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Letter from New York, 2-19: On your toes
At City Ballet, themes and variations

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2009 Gus Solomons jr

Four Voices, 1.18.09

NEW YORK -- Ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins has been trying to repackage his New York City Ballet with weekly thematic programs. Four Voices sounds like an excuse for no real connecting concept. The program features Balanchine's tediously overblown, four-ballets-in-one, "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet," and works by Lynn Taylor-Corbett, Alexei Ratmansky, and Martins.

Ubiquitous choreographer Taylor-Corbett shuttles between the Broadway stage, modern concert dance, and in 1994, to NYCB with "Chiaroscuro." The title refers to the play of light and shadow in visual art to produce the impression of three-dimensionality. The ballet, originally created for Jock Soto, is an impressionistic narrative about an artist and his muses, set to Geminiani, edited by Walter Kolneder after Corelli. And although it's entertaining, neatly crafted choreography, it has a second-handed feeling like the music -- modern ballet that's neither modern nor ballet.

A company's ballet master is often responsible for providing works that serve a practical purpose on a program -- featuring an underused dancer, say, or balancing a show with an opener or closer or a piece of so-and-so many minutes. Peter Martins's "Papillons" (1994) -- set to an eponymous Schumann piano piece -- is such a bauble. It features Darci Kistler, an NYCB principal since 1982, and Megan Fairchild, who was probably not even born then. Partnering them are the Angle brothers, respectively, Jared and Tyler. The short piece is constructed neatly, taking its dynamics and structure from the music.

Alexei Ratmansky is the hot new choreographer who has recently defected to American Ballet Theatre as its resident choreographer. While he resided at NYCB, one of his triumphs was "Concerto DSCH," a seductively buoyant interpretation of Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto in F Major.

NYCB's loss is definitely ABT's gain. The Russian understands counterpoint as well as any choreographer I can think of. The buoyancy of folk dance animates the corps work, which modifies what the principals are doing. The stage is constantly alive everywhere without forcing us to choose watching one thing over another. Everything coheres, even though diverse things are happening simultaneously.

Ratmansky's wit and humor inject themselves in little throwaway jokes, like the supported tour jete trio, in which the girl has to heft the guys, as well as vice versa. A man gently deposits a woman to a reclining pose on an angle, but when he abandons her she holds the position, unaided. And Joaquin De Luz, an island of calm, does a slow adagio passage, while couples rush madly about him.

The central duet, done with characteristic sensitivity and finesse by Wendy Whelan with Benjamin Millepied, is etched in space, downstage right, while three couples, upstage opposite them, contrast their texture but never distract from the sensuous continuity of the couple.

The choreography at times even echoes images from the work of its stylistic progenitor Balanchine, like the weaving formations of dancers linked hand to hand, reminiscent of passages of Balanchine's "Brahms-Schoeberg Quartet" that follows it on the program.

All Robbins, 1.20.09

In the lighthearted 1945 "Interplay," Robbins interweaves jazz-inflected ballet steps with Morton Gould's jaunty score. Each of its four sections represents a different take on the playfulness of youthful games. Sean Suozzi leads the cast of eight through its paces in Free Play; everyone gets a turn pairing with explosive Daniel Ulbricht in Horseplay; Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild canoodle coyly in the romantic Byplay; and in Team Play opponents try to outdo each other's ballet tricks, climaxing in a progression of double tours. The winner with four sets is, of course, jumping jack, Ulbricht.

Despite Whelan's riveting portrayal of The Novice, this rendition of "The Cage" -- Robbins's gynophobic 1951 ballet, in which a clan of feral females, led by The Queen (Rebecca Krohn), disembowels The Intruder (Marcovici), despite The Novice's sexual attraction to him -- fails to evoke the requisite horror. The leggy women in fright wigs and vein-striped leotards by Ruth Sobotka are spidery but hardly menacing. The over-the-top ferocity that should galvanize the piece was nowhere to be seen.

In "Four Bagatelles" (1974) -- a riff on classic character pas de deux -- Tiler Peck's dancing was dazzlingly precise and lyrical, and Gonzalo Garcia's assured presence was characteristically engaging.

"I'm Old Fashioned" closes the program with a ballet inspired by a Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth duet from the 1942 movie "You Were Never Lovelier." It develops the same steps, including a little collision between the partners. To Morton Gould's orchestrations of the Jerome Kern music, Robbins scatters solo variations and duets for three leading couples amidst the corps sections. It's nostalgic but how many variations do we need? Fred and Rita onscreen completely upstage the earnest onstage dancing.

Sunday Matinee, 1.25.09

New York City Ballet's Wendy Whelan and Sebastien Marcovici in Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Finally getting to view Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain" with Wendy Whelan and Sebastien Marcovici affirms Wheeldon's choreographic poeticism. Each gesture and lift becomes a rich metaphor that avoids predictability -- side by side stepping, a sideways lean into her partner, a simple, supported rond de jambe en l'air, a high arch with legs in second position, as he drags her diagonally. Seemingly simple movements combine into unique eloquence. And especially in the body of Whelan each move achieves the visual clarity and emotional simplicity of a choreographic haiku.

In a choreographer's note, British dance maker Douglas Lee says of his new "Lifecasting," "Drawing on the dancers' individual movement dynamics, coupled with the scores of [Steve] Reich and [Ryoji] Ikeda, has inspired this work." Indeed, the ballet is attractive to watch. Six men stretch five women into impossible shapes and drag them to and fro across a bare stage, in a lighting environment by Mark Stanley that includes a giant, space-age "chandelier" made of lighting instruments hanging, stage left; it rises and lowers glacially throughout the ballet.

Ten of the eleven dancers wear shiny gold dance clothes by Ines Ades, but incongruously, Ashley Bouder sports a turquoise bikini. As the dancers take turns twisting and twining in duets and trios, those not involved climb into a waist-deep trough upstage, where they idle in semi-darkness.

From Fairchild's opening solo to his final one, before he joins the others lying prostrate under the descending light sculpture, one is engaged by the dancers' skill, distracted by their upstage meanderings in and out of the trench, disappointed by Lee's treatment of the Ryoji Ikeda and Steve Reich music merely as aural wallpaper, and frustrated by the thinness of the work's expressive content.

Despite a cast that includes stars like Maria Kowroski, Hyltin, Ramar Ramasar, and Craig Hall, the freakishly flexible women and sensuously fluid men become anonymous ciphers, dancing about nothing but displaying their own athleticism. Individuals and relationships are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

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