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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.

'Carnival,' essentially 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 Fayette.

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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