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Letter from New York, 2-12: Miami 5, New York 2
Martins's City Ballet out-Balanchined by visiting Villella team

By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- That Great Ballet Booking Agent in the Sky has a wicked sense of humor. What else explains the droll coincidence that He -- or if you prefer, She -- brought Edward Villella's Miami City Ballet to New York for its debut season (January 21-25) at City Center, the original home of New York City Ballet, on the very week that NYCB was offering what Balanchine admirers would consider a repertory from hell? MCB further strummed the chords of nostalgia by offering an almost-all-Balanchine repertory when City Ballet that week was dancing exactly two of the master's works, surrounded mostly by the detritis of commissions past, plus a premiere destined for the scrap heap.

It's not exactly classified information that there's suppurating dissatisfaction with ballet master in chief Peter Martins's stewardship of NYCB, or that visits by "satellite companies," headed by such former City Ballet principals as Villella or Helgi Tomasson, are awaited with an anticipation worthy of the Second Coming. Last fall, after Tomasson's San Francisco Ballet proved merely a well-schooled company of limited depth with as dismal a record at commissioning worthy premieres as NYCB's Diamond Project, the expectation lavished on MCB soared ever higher. Among some rave reviews that verged on the ga-ga, Joan Acocella's dry-eyed reminder that in her view, ballet companies outside New York get 'second-best' bodies went off like an IED.

Villella's decision to bring along no Miami-commissioned ballets bolstered the company's reception. Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," made for her own company in 1986, was MCB's newest offering and, as usual, audiences wolfed it down and dancers had a ball; Norma Kamali's pajamas, Jennifer Tipton's smoke-enshrouded lighting and Philip Glass's pile-driving score delighted everyone -- well, almost everyone. For all its spunk, however, MCB did not look like a world-class company with reserves of strength. On the whole, the women were uniformly more winning, polished and impressive than any of the men, with the sole exception of Alex Wong. A deceptively slight youth, Wong bore no physical resemblance to Villella but his attack, line, ballon and phrasing were a constant joy.

Villella wisely opened each of his two programs with Balanchine works that played to his company's strengths. "Square Dance," created in 1957 during NYCB's City Center residence, looked unimprovably right on that intimate stage. The corps fearlessly performed the same demanding steps as the principals, with Jeanette Delgado setting a very high standard for the women. "Symphony in Three Movements" (1972), created for Lincoln Center, looked cramped, however the spiky precision of the 16 corps women and Tricia Albertson and Wong as the Jumping Couple kept the energy level high until principals Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Jeremy Cox took over.

Cox, a rather dour technician, also hadn't been able to sustain the powerful legato in the "Square Dance" male solo that Balanchine added in 1976, after the company left City Center. Former NYCB principals Bart Cook, a definitive interpreter of the role, and Maria Calegari set "La Valse" (1951) as well as "Square Dance" on MCB. I recall the former being athrob with a more ominous atmosphere, but the Miami corps achieved a roiling, revolving frenzy in the finale. Cox embodied a truly chilling authority as he waltzed the beautifully doomed Deanna Seay to death.

To no one's surprise, Kronenberg and Renato Penteado were not the equal of Patricia McBride and Villella in 'Rubies' (1967). It should be noted that they also weren't the equal of Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht, who tore through a stunning performance of the finale at last spring's Dancer's Emergency Fund benefit at NYCB. Even when one allows for Penteado's having to adjust to dancing on an unfamiliar stage to canned music, Ulbricht's exit in an accelerating whirling-dervish spin was superior. (Incidentally, the drawback of performing to taped music was mitigated somewhat by Villella's choice of excellent recorded performances; I have searched Playbill in vain for credit to any conductor or orchestra.)

"Symphony in C" (1947), danced as it always was at City Center with some corps women out of necessity appearing in two movements, plus the finale, to reduce congestion in this smaller space, found MCB at its most gallant. Haiyan Wu made a good start at the "moon goddess" of the Second Movement; Delgado and Wong energized the Scherzo; and Delgado's equally vivacious sister, Patricia, kicked off the finale. The Balanchine tradition of employing siblings is definitely in force at Miami City Ballet.

Critical anticipation has already shifted to Pacific Northwest Ballet, directed by Peter Boal, who succeeded Balanchine acolytes Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. Boal's Balanchine credentials are unassailable: He attended only the School of American Ballet; acquired an impeccable command of the master's style; rose through the ranks of New York City Ballet to become a principal; and was teaching at SAB when Seattle called. Alastair Macaulay has already made a pilgrimage to Washington State to sample PNB's production of "Jewels." He loved it.

During the week of MCB's visit, City Ballet offered no other Balanchine but two performances each of "Brahms/Schoenberg" and "Theme and Variations" while an all-Robbins program, helpfully entitled "All Robbins" and consisting of four works, was given three times (and, on the whole, better danced). I'm delighted to report that his "Four Bagatelles" is back in the repertory, buoyantly realized by Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia. But why dig up Martins's pas de quatre, "Papillons," an arid piece d'occasion for the 1994 Dancer's Emergency Fund benefit? Why waste six excellent dancers on "Chiaroscuro" (1994 -- plainly a bad year), which was bearable only because it was set to Geminiani? Michael Zansky's intriguing five-piece "artwork" hung high above the stage repaid study more than Lynne Taylor-Corbett's shapeless choreography.

And there was the obligatory Eurotrash. Angelin Preljocaj's "La Stravaganza" (1997) involved a dozen first-rate dancers -- six dressed in contemporary clothes, six in period garb -- in some kind of time-warp: It opened with a woman emerging from the wings to take her place with the contemporary group and ended with a woman whom the period folks had abducted emerging from the wings to re-join it. Imagine "Groundhog Day" set to Vivaldi and some electronic clangor from four "composers" you've never heard of. No steps were too dreary to be repeated, and pointe-work was nowhere to be seen.

Which brings us to NYCB's newest commission, Douglas Lee's "Lifecasting," premiered on January 22 -- Balanchine's birthday, by the way -- as part of an utterly mad program called "New Combinations: A Tribute to Nureyev." Why him? Because the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation has contributed mightily to the company's endowment for such commissions. The program was intended to acknowledge Nureyev's connection with France, Britain and Russia so naturally it opened with the pas de deux from Bournonville's "Flower Festival in Genzano" which was, the last time I checked, about as Danish as you can get.

New York City Ballet's Kathryn Morgan and Allen Peiffer in the pas de deux from Bournonville's "Flower Festival in Genzano." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Since no ballet performance these days is complete without a film of some sort, the evening opened with a snippet from a 1962 "Bell Telephone Hour" telecast of Nureyev dancing "Flower Festival" with Maria Tallchief. The younger generation, who never felt the impact of his personality at his peak in a theater, were probably mystified by this inadequate equivalent of a truly legendary dancer. After an equally frustrating 1962 "Telephone Hour" excerpt from "Le Corsaire," with Lupe Serrano, City Ballet corps members Kathryn Morgan and Allen Peiffer performed the Bournonville complete. Unfortunately, an injury prevented fellow corps member David Prottas from being paired with Morgan to recreate the sensational performance they had given last winter for Nikolaj Hubbe's farewell performance. Had they duplicated that triumph, and Ms. Morgan is already bringing a ballerina's assurance to everything she dances, then anything that followed on "New Combinations: A Tribute to Nureyev" would have been an anticlimax as well as a muddle.

This is where we got "La Stravaganza," an all-too-fitting representation of France's contributions, via the Paris Opera Ballet, to the dance world's contemporary repertory. Britain was represented by works of Royal Ballet School graduates Christopher Wheeldon and Douglas Lee, the latter currently a member of Stuttgart Ballett. The pas de deux from Wheeldon's 2005 "After the Rain" looked a bit lost on an over-lighted stage, detached from the rest of the ballet and set to Arvo Prt's meandering "Spiegel im Spiegel" for violin and piano. The performance made an impact, however, for it held out the possibility that Wendy Whelan had found in Sebastien Marcovici a worthy successor to Jock Soto.

Lee's "Lifecasting" was set to Ryoji Ikeda's "Op. 1 (for 9 strings)" and Steve Reich's "Three Quartets." The latter's title implies a scoring for 12 musicians, wouldn't you say? Actually it used 13, but let's hurry on to the more intriguing "Choreographer's Note" that Lee helpfully inserted in Playbill. Here it is:

"Drawing on the dancers' individual movement dynamics, coupled with the scores of Reich and Ikeda, has inspired this work."

The distracting thoughts this insert raises go beyond its shaky syntax: What sort of choreographer would think it necessary to share it with us? What sort of choreographer would think it worth sharing? What choreographer, other than Merce Cunningham and his epigones, who bring on the music or some equivalent last, isn't inspired by the composer as well as the dancers as he works? And while we're at it, why "Lifecasting"? After reading another note in Playbill that explained: "Lifecasting is a technique used in sculpture in which casts are taken from the human form," I am impelled to a further query: "So?"

Possibly Lee pigged out on commandeering prime City Ballet talent because so little inspiration arose from his borrowed scores. Ikeda supplied a gentle mewling and Reich, mercifully eschewing percussion, concentrated on string texture. Enter Ashley Bouder, Maria Kowroski, Sterling Hyltin, Kaitlyn Gilliland and Georgina Pazcoquin, along with Robert Fairchild, Amar Ramasar, Craig Hall, Christian Tworzyanski and Adrian Danchig-Waring (who has just been promoted to soloist). That's enough individual movement dynamics to do justice to at least one tableau of "Le Sacre du Printemps," yet Lee did little with, and less for, his stellar cast.

Often the dancers stood around like pieces on a chessboard or strode about in stately fashion between lifts or sat or lay around onstage. There was a ditch or something stretching across the width of the upstage area, but Lee didn't know what to do with that, either. Bouder rose up out of it. Others walked beside it or in it but no one danced there. No one danced much anywhere, come to think of it. Fairchild did cut loose with a rubber-limbed seizure, keeping his back to the audience, but such exuberance was rare. "Miscasting" would have been a better title for this dud.

That Nureyev's Russian heritage was represented by a Tchaikovsky ballet came as no surprise, but the unlikely choice of Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" (1947) did. Balanchine's lack of interest in Nureyev was no secret. He did not often dance this most exposed of ballets, which doesn't permit charisma and showmanship to substitute for meeting its exposed technical demands. Peck was up to the ballerina role, however, and in subsequent performances she quite upstaged her partner, Joaquin De Luz, with her fearless attack and glistening technique.

In subsequent programs, "Theme" eventually assumed its rightful place as the finale of Balanchine's "Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3," strongly cast at every level with debutantes. Surely no one has had a more eloquent back than Sara Mearns in 'elegie.' Or sustained the moodiness of 'Valse Melancolic' better than Rebecca Krohn, partnered by Jared Angle. 'Scherzo' will never have more fleetfooted impetus than it had at Peck's debut, opposite the equally lambent Ulbricht. By their second 'Tema con Variazioni,' Hyltin and Benjamin Millepied had firmly established a gracious, unforced, wholly gratifying authority that was a joy to watch. After savoring worthy performances of Balanchine's "Monumentum Pro Gesualdo," "Concerto Barocco" and "Divertimento No. 15," I have put any plan to move to Seattle on hold.

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