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Letter from New York, 12-30: What's in a name?
Call the theater Koch if you want, but the dancers are the real thing at City Ballet

By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- The New York City Ballet began its 2008-09 winter season on November 25 with a justly maligned gala blandly entitled "An Opening Night Celebration," then redeemed itself three days later with the first of 45 performances of Balanchine's sumptuous, definitive production of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." The gala celebration held a surprise for those of us who had always considered the New York State Theater as Mister B's Theater, even when it was being used for opera. At the earliest opportunity, after the performance of his 2004 setting of Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," ballet master in chief Peter Martins came before the curtain to inform the gala audience they were now seated in the David H. Koch (pronounced "Coke") Theater and to ask Mr. and Mrs. K to stand and take a bow from their First Ring seats. Since they had contributed $100 million to the theater's capital campaign to cover its long-delayed, still unfinished refurbishment, Martins said they could sit anywhere they wanted [laughter]. At intermission, New York's Senator Charles Schumer, at his most oleaginous, oozed similar gratitude.

Judge for yourself by clicking here whether such generosity, like that of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, is another example of putting ill-gotten gains to good use. What's not in dispute is that Lincoln Center has become such a showcase for the display of deductible donations it's running out of space to hawk. Who knew that the area around the fountain is now officially known as Josie Robertson Plaza? This subject requires further study.

Alice Tully Hall, the first eponymous interior space at Lincoln Center, was originally nestled at street level under the Juilliard School on Broadway. (In case you're wondering, Augustus Juilliard was a New York textile merchant whose will established the Juilliard Graduate School in 1924; two years later it merged with the Institute of Musical Art which Dr. Frank Damrosch and James Loeb had founded in 1905, without attaching their names to it to it -- no eponyms they.)

Letters spelling out "The Juilliard School" high up on the unfashionable West 65th Street side of the building were the only prominent reminder that the school was a part of Lincoln Center. The building was not only on a different block but built on a lower level and connected to the center proper at its second story by a pedestrian overpass. None of the school's facilities were at street level with the exception of the Juilliard Theater, under the overpass across from the parking garage. After it was re-named the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, "Juilliard" was nowhere to be seen on West 65th.

The second "O" has fallen off "School" but no one is rushing to restore it, now that the overpass has been demolished and finishing touches are being applied to an entrance at street level worthy of a Lincoln Center institution. A stark all-glass facade, a posh lobby and a truly grand staircase that replaces the old escalators at either end of the building will dominate the once-dowdy block between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway -- and go on as before. "The Juilliard School" is etched into its oversize panes, and tacked on under it, as in a building directory open to the world, are The Peter Jay Sharp Theater, The Paul Recital Hall, The Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater, The Morse Recital Hall and The Stephanie P. McClelland Drama Theater. (The School of American Ballet and the Lincoln Center Film Society were untouched by all this urban renewal; what wrecker's ball would dare to touch The Samuel B. and David Rose Building or The Walter Reade Theater?)

The section of the renovation that stretches around on to Broadway seems positively vapid with nothing but "The Juilliard School" and "The Irene Diamond Building" etched on a couple of fourth-floor windows. To give it more pizzazz, trustees should consider hitting on the Drapkin family. According to a notice in the lobby of the Lincoln Center Theater, they bankrolled the really terrific neon signs that proclaim the LCT the home of The [Vivian] Beaumont and The [Mitzi E.] Newhouse theaters. Surely, their generosity entitled the Drapkins to the privileges of The Sondra and Charles Gilman Jr. Patrons Room just off the LCT's lobby.

Mr. and Mrs. K can rest assured that a donor's name is difficult to remove from a Lincoln Center building. The family of the late Avery Fisher, funder of the first extensive acoustical rehabilitation of Philharmonic Hall, successfully fought the center's attempt to re-name the place after anyone else when Avery Fisher Hall had to undergo further fine-tuning. At this writing, the Metropolitan Opera House remains the center's only structure named after the institution it houses. The Met's interior is up for grabs, however. Globe-trotting financier and swindler Alberto Vilar was on his way to having the Grand Tier named after him until he failed to pony up the promised millions. Vilar has since lost his passport and is awaiting sentencing for greater failings than welshing on an I.O.U. to the Metropolitan Opera. The grand tier was named instead after heiress Mercedes T. Bass.

There was no specific theme attached to "An Opening Night Celebration," but a couple of tendencies soon became apparent. All 14 selections were set mostly to undistinguished music by Americans. Eight were choreographed by Martins and most of his looked better rehearsed than the three more rewarding works by Balanchine. To extend much needed employment to New York City Opera colleagues, who missed a season so the theater's orchestra pit could be renovated, Martins invited the NYCO's chorus, baritone John Hancock, soprano Lauren Flanigan and music director George Manahan to participate. The Juilliard Jazz Orchestra and conductor Ted Nash rounded out the guest list. Opening the gala with "Chichester Psalms" was also NYCB's way of participating in the citywide celebration of what would have been Bernstein's 90th birthday.

To say the evening was all downhill after 'Psalms' is not to praise either Bernstein's score or Martins's choreography but to note that both seemed equally well rehearsed and well matched -- that is, composer and choreographer deserved each other. Bernstein delivers more punch when he draws upon Copland and Shostakovich for inspiration instead of upon Stravinsky and Poulenc, as he has done here. Martins, who has never been at a loss when asked to match arid vigor in kind, repeatedly met him halfway. Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in the lead roles and NYCB musical director Faycal Karoui earned our gratitude and sympathy.

Otherwise, the celebration repeatedly promised more than it delivered. 'The Unanswered Question,' an enigmatic excerpt from Balanchine's rarely performed "Ivesiana" (1954), generated great expectation: A girl in white is manipulated by four men entirely in black a la Kabuki who keep her tantalizingly out of reach of a bare-chested man obsessed and frustrated by her aloofness. Since the girl (Janie Taylor) was insufficiently spotlighted while the rest of the stage was all too well illuminated, the only mystery was how the ballet master responsible for 'Question' could have been so dumb. Daniel Ulbricht as the man displayed an alarming ability to go from total stassis to wrenching frenzy in absolutely nothing flat, but 'Question' should deliver a different kind of jolt.

Insufficient rehearsal of a complex pas de deux, also to Ives (and conducted by Manahan), undercut Sterling Hyltin and Sean Suozzi's gallant try at the frenetic finale of Martins's sensational first ballet, "Calcium Light Night" (1978). Both are excellent dancers and getting better by the season, but neither should have been expected to match, on what must have been short notice, the definitive, knife-edge original performances of Heather Watts and Daniel Duell. Darci Kistler and Albert Evans couldn't plead youth as an excuse for their lacklustre showing in the second movement of Martins's "Barber Violin Concerto" (1988); Karoui and concert master Kurt Nikkanen supplied what satisfaction there was.

Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard in New York City Ballet's production of Jerome Robbins's "Ives, Songs." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Leave it to Jerome Robbins to demonstrate in two stately excerpts from "Ives, Songs" (1988) how a pas de deux can quietly cast a spell with no more accompaniment than a pianist (Cameron Grant) and a singer (NYCO baritone Hancock), providing the choreography is utterly wasteless. Such exposure imposes immense responsibility on the dancers, of course, but Rachel Rutherford and Philip Neal in the pastoral 'Summer Fields' and Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard in the ominous 'There Is a Lane' never made a false move.

With far less substance to dance, everyone had to work extra hard at resuscitating excerpts from "Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements)" (1993) and "A Fool for You" (1988), Martins's doomed attempts to set his Danish cool aside and "get down" with, respectively, Wynton Marsalis and Ray Charles. Andrew Veyette took the honors with a brilliant demonstration of dare-devil versatility in 'Fool.' You go, Andrew! You go!

A movement from "Duke!" (1999), confected by Susan Stroman, showed what a savvy B'way pro could do with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's music and the skimpiest of plots. Backed up by the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, Stroman's 'Blossom Got Kissed' still had some fizz left. Only the happy few who had seen Maria Kowroski's utterly killing Blossom, the eager klutz who flowered once she doffed an inhibiting tutu, would have found Savannah Lowery's hearty performance in need of polish.

In all of City Ballet's repertory there is no greater homage to American popular music than "Who Cares?" (1970), Balanchine's affectionate blending of Broadway and ballet that does full justice to the traditions of both. Hershy Kay's lively orchestration has some ricky-tick stretches, but on the whole George Gershwin's music was done right by. Brother Ira's excellent hand-in-glove lyrics were not thought necessary for "Who Cares?" until this so-called celebration, when City Opera's Flanigan was foisted upon what had been a sultry pas de deux to 'The Man I Love.' Kay's setting with its bluesy distant trumpet solo was junked for pianist Nancy McDill's limp, unaccented playing. Flanigan contributed some off-pitch mooing that must have left Jenifer Ringer and Nilas Martins feeling like they were dancing through mush. The orchestra under Karoui returned for a rather frowsy 'I Got Rhythm,' an anything but grand finale involving four principals, 10 demis and 10 corps dancers, one of whom lost her balance when she went to the knee.

As this report is being filed, Emile Ardolino's 1993 Warner Bros. movie version of Balanchine's "Nutcracker" has garnered a mere 2% approval from viewers of Ovation TV's second annual "Battle of the Nutcrackers." Mark Morris's snarky, cartoonish "The Hard Nut" again came in first in a field of six, this time with 42%. Had Ovation's couch potatoes bestirred themselves to Lincoln Center to see the definitive Balanchine production in all its living splendor, they might have noticed that Morris's self-destructive tour de farce repeatedly splintered against the charm and wonder of Tchaikovsky's superior music.

Not that either Tchaikovsky or Balanchine had received his due from Warners. Conductor David Zinman had maintained a driving concert tempo throughout, but what really grounded this movie was its not being filmed at the old New York State Theater but on an ill-equipped stage where the two essential heart-lifting Act I transformation scenes could only be ineptly duplicated. Without the ever-growing Christmas tree and the descending snow-laden forest, there is no "Nutcracker" buzz to carry you through intermission and whet your appetite for your first or tenth or 35th encounter with the divertissements. This version was doing good to get 2%.

It would be presumptuous to say that the splendid performance of Balanchine's "Nutcracker" that followed the gala was buoyed by the dancers' gratitude at getting to dance nothing but great choreography set to marvelous music. City Ballet is presently staffed with dedicated self-starters who are prepared to give their best, regardless. It's the orchestra, which is setting consistently higher standards under Karoui, that must face the greater test of professionalism: six weeks of nothing but the same demanding score, again and again and again. (Eyewitnesses swear that on one New Year's eve performance, a musician was observed walking through the pit displaying the hand-made sign, "The End Is Near.") The evening I saw it, November 28, the musicians responded to Karoui's lively tempo with a clarified, multi-leveled texture that matched Arlene Croce's marvelous description of the overture as "a hovering bubble filled with small scurrying creatures and tingling ice."

Sara Mearns as the Sugarplum Fairy in New York City Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" to Tchaikovsky's score. Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Two major cast changes were absorbed without a hitch. Being denied the regal line and gracious hauteur of Maria Kowroski's Sugarplum Fairy certainly dampened one's holiday spirit; however, finding Sara Mearns in her stead provided the double satisfaction of watching a fast-ripening major young artist: you savor both the plush loveliness of the present dancer and the greater authority and musical amplitude you sense is on the way. Her cavalier Charles Askegard knew exactly what he had in his hands and partnered Mearns with obvious delight in his responsibility.

Replacing Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop with Sterling Hyltin would seem to promise a performance of reduced wattage, dynamism, and horsepower -- descriptions of Bouder invariably draw upon industrial imagery. (You'd never guess she had triumphed in Verdy's great role in 'Emeralds.') Hyltin could, at first glance, be similarly mis-characterized by lighter-weight adjectives implying a lack of -- substance? As 'The Waltz of the Flowers' progressed, with Balanchine matching Tchaikovsky's every repeated phrase with a new, inspired step or corps maneuver and Hyltin's every return demonstrating her total command of yet another ballerina specialty, who could complain about the airy lightness of her grand jeté, the glittering precision of her fouettés -- just insert the ballerina syllabus and precede each entry with "ingratiating," "charming" or words to that effect.

The supporting cast of confections and beverages was uniformly nourishing: Ulbricht's Tea, Suozzi's Candy Cane, Tiler Peck's Marzipan, Teresa Reichlen's Coffee (originally a man enjoying a cup of Arabian brew, it was changed to a lissome odalisque, Balanchine said, "for the daddies"). Asked how the box office was holding up during Bush Boy's recession, Rob Daniel, City Ballet's managing director of special projects and communications, told the Times it was only down some 5% from last year. Maybe, if they hadn't been playing Ardolino's movie on the closed-circuit TV sets in the lobby....

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