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Letter from New York, 2-29: Back to the Future
Hübbe Caps NYCB Career with a Flower Festival

By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green
Photography copyright Paul Kolnik

NEW YORK -- Nikolaj Hübbe's farewell performance for New York City Ballet on February 10 left an adoring capacity audience with a sense of double loss. While Hübbe in Balanchine's "Apollo" no longer looked every inch the young god he did in 1992, when he left the Royal Danish Ballet to join City Ballet as a principal, the performance was obviously that of a great dancer whose authority, undiminished at age 40, would be missed. When his Apollo responded to the call of Zeus, a moment marred as usual at the New York State Theater by childlike applause, the audience felt his surge of newfound godhood as surely as did his excellent trio of muses: Wendy Whelan (Terpsichore), Ashley Bouder (Polyhymnia), Rachel Rutherford (Calliope). After understandably falling back in awe, the muses followed Apollo up the slopes of Parnassus. The rest of us remained at ground level in New York while Hübbe returned to Copenhagen to become artistc director of the RDB.

Nikolaj Hübbe performs George Balanchine's "Apollo" in his farewell performance with New York City Ballet, February 10. Paul Kolnik photo courtesy New York City Ballet and ©Paul Kolnik.

Further loss mixed with delight was felt after intermission. Hübbe's departure also deprives New York of the gifts of a great teacher at the School of American Ballet. Coached by him, fledgling City Ballet corps members Kathryn Morgan and David Prottas danced a "Flower Festival at Genzano" that revealed a breathtaking command of the subtleties and difficulties of the Bournonville style. Without for a moment treating their hard-won technique as a secondary achievement, one must surely credit Hübbe's coaching for the unerring rightness of their sunny openness, buoyant elevation, and modest mastery of every seemingly simple demand.

The rest of the program was obviously chosen to demonstrate the scope of Hübbe's versatility without taxing his diminished stamina. Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette occasionally spelled him and his frequent partner Yvonne Borree during the first and fourth movements of ballet master in chief Peter Martins's 1992 pas de deux "Zakouski," the first work made on Hübbe in New York. "Cool," a helpfully miked vocal solo from Jerome Robbins's "West Side Story Suite," mostly demonstrated his diction. ("You sound foreign," Robbins had sneered at the first rehearsal.)

Ironically, Hübbe's last performance couldn't have ended fast enough. He was paired with that slinky dance-hall gal Maria Kowroski, giving all he had left in the finale of "Western Symphony." This "applause machine" is now performed in a mercifully reduced three-movement format, but that still leaves a lot of Balanchine's pseudo-folksiness and Hershy Kay's equally ersatz "frontier" score to endure.

New York City Ballet's Nikolaj Hübbe... and friends. February 10, New York City. Paul Kolnik photo courtesy New York City Ballet and ©Paul Kolnik.

For authenticity in abundance there was the prolonged tribute of genuine affection that erupted after the final curtain: onstage showers of festive detritis (petals, paper, confetti), a sustained bombardment of bouquets hurled with varying accuracy across the orchestra pit, a parade of beaming, flower-bearing colleagues of both sexes and all accompanied by a continuous standing ovation that easily lasted 15 minutes.

Arlene Croce wrote that no one ever retires at New York City Ballet, and, sure enough, Hübbe is to return in April for the Jerome Robbins 90th birthday season to perform -- or to be present in -- three performances of the dreaded 1972 "Watermill." (Croce called it "Waterloo.") Done in a state of near stasis in a Noh theater cum Robert Wilson manner under a changing moon, it purportedly recalls the life of A Man. The great Edward Villella often got conjunctivitis just sitting around onstage in a ballet belt. I don't know how old A Man was when the curtain fell, but I felt like Methuslah.


Nikolaj Hübbe gives his farewell performance with the Royal Danish Ballet April 2 in Copenhagen, dancing "La Sylphide" and "Lost on Slow."

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