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Letter from New York, 5-9: Robbins Mill
Jerry's kids throw a birthday party

By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- New York City Ballet looked exceptionally sharp during the first week of its two-month spring season. Apparently it does make a difference not to have to spend over a month performing nothing but "Nutcracker" day after day before moving on to repertory -- and please understand I am second to none in my admiration for Balanchine's sumptuous, definitive setting of Tchaikovsky. The spring season, officially dubbed the "Jerome Robbins Celebration" in honor of what would have been the late co-ballet master in chief's 90th birthday, also promised an exceptionally challenging repertory: 33 Robbins ballets, or six more than were performed during the company's 1990 salute, which lasted a mere three weeks. Balanchine and other choreographers will be represented, of course, but this is undeniably a Jerry-built season.

The dancers must also have been buoyed by the unusually warm welcome of the April 29 opening-night gala audience at the New York State Theater. The company's under-attended London tour had been marred by ill-chosen programs, a ballerina shortage, and being booked in a capacious theater with the highest ticket prices in town. City Ballet's New York gala audiences are usually a cool, show-me crowd, too, but this one had been warmed up for the all-Robbins program by its opening number, "Circus Polka." Scores of adorable School of American Ballet children in color-coordinated tutus were put through their paces by ringmaster Robert La Fosse to form the initials "J. R." (Robbins had performed this role when "Polka" kicked off the 1972 Stravinsky Festival and the kids formed "I. S.")

"The Four Seasons" and, after intermission, "West Side Story Suite" kept the good vibes throbbing. No one could doubt the evening was truly a gala occasion after Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, without benefit of amplification, concluded "West Side" with a mesmerizing performance of "Somewhere." When Faye Arthurs (Maria) took the hand Robert Fairchild (Tony) had held out to her at Ms. Graham's urging, you realized how right Noel Coward had been to acknowledge "the astonishing power of cheap sentiment."

Seeing these two ballets back to back offered a preview of what's to come in this overview of the Robbins achievement, along with a good look at City Ballet's present state. "The Four Seasons" remains one of the more artful examples of Robbins's often deplored show-biz savvy. Cast to strength at its 1979 premiere when the company was bursting with artistry, it was nevertheless greeted with critical grumping about so much talent being wasted on spoofing a banal 19th-century format. Robbins had, however, chosen the frothy score Verdi wrote for "The Sicilian Vespers," fleshed it out with astute selections from other opera ballets Verdi had to compose to be performed by the Paris Opera, and devised deceptively merry, very demanding choreography which has retained its zest for three decades. (One needn't have seen the Bolshoi's threadbare autumn bacchanal to laugh at the way Robbins's corps of bacchantes and partners simultaneously hurtle onstage and triumphantly land on beat en masse.) Sara Mearns in "Spring," Tyler Angle and Rachel Rutherford (and in another performance Rebecca Krohn) in "Summer," and Ashley Bouder in "Fall" came gratifyingly close to their great predecessors. Daniel Ulbricht obliterated all predecessors and all present rivals in the role of the frisky "Fall" faun.

"West Side Story Suite," which was repeated that week on the "Bernstein Collaborations" program, was an example of show-biz savvy prevailing over artistic unity. Leonard Bernstein's score for the musical fell between musical comedy and something genuinely powerful, and the 1995 "Suite" heightened the imbalance. Balanchine, upon learning how Robbins was planning to update "Romeo and Juliet," told him: "Our boys don't fight." It wouldn't have dissuaded Robbins but Mr. B should have added, "Juvenile gangs don't sing and pirouette, either." Even the most exciting performance of "Suite" starts to lose me when it segues from a bloody rumble into merry dances at an impromptu gathering.

Damian Woetzel, who gives his last performance on June 18, turned Riff into a 40-year-old juvenile delinquent. (Andrew Veyette was more convincing later in the week.) Fairchild, Arthurs, Amar Ramasar and the corps sustained a high level of energy and technique throughout. A body-miked Georgina Pazcoguin scorched the stage singing "America." (Is it generally known that Robbins delegated this showstopper to Peter Gennaro during rehearsals for the Broadway show?)

"Dybbuk" (1970) found both our collaborators in bad form and struggling not to admit it. I've no idea how effective the Ansky play they adapted was, but surely 48 minutes of demonic possession and love beyond death should have more eerie emotional impact than this. Max Steiner could have supplied more genuine passion and frissons than Bernstein. Robbins, coping with too much plot involving parents and kabbalah group sessions, fell back on dry schematic groupings. At least Benjamin Millepied and Janie Taylor, back in action in peak form, did not disappoint.

Forgive my stating the obvious, but "Fancy Free," the first Bernstein-Robbins collaboration, remains their best because their talent and intent perfectly suited an essentially innocent, blessedly unpretentious tale of three randy sailors on leave in New York City. Premiered by Ballet Theatre in 1944, "Fancy" didn't enter NYCB's repertory until 1980. As a fitting acknowledgement of American Ballet Theatre's claim on this all-American masterpiece, a different ABT superstar was invited to join two City Ballet dancers for each of three "Celebration" performances. Ironically, Ethan Stiefel, whose defection from NYCB in 1996 left a still-gaping hole in its roster, was the first to appear. He should have been welcomed back with an ovation after he cart-wheeled on as the Second Sailor. It is comforting to think that Stiefel was so deeply into the role of a goofy country-bumpkin swabby, his hair sticking out in all directions from under his cap, that he wasn't recognized. Actually, despite a harrowing stretch of injuries and operations, he looked his old self, as uniquely lithe and loose as ever. (Whether Robbins, a notorious perfectionist, would have approved of anyone's changing a role inspired by its gentle creator, John Kriza, is another question.) A further irony: The performance marked Stiefel's reunion with ABT defector Joaquin De Luz, now a City Ballet principal, as the First Sailor. A slinky Woetzel rounded out the trio. Genuine camaraderie prevailed, despite the potential for competition and conflict -- just like in the ballet, come to think of it. Tiler Peck was a knowing Second Pickup.

(ABT's Herman Cornejo and Marcelo Gomes were scheduled to appear in "Fancy Free" after this Letter was filed. City Ballet has also extended invitations to ABT's Julie Kent and to the Royal Ballet's Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg to perform "Other Dances" and to Paris Opera Ballet etoile Nicolas Le Riche to appear in "A Suite of Dances.")

A predictable drawback of building a season around an overview of a driven artist like Robbins is that achievements better left overlooked inevitably get dredged up. "Watermill," Robbins's grinding 58-minute foray into The Higher Seriousness, has lost none of its numbing stasis since Edward Villella did a slow-motion striptease down to his ballet belt in 1972 while a six-person combo on Asian instruments droned and bonged out Teiji Ito's score. Noh theatrical traditions and Robert Wilson's untheatrical concept of stasis were cited, or rather blamed, as influences. Once Villella roused himself to jog around the stage. Nikolaj Hübbe, who took his leave of City Ballet last February, left his duties as the newly appointed artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet to risk conjunctivitis in three exposed, immobile performances. Unfortunately, his muscle tone looked so reduced since his commanding farewell performance in "Apollo" one presumed he'd lifted nothing heavier than a telephone over the last three months. There was now even less reason to look at the stage during "Watermill."

"Symphonic Balanchine," performed twice the first week, demonstrated the hazard of programming by theme. Few City Ballet regulars would object to viewing "Symphony in C" and "Symphony in Three Movements" on the same evening; each is a sterling example of, respectively, the master's classic and neoclassic style. The corps looked sharper than usual under ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy's supervision. (Balanchine, I should add, was notoriously indifferent to Rockette-style precision.) I would have enjoyed "Symphony in C" more if Abi Stafford, a gifted technician, could have danced the First Movement on a bigger scale; however Mearns, lovingly partnered by Charles Askegard, is well on her way to making the precious Adagio her own; Gonzalo Garcia did well in his debut in the scherzo with the ever-dynamic Bouder; and Peck and Sean Suozzi kicked off the finale with unprecedented power and clarity.

In "Symphony in Three Movements," a slimmed-down Albert Evans brought a new, welcome authority to the pas de deux with the anything-but-overweight Wendy Whelan. (Definitely an acquired taste, Whelan gives performances this balletgoer finds uniquely addictive.) The big news, however, was Ulbricht's debut as the jumper opposite Sterling Hyltin. The seven other men leaped higher than ever to keep up with him, to no avail; they lacked not only his seemingly effortless power, but his flawless control of it.

But this was a "symphonic" program, wasn't it? So that leaves -- "Western Symphony"? Is there a more mechanical, increasingly creaky example of what Balanchine called his "applause machines"? Hershy Kay assembled a genuine score out of Sousa marches for the more inventive, genuinely witty "Stars and Stripes"; for "Western," Kay alternated folk ballads with Stephen Collins Foster airs and Negro spirituals, and Balanchine responded with a hodgepodge of folksy hi-jinks and classical steps. It could have been replaced by at least 30 superior ballets had the program been called "By George."

Music director Faycal Karoui drew vigorous, clarified playing from the orchestra throughout opening week. There was a shaky trumpet solo during "Spring" of "The Four Seasons" on opening night, but this familiar flaw did not recur at the next performance. Any ballet conductor who greets his musicians with "Bonjour!" when he enters the pit and who remains at the podium to applaud the dancers during curtain calls is going to contribute more than brisk tempi to a performance.

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