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Flash Flashback, 9-29: Music and Muse
Finally, a Glimmer in the Diamond Project from Christopher d'Amboise

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier, 2006 Alicia Chesser

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Review was first published June 8, 2000. Alicia Chesser now covers Tulsa Ballet, and much more, for the Dance Insider. Balanchine's "Serenade" opens New York City Ballet's Chicago season October 17 at the Harris Theater.)

Christopher d'Amboise has made an odd, wondrous thing. Last night at the State Theater saw the premiere of his "Triptych," another in the series of Diamond Project ballets at New York City Ballet, most of which have been nice enough. This ballet, unlike all the others, is not particularly nice at all. It is instead (like the Bartok score for strings, percussion, and celesta it so confidently rides) dense and magnetic and concentrated -- and the concentration comes directly from the center of the piece, a center whose name is Wendy Whelan.

There she is at the ballet's beginning, standing in the front corner, wrapped in light and a blue unitard, musing. Up goes her leg in a breath shaped like an arabesque, then down and up and down again. She draws a circle on the floor around her pointed toe, outstretched in a deep tendu. She tucks her right leg through the ring of her arms, does a flexed-foot wiggle, then looks out at the world from between two arms as through a window. We don't know what it is exactly that she's doing -- I kept asking, what's in that toe of hers that she's finding so fascinating? -- but we watch because it is her world, her space, and she is inhabiting it totally. Watching Wendy here is watching a woman live.

Behind her, meantime, a crowd of figures murmur in the shadows -- some with arms stretched up in the shape of urns, others with bodies bent forward with arms curved like birds' wings, hovering. Whelan is the ruling principal of this crowd somehow; what she does ripples onto them, and we see echoes of her movements in the hazy brown and gray behind her. Then, suddenly, she is on the other side of the stage, and all is motion -- diagonals everywhere, running, amber waves of grain -- and there is Albert Evans, magnificent in red, doing some sharp quick Kung Fu steps, looking at us with his almost Egyptianly beautiful face. There is some strange, lovely partnering in the corps -- a pendulum swing, especially, that will come up again, the women lifted up and swung from left to right, slowly, to the stark, sweet chime of the celesta. When Whelan and Evans go at it together, with all those figures still behind them, they are like leaders of a tribe. They stand shoulder to shoulder, facing opposite directions; they enclose each other's heads in rounded arms; he makes a circle, she pokes through; they know each other's boundaries. It's not that the steps are so amazing -- in fact they're somewhat repetitive and lightweight; you wouldn't expect them to be interesting -- but somehow in their perfect musicality, and in the deep strength of Whelan and Evans, they are given power and buoyancy. I love to see Whelan working, exhaling fast, looking for the next move; she lets us in on everything.

And suddenly, what begins to bubble up through all this concentrated quickness and quiet is "Serenade." I first noticed it in that lined-up mass of figures, those long diagonals, and the way the principals appear out of nowhere from behind. But when at the beginning of the third section Whelan falls to the floor in the front corner there, and Jock Soto and the extraordinary, totally present Kristin Sloan (where on earth did she come from?!) come in from the side with arabesques and motions of masking, there is "Serenade" all over the place. And it is marvelous. This dialogue between the women, this curving over each other as if one is giving the other a secret, these levels and promenades -- the entire third section is an exquisite reading of Balanchine's loveliest and most heartbreaking ballet. The celesta predominates in the music here; d'Amboise lets the three dancers follow it in bell-like arcs of motion, and the effect is riveting.

"Apollo" is here, too, among others: Sloan and Whelan are standing side by side, and there's a moment when you think Soto is going to slice his arm between them like Apollo does the Muses, but instead he turns his hand just in time and cradles Sloan's face, turning her around, then Whelan's, turning her too. Beautiful. D'Amboise said recently in an interview in "Time Out" that this piece was very specific to NYCB: Balanchine and Robbins, as part of the contemporary choreographer's heritage, can now be USED and not just derived from. He was right. This is like the secret dream life of those ballets.

Though "Triptych" is far from perfect (the corps has to do some things that don't quite seem to fit, among other quibbles), at least it has some body to it, and some strange sort of soul. (Mark Stanley's lighting helps here, too, washing the stage with color.) The image that will stay with me is that of Soto holding Whelan aloft in the final movement, with Sloan going before him, and the three of them moving forward through the crowd of brown and gray like water lilies floating through leaves in a pond -- Whelan held aloft, like the prow of a ship, guiding the whole crowd in these gestures of ringing and enclosing, carrying them and being carried back to her corner of the universe, back to the off-center center of the dance. It is d'Amboise's musical intelligence and love for his roots that lets the ballet move as it does, and it is Wendy Whelan's genius that makes it live. The music and the muse: that was the story of Balanchine's ballets, and d'Amboise has learned at least that much.

With that spirit, dark and bright as it was, at the heart of last night's program, the other two pieces seemed curiously 2-D. I was reminded how preternaturally mature a dancer Wendy Whelan is (and how human are the things she does with her face) by watching Janie Taylor in Robbins's "2 & 3 Part Inventions" (set to Bach's piano variations, played with happy simplicity by Nancy McDill). She still looks scared, but the beautiful lines she makes make me think she really will be as good someday as everybody hopes. She was working hard last night. Edward Liang's smile was again a godsend; he kept propelling everybody else, looking at them as if to say, get a load of how sweet it is to be dancing together to this full-to-bursting music! Eventually he got Carrie Lee Riggins, Eva Natanya, and Benjamin Millepied (absolutely biting in his giddy, minor-key solo) to go along with him. But the problem of musicality reared its depressing head throughout.

Some better news was to be found in Balanchine's "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet." Jennie Somogyi's port de bras in the Allegro was stunning; she is one of the few NYCB dancers willing to risk throwing back her head and swooping her arms when she feels like it -- wonderful! It was high drama with Michele Gifford in the same movement; with her Merchant/Ivory cheekbones and her stuck landings, she would make a perfect Myrta. Jennifer Ringer and James Fayette were the luscious couple who'd escaped to the balcony for the Intermezzo while all the other guests were bored in the ballroom. Fayette was marvelously dashing, Ringer her magical self. In the Andante, Yvonne Borree looked terribly wound up; the noble Nikolaj Hubbe and the refreshingly self-assured Riggins carried the day here. As for Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard in the all-out blow-out Rondo alla Zingarese, well, they kept smiling slyly at each other and promising quietly, it seemed, to eat each other alive. Kowroski, for all her gifts, is still a bit of a tease; she sometimes depends on audience-ogling when she's topply in the steps, and it means we never get to know her. (The audience, however, wanted an unprecedented third curtain call from her and Askegard. That almost makes up for the man who hissed at someone who was standing to applaud at the end of "Triptych" and told him to sit down because he was blocking the view.)

I'd guess Wendy Whelan is off in a corner somewhere right about now, musing. May all these young ones go and seek her out.

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