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Flash Review 2, 6-17: Chiselers
Wheeldon Carves, Whelan Glows, and Balanchine Rounds 'em up for City Ballet

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- New York City Ballet presented Christopher Wheeldon's "Liturgy," the final premiere of the company's spring season, on Saturday evening at the New York State Theater. Set to Arvo Part's "Fratres for Violin, Strings, and Percussion," "Liturgy" is a stunning duet for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. Like a sculptor, Wheeldon chose top quality materials which he expertly chipped away and polished to reveal the essence of each fine component.

Wheeldon clearly knows Whelan and Soto's strengths, choosing to create "Liturgy" on this habitual pair that may as well be one dancer with two heads, so synchronized are their movements, even their breathing. The piece began in twilit dimness to a coursing violin line played by Colin Jacobsen. Whelan, bathed in a lunar glow (lighting by Mark Stanley), stood a few feet in front of Soto. Their arms cut alternating diagonals, sometimes the same, sometimes not. As the music quieted, the dancers began partnering work. Soto lifted Whelan gently, skimming her across the floor as she stood on pointe in second, and supported her as she extended her toe upward and dropped her head back to gaze beyond it. Part's composition, conducted Saturday by Andrea Quinn, is a wonderful setting, like a deep, dark evening sky full of shooting stars and space and comforting mystery. While it is not out and out narrative, it is remarkably theatrical, a perfect foundation for Wheeldon's particular Balanchinean vocabulary. (I'd guess many choreographers will thumb through Part's growing oeuvre for inspiration after seeing this, if they haven't already.) Futuristic, minimal leotards were designed by Holly Hynes.

As a strummed violin and percussion phrase turned ominous, Whelan and Soto arranged themselves like sculptures, she leveraged horizontally on his thighs, or her legs wrapped around him, torso up and forward, like a kiddie's inflatable dragon-shaped life preserver. It was only when Whelan abruptly exited that I realized the depth of the couple's thus-sketched dependency. I was relieved when she soon returned, but she repeatedly exited and entered, and each time I thought, "Jock needs you! Come back!"

Wheeldon excels at creating seamless, interesting, just-complex-enough partnering sequences, and stops short of forcing the pair to perform experimental or ambitious, yet awkward, moves. The music ended, the lights dropped to dim moonlight, yet the dancers continued windmilling their arms in the silent darkness.

Whelan also starred in "Walpurgisnacht Ballet," choreographed by Balanchine to Gounod's "Faust." She seemed to relish each developpe, releasing her upper spine backward, topping each one with an "ahh!" When called upon to swoon, the back of her hand against her forehead, she dandled this romantic quote like a new toy. Whelan danced here with a sensitive musicality, a solid axis pole in pirouettes (especially in a nifty coupe derriere) and rapid-fire pique turns. Philip Neal partnered her ably, but faltered in the last of his double tours into a lunge. Janie Taylor displayed sprightliness and stamina in a mine-field sequence of petit allegro and on-toe hops, never stumbling.

Jerome Robbins's "Piano Pieces," to a suite by Tchaikovsky played by Cameron Grant, featured Benjamin Millepied in several songs, including a saucy hotplate solo where his feet touched the stage for the sole purpose of immediately springing off of it. Jennie Somogyi, partnered handsomely by Seth Orza, performed with a focused gravity bordering on dutiful, with her usual technical solidity -- crisp and mercurial. (She is better suited for roles that require her to be haughty, noble or superior.) On the other hand, Alexandra Ansanelli -- paired with Sebastien Marcovici -- looked delighted, with an open, light-hearted countenance and a fluid, easy technique. And Maria Kowroski and Stephen Hanna made an appealing pair, dancing a careful, sculptural duet.

"Western Symphony," a 1954 work by Balanchine to music by Hershy Kay, made for a goofy endcap to the evening. The ardent, efficient James Fayette paired with the flirty and demanding Pascal van Kipnis. Albert Evans, whose western garb dripped with rhinestones, matched an imperious yet needy Janie Taylor, who flung herself over four women to land in Evans's arms, twice. Damian Woetzel was a perfectly natural pistol-packing rodeo boy, all adrenaline and cocksure charm. Kowroski, across from him, could not quite keep pace, her energy tapering off prematurely in difficult repeated developpes, and later fouettes. As the curtain fell, the entire cast of 30 performed pirouettes in a dizzying ensemble.

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