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Flash Review 2, 4-30: Interpreters
Etoiles Join City Ballet to Fete Balanchine

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2004 Tom Patrick

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(Editor's Note: To celebrate the centennial of George Balanchine, who passed away 21 years ago today, the Dance Insider is providing international coverage of Balanchine's legacy.)

NEW YORK -- A jubilant atmosphere at the State Theater Tuesday, as the New York City Ballet kicked off this glorious nine-week season of performances to celebrate the late George Balanchine's centennial and his legacy. Subdivided into a myriad of themes ("Italian Tribute," "All Stravinsky," "British Tribute," etcetera) and festivals European, American, and Russian, this 120th season will be a balletomane's dream, and surely must be shaping the travel plans of many. With a repertory spanning from "Afternoon of a Faun" to "Zakouski" -- over 60 ballets! -- this is a flood of great Balanchine, as well as the works of Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, and NYCB ballet-master-In-chief Peter Martins.

This first night of the season was to be a tribute to the French, featuring all French composers and a pair of guest artists from the Paris Opera Ballet....

"Walpurgisnacht Ballet" would get things started. The 1980 NYCB premiere of this piece was far from Balanchine's first contact with the music of Charles Francois Gounod, from his "Faust." Balanchine had choreographed dances for productions of the opera since 1925 (Opera de Monte Carlo) and the current work is drawn from his 1975 efforts for the Theatre National de l'Opera, danced by the Paris Opera Ballet.

I'd only seen the final movement of this ballet, captured so nicely on video during the Balanchine Celebration around ten years ago.... I recall best the wonderful rushes of movement as all of those women streak around the stage with their hair loose behind them. But in the past I'd not seen the rest of it, which began Tuesday with the masterful Kyra Nichols in the capable hands of Charles Askegard. Their initial pas de deux reminded me a bit of, say, a decaffeinated "Tchaikovsky Pas...." By that I mean less showy and Ta-da, more stretched and connected. Full of wicked Balanchinian pointework, that's for sure.... Ms. Nichols raised the bar for all as she created some wonderful musical counterpoint with her strong balance. Lindy Mandradjieff, in a debut here, was really lovely as well, soaking up the light and throwing it back to us. The demi-soloists and corps kept me mouthing "wow" at their precision and speed.

Strangely, that final section seemed a trifle anticlimactic to me now -- maybe just the brevity of it? As Gounod (and conductor Hugo Fiorato) wakes up the brass and percussion sections, the maidens did indeed race, and were indeed beautiful with their silky tresses flowing behind 'em, but the musical and choreographic escalation toward this climax seemed almost comically steep.

A pause followed, no doubt to position a piano on the stage for the 1975 work "Sonatine." (This would be the first of the evening's two ballets to music by Maurice Ravel.) Unveiled during the NYCB's festival honoring the composer's own centennial, this duet to solo piano was originally danced by Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. This night, however, we would be treated to two guest artists, deux etoiles from the Paris Opera Ballet, Aurelie Dupont and Manuel Legris, who are well-versed in the Balanchine Way (as well as those of a host of other diverse dance-makers).

It's the source of endless discussions: the merits of seeing a choreographer's work performed by his or her own company versus as performed by others.' People have their preferences, naturally, but I always think it's kind of cool to see the guest artists -- or companies licensing the dances -- tackle things that we consider the territory of one company. I think it can be an interesting way to really view the choreography when divorced from our expectations of casting or a company's aesthetic....

Well, this little "Sonatine" (a new one to me) was a godsend on this program. Dancing with enviable purity, Dupont and Legris made the world go away for a time and presented us with a couple we could not look away from. As pianist Elaine Chelton sensitively put the boat into the water, the dancing couple began with the simplest of gestures: a hand offered, then taken, simple strolling steps that develop into small ripples of chivalry and adoration. These dancers had a beautifully light touch with the material, appropriately energized of course but never forcing the moment or obscuring the complex rhythms with any bombast. Their good taste and good coaching served to show us an unusual piece, not following any conventional pas de deux template and full of tasty surprises, as when Ms. Dupont pulled Mr Legris offstage backwards in a deep cambre. Balanchine here seems to be channeling many influences, as there are hints of other areas in his repertoire where he was pushing the boundaries, sculpturally and especially in the domain of partnering. By the time the end came, and the two dancers were bolting around each other in concentric circles of turning jetes, exiting in opposite corners, I was giddy with the freshness of this piece!

I find it ever ironic that when dancers are really scrupulously showing the choreographer's work, they can't help but reveal their own as well. Such is certainly the case here! Monsieur Legris I have seen before (in the aforementioned video, I believe) but he surpassed himself this night, becoming a quintessential Balanchine medium -- thrilling in his take-offs, cat-like in his landings, and partnering his lady with undivided attention and tenderness.

As for Ms. Dupont.... Well, she is certainly one to see. If you miss her in these performances, I'd actually recommend buying a ticket to Paris to catch up.... She's really that good, uniquely so. With such a beautiful light touch and exquisitely sculpted features, she really impressed me -- in our dozen minutes together -- as a dancer in whom choreography lives as an opportunity for expression, not duplication or repetition. Her technical prowess is undeniable, but the treat is interpretive. Truly, having these two guests here was a great treat and a privilege...a great toast to Mr B's work, and it made clear to me what makes these dancers etoiles. (The pair perform again Saturday afternoon.)

Following the intermission, we were in for more Ravel, this time providing the context for Balanchine's "La Valse." Oddly, my take on "La Valse" this time around was different than my opinion last time, when I was mulling the references to Poe and "The Masque of the Red Death." Music written around World War I, a dance composed around the next War, viewing it nowadays.... Well, there should be subtext galore. But as Ellen Barr, Saskia Beskow, and Gwyneth Muller began the ballet in their long white gloves with that quirky, coded movement vocabulary, I couldn't shake that impulse to see the Balanchine amongst the strong performances onstage. Now "La Valse" proper is really the second piece of the music and the original work by Mr. B, prefaced by eight shorter waltzes comprising the "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales" as a dramatic setup for the neo-Romantic tragedy that is the work's core.

Personally, I found the setup more compelling on this occasion, perhaps as I was stuck in that "compositional" head. As I mentioned, the ladies' trio that I found so intriguing and odd gave way to some dynamic partnering, most notably for Amanda Edge and the quicksilver Antonio Carmena and later for Rebecca Krohn and Stephen Hanna. The excellent Robert Tewsley -- in a debut here -- and Rachel Rutherford appeared in the eighth waltz, and a glimpse of the unearthly Jock Soto (not really, just cast that way) introduced the upcoming denouement. While I was so interested in the opening proceedings, Ravel's first waltzes gave me the feeling of a slightly deflated cheeriness, battling with worry or anxiety. But the title work, "La Valse," always stirs me up and this may not be a good thing: sounding like the music a madman might play on a ship in a storm, Ravel's intense composition seems to push Balanchine's into hyperbolic expressions using (I think) less than his finest devices. For instance, the ensemble work in this second section seemed much more "classroom" than the interesting material earlier, and the setting seemed to push the dancers into histrionics. Soto was a compelling villain, all brutish as he swung Ms Rutherford ever closer to the frenzied end of her life, amid a somewhat campy whirlpool effect....

Closing the performance was the evergreen and hugely-populated "Symphony in C," to music by Georges Bizet (who was, incidentally, Gounod's pupil and 17 years old when he composed this!) Originally choreographed by Mr. Balanchine for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 under the title "Le Palais de Cristal," this bounteous (neo)classical beauty came home to the NYCB the following year. I'm told that we've reviewed this one several times, on companies throughout the world, so for more information on the ballet we recommend you enter "Symphony in C" in the search engine on our Home page. Kudos this evening go to the lovely pace-setting Jennifer Ringer in the First Movement and ever-astonishing Wendy Whalen in the Second. Benjamin Millepied, in the Third Movement, seemed almost absurdly airborne, barely touching down anywhere.

Bravos of course to NYCB for this cornucopia of great dance, and to all the work that's gone into such interconnected programming. This is going to be quite a celebration!

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