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Letter from New York, 7-11: All Robbins, some Balanchine
From City Ballet, Jerry's Odyssey

By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- The Jerome Robbins Celebration dominated New York City Ballet's spring season from start (April 29) to finish (June 29), with 33 of his ballets presented in eight all-Robbins programs of increasingly desperate titles. "Baroque to Jazz: A Musical Odyssey I" gave way to "Bach to Glass: A Musical Odyssey II," but for an example of sheer frustration, it's hard to beat "All German and Some Tharp." Considering the perils Odysseus encountered on his homeward journey, Robbins's 1984 collaboration with Twyla Tharp on the rarely -- and here, unnecessarily -- revived "Brahms/Handel" could qualify as a stopover with Circe. (Guessing which choreographer contributed what to this fulsome, unsightly muddle is about as artistically and intellectually rewarding as a session of "Where's Waldo?") The only other performances at which Robbins shared a program with another choreographer were Damian Woetzel's farewell (June 18) and the benefit for the Dancers' Emergency Fund (June 27) -- and it was Robbins who had originated that worthy charity, in 1980.

When he assumed the directorship of NYCB with Peter Martins upon Balanchine's death, Robbins insisted on their sharing the cumbersome title Co-Ballet Master in Chief. The celebration, while never once confirming Robbins's right to sharing Co-Choreographer in Chief with Balanchine, did remind me how treasurable his most distinctive, unpretentious works were. "Fancy Free," "Afternoon of a Faun," "The Four Seasons," "Fanfare," "Opus 19/The Dreamer," "Four Bagatelles," "Piano Pieces," "The Cage," "Glass Pieces," "Antique Epigraphs," "Mother Goose," "Interplay" -- what a special flavor each brings to a program!

The upsurge of dedication the celebration drew from the ballet masters and the dancers actually increased my appreciation of works in which an attempt at The Higher Seriousness didn't turn into a dry creek like "Watermill" or "Dybbuk." While I think I've seen enough of "Moves (A Ballet in Silence)" to last me a while, I was gripped as never before by the haunting Mahlerian bleakness of the finale of "Ives, Songs." It arose less from the music or the dry singing of baritone Philip Cutlip than from the striking imagery of the elderly Ives (Robert La Fosse), surrounded by deceased companions and kinsmen, as the phrase "gone ... gone" hung over the stage like a shroud.

A similarly powerful performance was awarded "In Memory of...," set to the amorphous rhythms and shifting gloom of Berg's Violin Concerto. Co-concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen and the orchestra under the enlivening conducting of music director Faycal Karoui fully met the composer's demands. Wendy Whelan, Jared Angle, and Charles Askegard were equally successful at embodying Robbins's doom-laden plot right through to the end of the fatal pas de deux. Then Askegard, a towering figure of death, tenderly gathered up the fallen Whelan and carried her offstage. Why? At the 1981 premiere, Adam Luders dragged the supine Suzanne Farrell into the wings by one of her arms. Fortunately City Ballet's women's corps is exceptionally homogeneous these days; so when seven members drifted in through Jennifer Tipton's clouded lighting, a glaze of detachment worthy of the Elysian Fields was established.

Occasionally a proven treasure required tweaking. Sterling Hyltin, who had hitherto done no wrong while acquiring an avalanche of new roles, mugged her way through the otherwise unfailingly uproarious "The Concert." Although Whelan and Janie Taylor were justly appalling as the homicidal Novice in "The Cage," the man-hating corps women were less so. (There could be a link here to disheartened Hillary Clinton supporters -- but who wants to be reminded of the Democratic primary, now that it's mercifully ended?)

The most gratifying surprise of the celebration was the revival of "Four Bagatelles" (1973). Set to Beethoven, made on Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, it proved delightful yet disciplined, rippling with an invention that never veered into show-biz cuteness. I hope to encounter 'Bagatelles' often now, hopefully with the enlivening attention to detail lavished on it by pianist Nancy McDill, the all-conquering Ashley Bouder, and company newcomer Gonzalo Garcia. He gave his first completely successful performance in 'Bagatelles.' (Garcia's performances of "Opus 19: The Dreamer" and a movement of 'Rubies' at Woetzel's farewell displaced no memories of esteemed predecessors.)

Further acquaintance with Robbins's acclaimed settings of Chopin and Bach, however, confirmed my heretical belief that he did neither composer any favor. "Dances at a Gathering," his triumphant 1969 return to NYCB after historic achievements on Broadway, strikes me as imposed upon Chopin instead of springing from his music. That it was a joy to watch was due to the dedication of the current cast, headed by Woetzel in an authoritative assumption of Edward Villella's role. Still, I got the giggles when a ballerina was lugged around upside down, a farcical indignity that also kept recurring during "In the Night." When its third couple becomes so caught up in their tiff that the dancers dash offstage simultaneously, you don't want to be sitting near me. As for "Other Dances," not even Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov had made it seem consistently worthy of them, and American Ballet Theatre guest artist Julie Kent and Garcia certainly didn't make it seem worthy of Chopin.

Robbins wasn't always on Bach's wavelength, either. The raves for 'Dances' must have fed his arrogant decision to expand the piano ballet form by choreographing -- often with obvious desperation -- every single repeat in "Goldberg Variations." Distending the work to 83 minutes would have been more bearable had NYCB's estimable pianist, Cameron Grant, been able to sculpt every phrase with the power of the late Glenn Gould -- who, of course, scorned repeats. The rousing dancing triggered by the belated demands of Part II couldn't wholly offset what came before. "Brandenberg" was an uneven, fragmented affair set to excerpts from the concerto grossi that never cohered as a score. "A Suite of Dances," made for the White Oak Dance Project in 1994, may have seemed sprightly when premiered by the 46-year-old Baryshnikov; guest artist Nicolas Le Riche, a laid-back, smarmy Paris Opéra Ballet étoile, just underscored what a bad idea it was to cherry-pick the noble unaccompanied cello suites for so slight and mercurial a work. Cellist Ann Kim's small-scale performance further lowered the temperature.

Ironically, "2 & 3 Part Inventions," also to Bach, may have displayed more disciplined ingenuity because Robbins made it on students of the School of American Ballet for its 1994 spring workshop. This modest but demanding work for eight dancers was performed during the celebration by two casts of current SAB students; audiences fortunate enough to have seen the more disciplined and accomplished first one were treated to a Stars of Tomorrow preview: Lydia Wellington, Chase Finlay, Michael Tucker, and Samuel Greenberg are now company apprentices. They were joined by their sister apprentice Megan Johnson and 29 other students when everyone assembled for excellent performances of the ever-delightful "Fanfare." The "Generation Next" program always began with 48 little SAB girls prancing around to Stravinsky's "Circus Polka," eventually forming the initials "J.R." under Ringmaster La Fosse's smug oversight. You had to shield your eyes from the glare of braces when they ran forward to take their bows.

"Dancers' Choice" was the title for the Dancers' Emergency Fund benefit, assembled not by Peter Martins but by principal dancer John Stafford. Only City Ballet's younger generation participated, so the program was an opportunity to demonstrate overlooked or underused virtuosity. Daniel Ulbricht, a powerhouse performer whom audiences adore, appeared an average of only one-and-a-half times per week this spring season because no ballet master found the time to expand his Robbins repertory. This evening, when he finally got his shot at the last movement of Balanchine's 'Rubies,' his exit in a blur of accelerating but cleanly performed spins was not only worthy of Villella, but clinched his claim to that much-diminished repertory.

Another precious reminder of past glories materialized when Teresa Reichlen brought her lovely willowy line and an exquisite command of phrasing to fully recreate Mimi Paul's unique solo in Balanchine's 'Emeralds.' An even more astonishing sense of déja vu occurred when Sara Mearns, a newly promoted principal, actually began to resemble Kyra Nichols when dancing "Beethoven Romance," which Martins had made on Nichols in 1989. Savannah Lowery, a kilted top sergeant to nine warrior women, romped through the Macdonald of Sleat section of "Union Jack," but Andrew Veyette's try at the mesmerizing solo from "Square Dance" was undercut by the languid conducting of the otherwise reliable Maurice Kaplow.

Also outstanding among other impressive offerings were feisty corps guy Troy Schumacher and his razor-sharp all-male regiment in the Third Campaign of "Stars and Stripes"; Schumacher led them in a barrage of thrilling double tours en l'air, however he lacked the stamina to make similarly impressive leaps through their ranks as they, in groups of three, sprang diagonally across the stage.

The first part of the program ended with the finale of Robbins's "Glass Pieces" -- I call the opening all-male maneuvers "'West Side Story' Meets 'Spartacus‚'" -- and the evening concluded with that ultimate of pure dance spectaculars, the last movement of Balanchine's "Symphony in C." Let's hope the State Theater was filled with first-time patrons, drawn by the bargain-basement price of $45 or $25 a seat, for they were given an excellent introduction to the wonders awaiting them in New York City Ballet's repertory.

The evening's sole novelty -- an in-house world premiere, no less -- did nothing to refurbish the company's reputation, established when Balanchine and Robbins were both alive, as the world's most creative performing arts institution. Choreographed by soloist Adam Hendricks to a two-piano score by corps member Aaron Severini, "Flit of Fury -- The Monarch" provided four men the opportunity to constantly do the same steps simultaneously -- who needs canonic sequence, right? -- to pounding, repetitious music. Three of the men caught their breath upstage while Gretchen Smith in a man's nightshirt lured Sean Suozzi into a pas de deux, then charged forward to reclaim him for further mutual exhaustion. Maybe it was about Male Bonding. I'm certain the sight of iron-fingered pianists Steven Beck and Stephen Gosling silhouetted against a saffron backdrop was the work's single indelible image. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that gnomic title was chosen so vicious critics could be accused of breaking a butterfly on the wheel, I'll say no more.

Balanchine was granted three programs of his own this season, but "Prodigal Son" and "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet" had to share the "Then and There" program with Martins's "Thou Swell." (What couldn't go into a program headed "Then and There"?) The program "Symphonic Balanchine" was diminished by the inclusion of "Western Symphony," and "Jewels" was marred by erratic casting, especially in 'Rubies,' however "Musical Muses" was a gratifying demonstration of his protean invention and unfailing musicality. Conductor Andrews Sill's "concert tempi" initially made for an overly taut "Mozartiana." By the time Whelan and Philip Neal were joined by Ulbricht, no one had any difficulty doing justice to its wealth of demanding subtleties. The men's corps doesn't look very homogeneous these days, but that lack didn't spoil the gourmet delights of "Le Tombeau de Couperin" -- its kaleidoscopic groupings, courtly moves, and canonic invention were fully achieved. "Divertimento from 'Le Baiser de la Fée'" proved an ideal showcase for the small-scale partnership of Joaquin De Luz and Megan Fairchild; their pas de deux of separation was a truly eerie achievement in a ballet haunted by the ghost of the original work. As for "La Sonnambula," the cast of Yvonne Borree, Sébastien Marcovici, Amar Ramasar, and Mearns wasn't the strongest ever but it was a worthy one; and the divertissements, when performed by Ulbricht, Vincent Paradiso, Georgina Pascoquin, Schumacher, Rachel Piskin, David Prottas, and Ana Sophia Scheller, were outstanding.

Like Robbins, Susan Stroman achieved success on Broadway before she presented the company with "Double Feature." A big hit with the family audience, it has settled into a pattern of recurrence, like the Japanese beetle. For this season it shamefully displaced the infinitely superior "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was profoundly depressing therefore to find Mearns, Benjamin Millepied, Hyltin, M. Fairchild, and Lowery displaying a go-for-broke spirit in 'The Blue Necklace‚' and to see Tom Gold precede his retirement with another uncharacteristically brilliant performance of the role of his life, 'Makin' Whoopee!' If this is the first step to an eventual Susan Stroman Celebration, I'm cutting it dead.

To read Gus Solomons jr's Flash of the Russian Roots program of City Ballet's Jerome Robbins Celebration, click here.

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