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Letter from New York, 3-20: Simply Satisfying
Debuts and Depth from City Ballet

By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- On paper, the final weeks of New York City Ballet's 2009 winter season seemed to promise more of the blighted novelty and underdone repertory that had often diminished the weeks immediately following "Nutcracker." By the time the season ended on March 1, however, performances had been jump-started by gratifying debuts and ever-deepening interpretations and -- wonder of wonders -- a premiere that proved modestly satisfying instead of grimly annoying.

Melissa Barak's "A Simple Symphony" premiered February 17 as part of the program "21st Century Movement." Our sedulously advanced reviewers will probably protest that not only has she failed to break new stylistic ground, but Barak has selected the eponymous Benjamin Britten work for string orchestra that wasn't exactly in the forefront of 20th-century music when it was composed in 1934. She came in for similar criticism while still a student at the School of American Ballet, when her "Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor" -- she doesn't stray far in search of titles -- was premiered at SAB's 2001 spring workshop. It entered NYCB's repertory the next year, when she joined the company, however some reviewers complained that another neoclassic ballet did not exactly meet any pressing need at City Ballet. She may have taken this complaint to heart for "If by Chance," her contribution to the company's 2002 Diamond Project, went nowhere in another direction. Barak is currently in the corps of the Los Angeles Ballet.

New York City Ballet's Sara Mearns, Jared Angle, and company in Melissa Barak's "A Simple Symphony." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

'Symphony' finds her putting Britten's sturdy melody and pulsing rhythm to good use for purely classical purposes: No plot, no gimmickry, no career-ending lifts or steps but a disciplined, professional sense of structure and continuity equal to Britten's. She knows what to do with -- and for -- a principal couple (Sara Mearns, Jared Angle), two soloist couples (Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle and Ana Sophia Scheller and Sean Suozzi) and a corps of six women. If some in the audience considered 'Symphony' ballet's answer to easy-listening music , they should be reminded that even an easy-watching ballet demands a degree of technical and artistic proficiency that is always welcome when put to good use. Barak also designed the flattering costumes. At the two performances I saw, the curtain's opening on a display of pastel tutus caused a rustle of relief in audiences numbed by vistas of unitards in glorious black-and-white on dancers strenuously preoccupied in the two preceding ballets.

The "21st Century Movement" program opened with "Slice to Sharp" (2006) from Jorma Elo, Boston Ballet's resident choreographer. Confronted with NYCB's display of talent, Elo had reacted like the proverbial kid in a candy store, grabbing up goodies with both hands; however, once he had commandeered Maria Kowroski, Teresa Reichlen, Wendy Whelan and Scheller, along with Joaquin De Luz, Robert Fairchild, Craig Hall and Ask la Cour, he mostly sent them caroming on- and offstage in a Tharp-style twitchorama better entitled "When Slice Comes to Shave." To guarantee an anachronistic mismatch, he set this decadent post-modernism to Baroque composers Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (I assure you those names belong to one person). Having seen American Ballet Theatre dancers similarly imposed upon by Elo two seasons ago at City Center, I feel safe in filing him in the "I'm Just a Prisoner of Style" category: he's someone who falls back on the same trendy approach, no matter what music is chosen.

Glints of what was meant to be wit occasionally broke through the seizures. A knee would be brought up to nudge an elbow. A foot would give a partner's foot a shove. Hips and tummies collided bumpsy-daisy fashion. The towering la Cour did three limbo-style backbends to avoid a ballerina's slashing leg. An occasional burst of traveling tours en l'air tossed off by De Luz injected welcome, if irrelevant, virtuosity. More often than not, the dancers scurried about flapping their arms so furiously you thought they were attempting to send a semaphore message by wigwagging with strands of spaghetti. If a choreographer could be deported for artistic turpitude, Elo would have been shipped back to Finland years ago. His sole achievement here was to make Mauro Bigonzetti's "Oltremare" look like a work for the ages.

Next up was Peter Martins's "Hallelujah Junction" (2002), which not only put a trio of high-energy principals and four excellent corps couples to better use within a structure, but actually gained in interest as it went along. For better or worse, the steps bore a stylistic kinship with the score, a clangorous, repetitious John Adams work for two pianos that defied all that pianists Cameron Grant and Richard Moredock could do to make it sound rewarding. In the two performances I saw, the corps couples were the same. The principal trio would have been better matched if Daniel Ulbricht and Andrew Veyette had switched casts. Ulbricht's unforced authority would have been a better fit with the abstracted reserve of Janie Taylor and Sebastien Marcovici and Veyette's calculated virtuosity would have been better suited to Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia's more personable approach. At both performances, Martins's cool professionalism didn't really pay off until the final third of 'Junction,' when the tempo picked up, the principals shone forth in solos, the corps dug into a series of pas de deux with obvious relish and something worthy of the term "finale" blossomed.

The program concluded with former resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's "Mercurial Manoeuvres" (2000), set to Shostakovich's Piano Concero No. 1. The choreography was always alive with invention and contrast, with a solo yielding to sweeping manoeuvres for the 16-strong corps or to a pas de deux that bristled with ingenuity. As usual in a Wheeldon ballet, the stage underwent a series of well-timed changes, too; dancers came into view behind the scrims that had originally formed a huge doorway. Eventually, when pulled up into the fly-space, the scrims gave way to leave an unobstructed surface upstage for Mark Stanley to bathe in red, then bronze and finally blue lighting. Carole Divet's costumes were similarly vibrant. Shostakovich was the only collaborator who disappointed; the concerto concluded with some rackety trumpet fanfares that sounded tinny and trashy instead of triumphant. City Ballet has lost a very good choreographer in Wheeldon, but his first-rate cast -- Abi Stafford, Tiler Peck, Tyler Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Kathryn Morgan, Erica Pereria, De Luz, Garcia, and Scheller -- should be around for quite a while.

Nothing refreshes a repertory like a truly great new ballet and nothing is in shorter supply today (except at the Paul Taylor Dance Company). As this winter season concluded, NYCB often delivered the next best thing: Restorative performances of its treasure trove of masterpieces by trustworthy pros and very promising newcomers. Corps members Megan Johnson and Justin Peck were astonishingly assured in Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco," and Stafford at her small-scale best as Second Violin. Johnson, one of the winners of a Mae L. Wien Award for Outstanding Promise at SAB, had already danced "Barocco" at the 2008 spring workshop under Suki Schorer's coaching. During the pas de deux, when Peck achieved a series of consistently smooth lifts, she recreated the long, eloquent lines of the young Darci Kistler.

Johnson has since returned to the women's corps, taking her place alongside Rachel Piskin, Georgina Pazcoquin, Gwyneth Muller, Faye Arthurs, Kaitlin Gilliland, Ashley Laracey, Morgan, and Pereira -- the corps' ranks have never been so overstocked with potential soloists. Peck is back among the guys but another prominent assignment has come his way: He got to kick off the pounding finale of Robbins's "Glass Pieces" with a stage-circling solo. Jock Soto, James Fayette and Amar Ramasar had been so honored, and they went pretty far.

Several soloists are already of principal quality and may have been promoted by the time this goes online, unless the company's budget is further squeezed by this pandemic financial meltdown. (An unprecedented 11 corps members are to be dismissed this summer.) Tiler Peck (no kin to Justin) has been delivering performances of sleek power in "Oltremare" and in the 'Scherzo' and 'Theme and Variations' sections of Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3." Reichlen marched past the type-casting that has capitalized on her eloquently willowy line to conquer new territory as a lead in Balanchine's most infectious of his applause machines, "Stars and Stripes." Not content with impeccable pointework, a gracious carriage and an endearingly feisty aggression, she flaunted her wrists with such glittering dexterity she seemed to have been wearing diamond bracelets.

Robert Fairchild and Tyler Angle are due to join their respective older siblings Megan and Jared among the principals any day now. They have technique, looks and personality to spare. Robert's hilarious tap dancer in Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" and Tyler's bedroom eyes in every role could guarantee them second careers on Broadway (if anything that could be called a career is still possible in the theater these days).

Principal Jennie Somogyi's long-awaited return in Balanchine's "Robert Schumann's 'DavidsbźndlertŠnze'" did not disappoint. (My apologies, I cannot say which of Schumann's alter egos -- Florestan? Eusebius? -- was her partner.) Somogyi's command of the stage had been in no way reduced by her absence and she shone opposite Taylor and Mearns (she of the ever-eloquent back, in the Clara Schumann role). Charles Askegard is now so deeply into the part of the doomed Robert that I wouldn't have been surprised to hear him start speaking German. Once the audience realized it was not absolutely necessary to applaud every exit, pianist Grant's gentle playing was granted the silence in which to weave a spell of madness and loss. No other Balanchine ballet is more at the mercy of the connoisseurs out front. If your audience doesn't make like trained seals when the curtain rises on Rouben Ter-Arutunian's hallucinated setting, count yourself blest.

Balanchine was also well represented by satisfying performances of "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" (a white-hot inspiration for the first Stravinsky Festival, in 1972) and "Ballo della Regina," a deceptively joyous morsel whipped up in 1978 to celebrate Merrill Ashley's stainless steel footwork. 'Concerto' possessed a rain-washed clarity danced by Kowroski and Marcovici and by Hyltin and Garcia, with Faycal Karout conducting and concert master Kurt Nikkanen as soloist. In 'Ballo,' Megan Fairchild came as close as anyone else has to Ashley's awesome footwork -- and did so with more genuine charm and a more supple upper body, too -- and in Benjamin Millepied, she had a more gifted and ingratiating partner than Ashley had in Robert Weiss. ABT had danced 'Ballo' so often and so well at City Center the last two seasons, some wondered if NYCB would ever get it back. It's back, with a splendid quartet of demis (Laracey, Morgan, Pereira, Scheller).

Unfortunately, Balanchine's version of Act II of "Swan Lake" was a major disappointment, even with Kowroski and Whelan in quite different but equally compelling performances as Odette. They were white swans while everyone in the corps was costumed as Odile, a flock of blackbirds (a change made after Balanchine's death). Because Odette and Siegfried are torn apart to the more wrenching music of the Act IV finale, a performance of this fragment was once as moving as a complete "Swan Lake." No more. The crush of black tutus muffles the clarity the white ones had brought to the corps' chainé turns when Siegfried tries to rescue Odette. The flock no longer seems to swirl in terror as it leaves the stage; now it just flaps off in a blur. And can't someone overrule what must have been Balanchine's sardonic decision to have the curtain open on a bunch of papier-maché swans bobbing across upstage throughout the Act II prelude? "They want swans," he must have sniffed, "I give them swans." No matter how many of these dismal creatures make it into the wings, there always seem to be one more lurching into view at Stage Right before the prelude concludes.

If one had to select the single most outstanding performance of the season, it would have to be the February 21 "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3," when Bouder and Veyette danced their first 'Tema con Variazioni.' Neither gave any indication that Balanchine's pure classical demands are so exposed that several superstars refuse to perform it. Bouder's Bette Davis hauteur threatened to lapse into mannerism but everything she did with the rest of her body was technically and artistically a guided tour through the ballerina syllabus. She constantly took great risks in phrasing, balance and attack and achieved everything she attempted. Veyette was equally precise and coolly controlled, coming out of a double tour to alternate a single pirouette with a double with an authority all the more impressive for being understated. He's learned you don't have to say "Looka me" to an audience that's been holding its breath since you began your solo. For the first time I agree with those who consider him a danseur noble. For the first time I see the makings of what could well become a memorable partnership. The corps must have sensed something out of the ordinary was going on for they danced the best 'Theme' of the season.

The final week of the season proved a belated treat for admirers of the mysteriously under-used Daniel Ulbricht. After being repeatedly passed over all season, he suddenly found himself cast in every performance from February 24 to March 1. Leading the men's regiment in "Stars and Stripes." Wooing a paper doll in "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." Injecting his sunny virtuosity where it was most needed, in "Hallelujah Junction." On to Spring.

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