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Letter from New York, 1-22: Reunions & new unions
All-Star alumni help SAB fete 75th; Debuts galore for City Ballet opening
By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green
NEW YORK -- The dancers and musicians of the New York City Ballet displayed no symptoms of post-"Nutcracker" stress syndrome when they began performing eight weeks of repertory at Lincoln Center, on January 6. During the first week alone, when three performances of the Balanchine-Danilova production of "Coppélia" and four of an all-Balanchine program were scheduled, as many as 26 debuts were promised and most occurred. Debuts of another sort were made on January 14, when the company saluted the 75th anniversary of the School of American Ballet; eight SAB alumni currently dancing with other companies performed familiar Balanchine repertory alongside NYCB members for this evening.
|Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette in New York City Ballet's production of "Coppélia," choreographed by George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova after Petipa's reconstruction of the Arthur Saint-Léon original. Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Two new partnerships in "Coppélia" got off to such excellent starts you almost forgot that perky Swanilda and thick-witted Frantz are the most annoying couple in all ballet; the setting may be Galicia but their rocky courtship is straight out of Archie Comics. Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette, with technique to spare and personality to burn, were a robust pair. Peck's every move was performed with a clarity and power that sent it straight up to the Fifth Ring and should propel her into the principal ranks any day now. Veyette, a more rough-hewn talent, gave Frantz an all-American-boy quality that endeared him to the audience, at least.
Sterling Hyltin and the ever-improving Gonzalo Garcia were more ingratiating, less aggressive but similarly impressive. Hyltin's unfailing musicality would be reinforced if frowns and pouts didn't break out like the measles during Swanilda's saucy moments; the ballet masters should have told her that the set of the head can express as many emotions as mugging any day.
Hyltin is well on her way to mastering what my elders assured me was the unforgettable moment of Mme. Alexandra Danilova's Swanilda, in Act II, after the half-mad Dr. Coppélius has directed his mojo into her upper body. To the transfiguring loveliness of Delibes's wondrous score, the rigidity drained from her shoulders; a deep breath spread throughout her torso; and she gazed in wonder at the undulant pliability of her lovely arms. Peck brought off this moment well. Hyltin made it into an achievement, and given her capacity for refinement, it should only deepen.
Throughout this pivotal act with Hyltin, Robert La Fosse's lively miming of Dr. Coppélius created such sympathy for this unappreciated, tormented genius that Act III, when it arrived, proved as inadequate as it always does at City Ballet. (Designer Rouben Ter-Arutunian's production, dominated by weird arches of flower blossoms and giant, two-dimensional bells, is another mistake I have yet to adjust to.) I know, I know, the old man tried to drain Frantz of his Life Force or something, but that patent futility is heart-breaking, not horrible; it's the wrecking of his workshop and the destruction of his beloved automaton that's no joke. And at NYCB, all he gets for the loss of his masterpiece is a lousy bag of gold. ("Get him the hell off the stage! Cue the kids in pink!")
The late Erik Bruhn, drawing upon his Royal Danish Ballet training, did this tragic character justice in the production of "Coppélia" he staged and starred in for the National Ballet of Canada. Flawlessly mimed by Bruhn, Dr. Coppélius remained as a guest at the wedding celebration. Onstage throughout, he darkened the festivities like a ghost at a dinner party. His slowly raising his goblet to drink to the health of those juvenile delinquents and the unblinking stare he fixed upon them at their moment of triumph were images to treasure.
What more than compensates for such dramatic failings, of course, is that City Ballet's Act III has been completely re-choreographed by Balanchine. (His and Danilova's production is after that of Petipa, who reconstructed the Arthur Saint-Léon original.) No Frantz should feel underused after executing the accelerating demands of the pas de deux. No other "Coppélia" I've seen contains the stormy Discord and War ensemble (set to Delibes's gentle parody of Wagner's "Die Walkure"), which Savannah Lowery and Antonio Carmena and Gwyneth Muller and Tyler Angle led with buoyant authority. Kathryn Morgan (Waltz), Teresa Reichlen (Dawn) and Faye Arthurs (Spinner) also made notable debuts in this act, unfortunately not in the same performance. As usual, the shameless tidal wave of two dozen SAB kiddies won me over by their diligent, gleeful execution of the simplified yet genuine choreography that that canny old showman, Mr. B, assigned them. Conductor David LaMarche, on leave from American Ballet Theatre, drew more from the orchestra than the routine performance it gave for Maurice Kaplow.
Music director Faycal Karoui found a conductor's feast awaiting him in the all-Balanchine evening -- "Chaconne" (C. W. von Gluck), "The Four Temperaments" (Paul Hindemith) and "Vienna Waltzes" (Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehar, and Richard Strauss) -- and the orchestra, which rises to its feet when Karoui enters the pit, rose to the occasion, as well. Music lovers no longer need hold their breath in dread as the daunting challenge of the "Rosenkavalier" waltzes approaches.
"Chaconne" promised notable debuts by Maria Kowroski and Sébastien Marcovici and delivered an unexpected third by spunky little corps member Erica Pereira, who replaced Ana Sophia Scheller in what I, at least, call "The Tricky Little Run-around Pas de Deux." Pereira and her partner, Adam Hendrickson (a pretty good Dr. Coppélius, by the way), met its demands head-on. Kowroski, to no one's surprise, laced her willowy grace with subdued urgency in the opening pas deux, when Marcovici's disappointing performance was at its least cumbersome. She brought her wit and glamor to bear in the variations and imperiously presided over the stately progression of the finale. And what a glorious finish that is! From an exercise in maintaining a symmetrical stage picture with an uneven number of dancers, it becomes a diagonal surge of force, a swirling ensemble and finally a triumphant assemblage of even more complex symmetry. When Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal reprised their partnership of previous seasons, they lit up the stage with their command of intricacy and amplitude. Five years is too long to have been deprived of "Chaconne," but the fact that it and "Coppélia" were last performed in 2004, and therefore required extra rehearsal, must have contributed to the extra-sharp performances both received.
Abi Stafford and Jared Angle, in 'Sanguinic,' were off to a good start as the two newcomers to "The Four Temperaments." Otherwise, this essential masterpiece is currently not in the best possible shape. Only the lissome Reichlen in 'Choleric,' a role traditionally reserved for A Big Balanchine Girl like Gloria Govrin or Patricia Neary, is dancing with a personal, bristling intensity. Sean Suozzi is further along as 'Melancholic' than Marcovici. Ask la Cour has a way to go as 'Phlegmatic.' Lowery ('Sanguinic') and Ellen Bar ('Choleric') would be better used if they switched roles. Let the record show, however, that the three pas de deux of 'Theme' danced by Arthurs and Adrian Danchig-Waring, Amanda Hanks and Amar Ramasar and Rebecca Krohn and Jason Fowler opened the performance with the energy, clarity and mystery that were needed throughout.
Tyler Angle, the only debutante in "Vienna Waltzes," looked every inch the officer and gentleman squiring Sara Mearns about the Wienerwald. Yvonne Borree and Benjamin Millepied and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz danced "Voices of Spring" well -- but is "well" really good enough, considering the concentrated invention bubbling throughout this section? Balanchine favors each Johann Strauss theme with a different variation whenever it recurs, and whether it's a solo, a pas de deux or an ensemble, the result is unimprovably right.
As usual, the "Explosions Polka" generated sympathy for the dancers. A moment of silence, then, for Hyltin and Arch Higgins and their sextet of jolly grotesques. Usually one welcomes the "Some Enchanted Evening" romantic fantasy set to Lehar, but it can't survive much longer if Nilas Martins continues to sleepwalk through this particularly crowded room. Jenifer Ringer or whoever plays the intriguing stranger is going to cut him dead and waltz off with a corps boy instead. The "Rosenkavalier" finale took longer than usual to jell because Darci Kistler's pensive solitude needed Charles Askegard's elegant partnering to be fully compelling. Eventually, the wave upon wave of waltzers in those terrific gowns swept everything up and along. And before I forget, this Rouben Ter-Arutunian production is a spectacular achievement.
"Vienna Waltzes" also concluded the program saluting SAB's 75th anniversary, but since no other company has ever performed it, none of the eight alumni guests could step into it with minimum rehearsal (which I've learned is all anyone got); instead, they joined NYCB dancers in such familiar Balanchine fare as "Serenade" (his first ballet made in America, begun in March 1934, two months after SAB opened), "Tarantella," and "The Four Temperaments" with mixed results.
Full disclosure: I missed "Serenade." Yes. I was across Josie Robertson Plaza in Avery Fisher Hall hearing the justly acclaimed 28-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead the New York Philharmonic in a tremendous performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I'd bought a ticket for this 6:45 p.m. Rush Hour Concert months ago. I probably could have re-sold it for a small fortune in the lobby beforehand, but I'm glad I didn't, after what I saw of the curtain calls for "Serenade" and later heard from an expert panel of former NYCB dancers who knew it intimately after dancing scores of performances, many for Balanchine himself. All I noticed about the trio of "Serenade" women -- Patricia Delgado (Miami City Ballet), Julie Diana (Pennsylvania Ballet) and Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet) -- as they took their bows before an adoring house was that they were mismatched in height. My expert panel had spotted subtle and frequent mismatches of steps, counts and gestures. The guests were lovely young women. (I can attest to that.) No one had fallen (except where Balanchine required). NYCB's ballet master in chief Peter Martins had come before the curtain to pay a moving tribute to SAB. No wonder some balletomanes who had seen nothing amiss had spurned me after I said I had defected to the Philharmonic. Sentimentality must have descended upon the theater like a fog.
Daniel Ulbricht's utterly wild "Tarantella" would have burned away any foggy sentiment that may have remained. In part, he was overcompensating for the inadequate little alumna he had for a partner, who muffed counts and shaved steps, plus the frustration of being on a "Nutcracker" diet of Tea and Candy Canes for six weeks. There was also the possibility that we were witnessing a variant of what essayist Cyril Connolly meant when he wrote: "Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signaling to be let out." Although Ulbricht is solid muscle, there is in him A Big Fat Showman (a.k.a. Mr.Hyde) whom his analytical Dr. Jekyll side usually masters. This evening, Mr. Hyde burst free, mugging up a storm and exuding a smarmy virtuosity that put energy to its proper use only in a tremendous space-engorging manege. He punched out one tambourine onstage. A second exploded offstage upon an exit, sending a shower of shards out of the wings. The audience adored him!
Incidentally, the day before, Ulbricht had been the embodiment of conscientious virtuosity, dancing excerpts from "Tarantella," "Prodigal Son" and 'Rubies,' roles Balanchine made on Edward Villella. The occasion was an intriguing program former NYCB principal Damian Woetzel had built around an interview with Villella, who was in town for the SAB anniversary and the debut of his Miami City Ballet at City Center (where the demonstration-interview took place). Articulate and amusing when answering Woetzel's well-chosen questions, Villella confessed he had beaten his thighs black and blue expressing frustration in "Prodigal Son" before he learned it was okay to fake such pummeling. Also participating were MCB's Delgado, who demonstrated a Villella class, and NYCB's Ashley Bouder, who joined Woetzel in showing how steps in the 'Rubies' pas de deux matched the counts of a tango. Woetzel had conceived the occasion as a perk for City Center donors. He could have another stellar career if he can organize similarly informative, equally stimulating affairs.
At the SAB tribute, "The Four Temperaments" may have been expected to come off best in this All-Star Game format, in which strangers hopefully come together to make like a team. The difference, of course, is that City Ballet dancers would know exactly what the guest principals were going to do in a Balanchine classic. Since each movement involves only a small corps, a guest should fit in like an electric plug sliding into a socket. 'Sanguinic,' a pas de deux, would require more time if the couple had never danced it or anything else together, as was the case with Jared Angle and American Ballet Theatre's Paloma Herrera. The main problem was that Herrera didn't seem quite at home in his role. Damian Smith (San Francisco Ballet) as 'Phlegmatic' and Amy Watson (Royal Danish Ballet) as 'Choleric' were conscientious without being what you might call exciting, unlike Lucien Postlewaite (Pacific Northwest Ballet), whose 'Melancholic' flowed with authority. PNB artistic director Peter Boal, a great 'Melancholic,' must have contributed to his excellent performance. Postlewaite was the only alum who arrived with an interpretation that looked at home on that stage.
The George Balanchine Trust would seem to have its work cut out for it, enforcing uniformity and accuracy throughout the dance world. As before, the most satisfying section of "The Four Temperaments" was in the three pas de deux of 'Theme.' Since a new sextet was cast for the SAB tribute, it's time to call the honor roll again. Let's hear it, then, for Ellen Ostrom and Christian Tworzyanski, Lauren King and Allen Peiffer and Ashley Laracey and Tyler Angle.
Postscript: In subsequent performances Daniel Ulbricht's Dr. Jekyll asserted itself for a sunny "Interplay" graced by an impeccable quartet of double tours en l'air; Sterling Hyltin dropped everything remotely like mugging from her Swanilda; Sébastien Marcovici proved a genuinely powerful presence in Lynne Taylor-Corbett's utterly worthless "Chiaroscuro"; and the NYCB Orchestra stood when David LaMarche entered the pit.