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Letter from New York, 11-13: Temperaments
Old Temperaments, New Babies and Instant Classics from Morphoses & SF Ballet

By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green

(Editor's Note: In a time of globally diminishing editorial space for dance reviews, the Dance Insider sometimes has the luxury of being able to provide multiple reviews of a single choreographer's work by diverse leading national critics. Readers interested in Morphoses's performances of Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" and "Comedia" and Frederick Ashton's "Monotones II" should also see Gus Solomons jr's earlier review; in San Francisco Ballet's new works, Aimee Ts'ao's review here.)

NEW YORK -- Christopher Wheeldon dominated the first three weeks of City Center's October programming. Such prominence was expected in the repertory of Morphoses (October 1-5); it is after all subtitled "The Wheeldon Company," although room had generously been made for works by Frederick Ashton, Emily Molnar, Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. That Wheeldon could also upstage the house choreographers of the visiting San Francisco Ballet (October 10-18) should cause some reflection on commissions policy in the front offices of SFB.

Two Ashton masterpieces were included among Morphoses's otherwise 21st-century fare in acknowledgement of Wheeldon's Royal Ballet training and the presence of the RB's Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in his 19-member -- sorry, there is no other term -- "pick-up company." Unfortunately, injury prevented their performance of the pas de deux from "The Dream," and "Monotones II," assigned to the New York City Ballet trio of Wendy Whelan, Tyler Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring, did not escape unscathed either. (Miscalculations were few but in delicate, fearfully exposed creations like both "Monotones," there can be no such thing as a "minor mistake.")

An almost all-City Ballet cast was assembled for Wheeldon's 2001 breakthrough work for four couples, "Polyphonia." Although it didn't look as keenly honed as before -- only Whelan, Craig Hall and Jason Fowler were present from the original cast -- its intricate workmanship repaid repeated viewing. The opening continues to repay close study for its bristling deconstruction of canonic sequence: Instead of Couple A performing Sequence 1, then continuing with Sequence 2 while Couple B begins Sequence 1, etc., etc., all four couples are performing simultaneously from the start; each has a different sequence all to itself, however, and relinquishes it to move on to another when Wheeldon decides doing so makes the most visual and musical sense. He's like a juggler keeping four balls in the air without ever coming close to dropping one. It's a credit to his ingenuity that the more intimate, less sensational sections which follow don't seem anticlimactic. NYCB pianist Cameron Grant brought clarity and impetus to the well-chosen Gyorgy Ligeti potpourri that functioned as a score.

Beatriz Stix-Brunell, a petite, utterly adorable 15-year-old, was the only non-City Ballet talent in "Polyphonia," yet, partnered by Hall, she danced as to the manner born. Stix-Brunell attracted more admiration in Wheeldon's "Commedia" when paired fleetingly with RB veteran Benjamin. (The two women were further contrasted in a mini-documentary by filmmaker Benjamin Pierce that served as some kind of visual bonus, entr'acte, mixed-media fix -- you name it.) Stix-Brunell should have qualified as a baby ballerina a la Riabouchinska and set the publicity mills to grinding. Fortunately, study at the School of American Ballet and School of the Paris Opera and coaching by Fabrice Herrault, plus an oversupply of God-given gifts, should help her go far on artistry alone. Every New York reviewer is awaiting her return.

"Commedia," which had premiered the week before in London's historic Sadler's Wells Theatre, is Wheeldon having a go at Stravinsky's "Pulcinella," that deceptively lively score which thrives as an orchestral showpiece but hasn't lasted as a dance in any company's repertory. The New Yorker's Arlene Croce, after seeing the Joffrey's try at reconstructing the original 1920 Ballets Russes version, wrote, "Picasso and Stravinsky seem to have been in on a joke that excluded Massine and Diaghilev." Balanchine created his own plot when he collaborated with Robbins on a lavish Eugene Berman-designed production for City Ballet's first Stravinsky Festival, in 1972; it was revised every season it returned, then dropped altogether.

Wheeldon avoided any attempt at stringing the score's outbursts and romps on a plotline, but for a few heart-stopping moments, he did threaten to ground it in the numbing traditions of commedia dell'arte. Ruben Toledo's scrim backdrop was painted with grotesquely leering Pulcinella masks. The cast of eight entered in ruffs and top-heavy headgear wielding slapstick props -- then they stripped down to Isabel Toledo's white unitards with black diamonds here & there and we were off!

I don't believe we arrived at where we could have gone. More incisive conducting by Alan Pierson would have helped move things along. (Yes, there were live musicians in the pit -- the Orchestra of St. Luke's, no less!) Or was the problem that Stravinsky had set such a plethora of opportunities before choreographers? Whether telling a story or creating kinetic abstraction, they have a lot of notes and ever-shifting tempi to work with. Since "Pulcinella" stumped Massine, Balanchine and Robbins, Wheeldon shouldn't hesitate to tweak "Commedia" further. I can continue to do without the three singers he cut but I missed that ponderous passage for double bass and trombone. Mr. B & Jerry, dressed as beggars, performed it as a pas de deux exactly once, on the opening night of the Stravinsky Festival. (The music became a dance for four corps boys at subsequent performances.)

The third Wheeldon work done at City Center was last year's novelty, "Fool's Paradise." Unlike "Polyphonia," which is consistently somber, or "Commedia," which is sunny throughout, "Fool's Paradise" begins with dancers emerging from gloom and ends with its cast of nine blissfully assembled into a triumphant tower of contorted flesh. Along the way there are a few Hallmark moments involving falling petals or something, but sentimentality is held at bay as the triumphant finale is extensively developed. Joby Talbot's thorough re-orchestration of Saint-Saens's "The Dying Swan" provides Wheeldon opportunities to create a sense of the conflict that can arise when, say, a pas de deux becomes a pas de trois or when partnering becomes sensational manipulation. His gift for devising intricate ensembles never deserts him. Along with Whelan, Hall, Danchig-Waring and Angle, the excellent cast included Celine Cassone, Maria Kowroski, Teresa Reichlen, Gonzalo Garcia and Edwaard Liang.

The other Morphoses choreographers availed themselves of fashionable cliches Wheeldon avoids. Molnar's instantly dated "Six Fold Illuminate" applied the twitchies of Tharp, Forsythe and Elo to some mercifully short Steve Reich minimalism for a chamber orchestra. "Shutters Shut," credited to "Lightfoot Leon" (actually the team of Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon), was Dada redux, frenzied repetitions for the indefatigable Christine Thomassen and Andreas Heise matched to some recited echolalia by that verbal minimalist of yesteryear, Gertrude Stein.

The fusion pas de deux "One," an unscheduled replacement for "The Dream" Pas de Deux, entered the repertory so abruptly the Playbill contained no bio for either choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa or composer Jacob Ter Vedhuis. From the way "One" looked and sounded, however, neither could be described as pioneers clearing new ground. The merits of slinky Complexions dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk -- a truly sexy guy despite that clunky Dickensian moniker -- were instantly obvious; but they spent much of their time demonstrating some truly awesome Forsythean extensions. Impressive, yes, but no substitute for choreography.

SF Ballet brings a Statue of Liberty to NYC

San Francisco Ballet brought along quite a load of ersatz dance on its return to New York. Its repertory included two Balanchine masterpieces, two early works by artistic director Helgi Tomasson and six of the 10 world premieres SFB presented last spring in its home theater to celebrate its 75th anniversary. As one would expect from a company headed by so scrupulous a classicist as Tomasson, whose cool precision at NYCB is still fondly remembered by veteran connoisseurs, the dancers were well-schooled and conscientious. (I could probably use more glowing adjectives, had I seen the first casts instead of the second; I missed, among others whom the reviewers hailed, Tina LeBlanc and Gennadi Nedvigin.) This dedicated company should not be faulted for dancing the welcome novelties of guest choreographers Wheeldon and Mark Morris with more verve, more dedication and, I suspect, more gratitude than they brought to the listless efforts of such inescapable house regulars as Tomasson, Val Caniparoli and Yuri Possokhov. ("Double Evil," the antsy work of Boston Ballet's resident choreographer, Jorma Elo, another guest contributor, held so few surprises from this hyper talent that I scrawled not one note in my Playbill; its being set to Phillip Glass was a further drain on surprise and satisfaction.)

The very look of City Center's stage was transformed by the sensibilities of Wheeldon and Morris. The former's "Within the Golden Hour," designed by Martin Pakledinaz and lighted by James F. Ingalls, didn't last anything like an hour but a burnished quality definitely prevailed. At times the dancers, their arms forming spiky patterns and their legs entwining, seemed to be caught in sunlight filtered through foliage. Composer Ezio Bosso somehow blended the music of his songs with a Vivaldi violin concerto into a compelling aural equivalent. (Trust Christopher Wheeldon to find such a worthy pastiche and put it to good use.) Possokhov, who also used a blend of composers in "Fusion," was content to have what looked like 11 old window shades dangle above the stage while his cast, some in glorious white and beige, worked very hard to little avail, through no fault of their own.

Thanks to Isaac Mizrahi's sleek, gleaming unitards and Ingalls's lighting, Morris's "Joyride" was another golden affair and a lively match for John Adams's refreshingly jaunty score, "Son of Chamber Symphony." (Trust Mark Morris to find a witty minimalist composition with a jazzy lilt.) Not every high-spirited inspiration remained aloft. Mizrahi's attaching electronically activated numbers to the chest of his costumes deflated fast. Morris also recycled some airy heartiness too often, but it took a real pro to make eight dancers seem to fill a stage so often.

In contrast, Caniparoli's "Ibsen's House" was a stupefying provincial mismatch. Dvorak's sunny Piano Quartet in A Major couldn't have been a more unsuitable choice to capture the chilly Northern angst of five Ibsen plays, each encapsulated as a pas de deux. One example is all you're going to get: For "Ghosts," Dana Genshaft, in severest black as Mrs. Alving, stands behind Garen Scribner as her son, Oswald as he begins to succumb to tertiary syphilis, a tragic condition that causes the victim to run his hands back and forth across his chest like he's searching for his wallet. There were strenuous solos for the ten dancers. The setting consisted of a huge window. Every so often a woman strolled through, carrying a parasol to protect her from the burning Norwegian sun. But it could have been worse: Had Caniparoli added "The Wild Duck," we would have had a child dancer to contend with.

San Francisco Ballet principals Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Helgi Tomasson's "The Fifth Season." Photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Tomasson's three contributions suggest he believes that an artistic director is obligated to personally provide choreography that presents his company in the best possible light, whether his muse is on duty during gestation or not. In his 2003 "Concerto Grosso," set to the sturdy, striding strains of Francesco Geminiani's "La Follia," his goal was to demonstrate that SFB men have strength, speed and discipline to spare. Five of them, led by Pascal Molat, proved just that. If the result wasn't as filling as an entree, it was certainly a tasty hors d'oeuvre tray. His 2006 "The Fifth Season," however, dutifully put six principals and eight corps members through strenuous demands, riddled with lifts, that generally concluded with the stage abruptly plunged into darkness. Since the setting suggested an art gallery where an exhibition of oversized, unfinished canvases by Mark Rothko was on display, the blackouts were welcome, yet still annoying. Karl Jenkins's score for strings was most rewarding during the waltz for Yuan Yuan Tan, Sarah Van Patten, Damian Smith and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, when it acquired a Prokofiev tang.

As a creation for the company's 75th anniversary season, nothing less than 23 dancers performing to a famous showpiece for a virtuoso pianist would do. Frederick Ashton had selected Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, as a vehicle for Baryshnikov -- "Bring all your tricks," Ashton reportedly advised him -- and employed the dancer's precious virtuosity as the center pole for the ballet. Tomasson's "On a Theme of Paganini" sagged because he kept assigning duties to five principals or passing along rhythmic surges to formations of corps members when half the number of those on parade would have been more effective. Watching the women's corps gesture note-to-note to the Paganini theme called up visions of Lander's robotic "Etudes." Anything genuinely "rhapsodic" was in short supply.

Reviews of the first casts of Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15" and "The Four Temperaments," neither of which I saw, led me to believe SFB was fulfilling its obligations as a "Balanchine-based company." The performances I caught were less assuring. The 'Divertimento' corps and principals seemed sobered by performing before what they presumed -- wrongly -- to be an audience of Balanchine connoisseurs. (Such an aristocracy has been dwindling for years and probably wouldn't have filled City Center at this or any other performance.) Only Nutnaree Pipit-Suksin, Elana Altman and Kristin Long looked at ease in the Variations. The three men, while unimpressive soloists, were supportive partners who enabled all the women, including Katita Waldo and Van Patten, to fully develop every phrase in the Andante. This string of breathtaking pas de deux, the heart of 'Divertimento,' would have almost saved the ballet, had conductor Martin West and the orchestra provided a more refined texture for Mozart and brisker tempo for the finale.

As for SFB's "Four Temperaments," its first cast may well have given what some reviewers said was the best performance of this masterpiece they had seen recently. NYCB wasn't at its best in the last two revivals. My standards, however, were set 30 years ago by a great City Ballet cast that was luckily captured on tape for PBS's series "Choreography by Balanchine" and is available as a Nonesuch DVD. Yes, you have to adjust to some arbitrary color coding, the kind of visual noodling that frequently disfigured "Dance in America" when it wasn't carrying a live telecast, but the definitive dancing of Bart Cook, Merrill Ashley, Daniel Duell, Adam Luders and Colleen Neary and the conducting of Robert Irving still triumphed. If you want a genuine standard for "The Four Temperaments," watch this performance.

Balanchine completely re-choreographed the finale for the TV camera, then retained the new version for the theater. It was only at this point during SFB's gallant but inadequate 'Temperaments,' when the key gestures were recapitulated, that I felt the tingling approach of the "4 T's frissons." The semaphoric arms of the Sanguinic and Theme couples, the simultaneous lifts of Choleric (a disappointing Sofiana Sylve) by Melancholic and Phlegmatic (both limber beanpoles); the ineluctable stride of the corps -- you looked back to the start of neo-classicism in "Apollo" and ahead to its distillation in "Agon," and suddenly this towering masterpiece loomed as imposing as the Statue of Liberty with a fleet of tugboats bobbing at its base.

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