employing around 50 dancers, and the varied
talents of John Lithgow, who also scripted the libretto. 'Carnival'
shared the bill at City Ballet's spring gala Wednesday at the New
York State Theater.
The story concerns Oliver
(played and danced with authority by P.J. Verhoest, a student at
SAB), who is locked overnight in the Natural History Museum. In
his dreams appear not the animals surrounding him, but the various
characters of his life as the animals they remind him of and the
secret lives they live. The scenario is based on a story written
by Wheeldon, who then enjoined Lithgow to write the prose and narrate
as well. The work, which has the feel of a summertime "Nutcracker,"
shows not only a streak of endearing youthful innocence in Wheeldon's
creativity, but a true love for theater and all its possibilities.
an ensemble work, has a few plummy solos to offer. Lithgow plays
a janitor who recites the story onstage; he appears later as the
school nurse/elephant/ ballroom dance contestant shepherded by four
mice men. (At this point it dawns on me how concise and rich the
visuals of each character and scene were, because it sounds fairly
ridiculous in description.) Lithgow, in a fat suit and a grey chiffon
gown with pink toenail scallops at the hem, looked blimp-like as
the four mice hoisted him aloft. Yvonne Borree, in one of her best
roles yet, charmed as a librarian/kangaroo, her small fists pummelling
the air; she transformed into a glamorous movie mermaid with ten
bleached blonde merstaff. Arch Higgins, barely recognizable in an
orangutan costume, was Oliver's slave-driving piano teacher, walking
on his front knuckles and swinging his club-like arms with glee.
Charles Askegard played a lion-like professor whose dignity was
implied by the relatively straightforward male bravura ballet he
performed. Rachel Rutherford and Pascal van Kipnis portrayed a charming
pair of ex-can-can dancers as tortoises, modest until they revealed
their brightly colored knickers. And Christine Redpath was Oliver's
aunt, an ex-ballerina/swan who retained all of her dignity despite
her middle age; she performed a wistful, delicate reminiscence of
her glory days.
These characters were
joined by groups of darting, gymnastic weasels and rats (classmates),
bouncy tropical birds (cheerleaders), jackasses (wrestlers of both
mat and arm variety), and dusky, rickety fossils (old "Nutcracker"
ballerinas). My favorite were the neighbors, hens and cockerels
dressed in yellow and red plaid puff-chested jackets, futilely flapping
their little wings. Oliver's parents, driven mad with worry over
his whereabouts, became cuckoos played by Kyra Nichols and James
Each scene contained
just enough dance to make an effective characterization. The final
tableau is stunning as a showcase for the wonderful costumes, and
as a reminder of the richly layered napoleon of characters we had
just met. While 'Carnival' is definitely geared toward children,
its clever (sometimes wicked) twists give adults plenty to chew
on. Who among us hasn't played similar games with our acquaintances?
Peter Martins's "Guide
to Strange Places," also a spring premiere, shared the bill. It
takes its title from the composition by John Adams, who conducted
this half of the evening's performance. Julius Lumsden designed
the set, dominated by an arresting abstract expressionist backdrop
hovering over four portals from which the ten dancers, all principals
or soloists, emerged. Jock Soto (the first out), Nilas Martins,
Benjamin Millepied, Sebastien Marcovici and Philip Neal ran through
a door and into the dim light, leapt, spun, and flung themselves
into arching lunges. They charged downstage once more, throwing
themselves into double tours en l'air, smashing down onto one knee.
(This is one of the moves that Martins seems to create as a challenge
to his technically skilled dancers -- sometimes it works, with thrilling
results; other times they simply are not able to execute what he
wants, resulting in a humiliating taint of failure.)
The women, each in a
different color, wore suave ombred tunics with split skirts. Led
by Darci Kistler, they too moved with urgency, like they were preparing
for a hurricane to hit. (Joining Kistler were Alexandra Ansanelli,
Jennie Somogyi, Janie Taylor, and Miranda Weese.) Arms, angled,
spun like windmills, or punctuated a lunge. Kistler and Soto performed
an arduous, complicated partnering puzzle of the sort that Martins
is fond of creating. After Kistler's skirt panels were tied and
untied in a sartorial mating ritual, she dangled like a hanger from
Soto's arms. Janie Taylor distinguished herself with her characteristic
fearlessness. This work's cool, abstract atmosphere could have the
opposite effect on dancers, making them recede rather than stand
out in relief. But Taylor wrung more out of each move, pushing deeper
into plunging arabesques or angling her head just a bit more. This
ferocity tempered her slight frame and youth.
The work ends with the
ten dancers downstage in a strip of light (by Mark Stanley), each
dancer bursting into a short solo. Martins seems temperamentally
matched with Adams's music, this work marking their eighth such
pairing. His recent stabs at breaking away from the predictable
have not been memorable for the right reasons ("Thou
Swell" the most prominent in my mind -- for the wrong
reasons) and while "Guide to Strange Places" is not ground-breaking,
it at least stands a chance of showing up in future repertory.
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