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Letter from New York, 2-19: Christenings and baptisms
City Ballet holds a house-warming; Prodigal Boal comes home

A real prince: Lance Chantiles-Wertz and the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" to the Tchaikovsky score. Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- City Ballet found its first evening of post-"Nutcracker" winter repertory (January 5) snubbed by most reviewers. The place to be was not the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center but downtown, at the Joyce, where Pacific Northwest Ballet was making its first New York appearance since Peter Boal became its artistic director, in 2005. Like Edward Villella's Miami City Ballet and Helgi Tomasson's San Francisco Ballet, PNB when under the direction of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell was considered a "Balanchine satellite company." In some critical quarters, the satellites had been considered a more reliable Keeper of the Flame than NYCB has become under Peter Martins -- until last season at City Center, that is, when neither Miami nor San Francisco looked exactly overstocked with world-class talent at every level. The hopeful anticipation of savoring a company directed by a superb Balanchine performer and teacher pervaded the Joyce. Martins may well have felt NYCB had been upstaged.

Two months earlier, City Ballet had been cold-shouldered aside and forced to wait its turn to perform in the refurbished and renamed theater that Philip Johnson had originally designed to the specifications of Balanchine. The honor of opening the Koch, now a state-of-the-art pleasure palace after a $200 million make-over, had gone instead to the New York City Opera, on November 5. Although 11 NYCB dancers did perform at the opera's opening-night gala, the Times reviewer merely noted their presence without naming them or what they danced. (The opera-goers didn't know how lucky they were to watch just the closing section of Martins's "Hallelujah Junction"; ballet-goers must wait 20 minutes to see Daniel Ulbricht, Sterling Hyltin, Robert Fairchild and four corps couples cut loose in its rousing finale. The eponymous Mr. Koch, who contributed half the cost of the make-over -- the remaining $100 million came from public funds -- was present to read a two-page speech.

When City Ballet did get its gala opening night on November 24, the dancers were upstaged by the musicians. The orchestra pit has not only been extended two rows into the house, making the theater seem much more intimate, but the pit floor now functions as an elevator to be raised or lowered. (City Opera had insisted on an adjustable floor because lowering the orchestra lowers the volume when a large ensemble is used.) City Ballet music director Faycal Karoui had programmed the Waltz from "The Sleeping Beauty" to stand alone as an overture, but as he began to conduct Tchaikovsky's beloved old music, the audience discovered there would be something to watch after all. The orchestra pit began to rise and did not stop until it had brought the musicians up to the level of the stage. [Applause]

Another diversion was the lively video, produced by Kristin Sloan and Galen Summer, showing workmen, caught in stop-motion photography, scampering about downstairs clearing away Johnson's arrangement of Orchestra seats as a series of continuous rows, each stretching unbroken from wall to wall, and replacing it with the conventional design: a middle section of seats, flanked by aisles running up from the pit, with a smaller section of seats on either side. We should pause at this point to acknowledge the alteration of the only building in America ever designed for dance and the elimination of Johnson's unbroken arc of seats, the sole distinctive architectural feature in all of Lincoln Center. Thanks to those aisles, however, regular patrons can now squeeze past fewer knees, umbrellas and, as the audience continues to age, canes to reach their seats. (Some 200 were reportedly lost in this renovation.)

Alterations have been made throughout the house. Acoustical paneling was added to the orchestra pit. Robot cameras were discreetly installed to broadcast the performance to latecomers in the Promenade or foyer and to artists in their dressing rooms; the cameras can be controlled from the "media center" on the concourse level so PBS need never bring its own equipment to the theater, should it ever care to broadcast another "Live From Lincoln Center." Welcome new seats were installed on every level but the new carpeting in the corridors received mixed reviews. The fixtures in the men's room are awesome in their sleek, enameled modernity. It was an honor to be allowed to use such facilities.

Dancing couldn't begin until Martins and Koch appeared onstage for obligatory speeches. (I have it on excellent authority that Koch read the same one he gave at the City Opera gala.) The first ballet wasn't a novelty, either, but few in the audience would have objected to another look at Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH", especially when cast with its original five principals. Benjamin Millepied affectionately partnered Wendy Whelan as before and Ashley Bouder was a fiery handful for Joaquin De Luz and Gonzalo Garcia. The corps of seven couples, which kept playfully encircling this tireless trio, had originally included several members of soloist rank; now it contained only corps members, some of whom truly rose to the occasion. Christian Tworzyanski looked particularly impressive, bounding up and down in evenly matched entrechats. Ratmansky's choice of Shostakovich's insistently perky Second Piano Concerto proved less of an annoyance, thanks to the transforming musicianship of pianist Susan Walters and the orchestra under Karoui.

Far superior material received a much less idiomatic treatment when Aurelie Dupont and Mathias Heymann, guest etoiles from the Paris Opera Ballet, lacquered their personalities onto the 'Rubies' Pas de Deux from "Jewels." I was way up in the Fourth Ring for the 1967 premiere of "Jewels," but Patricia McBride and Edward Villella reached me with ease in 'Rubies,' as did Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul in 'Emeralds' and Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise in 'Diamonds.' Dupont and Heymann were doing good to reach me in my First Ring side seat with the suave moves and toothy smiles they substituted for such Balanchine essentials as energy, wit, musicality and ease. At least it looked easy when Villella danced 'Rubies.' He grinned but he did more with his eyes than he ever did with his teeth. For the record, when Balanchine took his solo bow at the "Jewels" premiere, one lone yahoo booed him.

The gala evening's world premiere, Martins's "Naive and Sentimental Music," his ninth setting of a score by John Adams, was preceded by a brief film of a chat between choreographer and composer. Adams explained that the title referred to a concept expressed by the playwright and poet Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), a good man to go to for Germanic authority. Adams said great composers fall into Schiller's two categories: The Naive is represented by those trusting ninnies, Mozart and Schubert, and The Sentimental is represented by that old softie, Beethoven. I was still fuming at the naiveté of such classification when the ballet began. I was assigning different categories to Adams and Martins by the time it ended.

"Pretentious" would suit Adams, considering the subtitles attached to the score's three movements: 'Naive and Sentimental Music,' 'Mother of the Man' and 'Chain to the Rhythm.' "Ambitious" would certainly apply to Martins, who had rashly decided on a format of 13 pas de deux, cast entirely with principal dancers, but soon "Desperate" looked more apt. The first movement, marked by little of Adams's knack for enlivening rhythm or lively orchestration, went on so long seven couples were required to pad it out. At one point, all the women in their Liliana Casabal cocktail dresses of teal, powder blue and varieties of green were reduced to performing the same steps together, like a corps.

'Mother of the Man' (don't ask), a low-key affair for three couples in white, briefly came to life when Jared Angle, in the black sleeveless leotard he wore in the first movement, muscled in on Darci Kistler and Stephen Hanna (now a guest artist with the company after a long run on Broadway in "Billy Elliot"). Not much came of this intrusion, however. Angle left. Hanna returned. The other two couples returned. The movement dwindled down to some slow-motion manipulation of Kistler, Maria Kowroski and Sara Mearns by, respectively, Hanna, Charles Askegard and Jonathan Stafford. The ballerinas had line to spare but I would have preferred livelier activity to worthier music.

By the finale, Martins's inspiration was so low and his desperation so intense that its three couples in red were soon doing the same steps together and all 26 dancers were brought onstage for the first time that evening. When the music had built to a seismic, bilious climax, Martins could think of nothing more striking than lining everyone up in a diagonal on Stage Left, just before the curtain fell.  

Frankly, I suspect I would have had more satisfaction attending the first rehearsal of 'Music.' Five soloists had been called, along with 21 principals. Not until Martins slyly announced that only principal dancers would dance his latest work did Tyler Angle, Robert Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Amar Ramasar and Teresa Reichlen realize they had been promoted. The joyous camaraderie of all present must have been something to savor.

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

City Ballet's first "Nutcracker" of the season on November 27 did not find the company consistently operating on its grandest scale. Megan Fairchild as Sugar Plum and De Luz as her Cavalier provided spirited but diminutive precision in their great pas de deux. The Snowflakes' not-so-grand jetés betrayed the strain of preparing for a season of five evening-length ballets and a coming season of seven premieres, plus the usual last-minute run-through of familiar material. Mearns as Dewdrop, after entering with an exquisitely arched back bend, stunned the house with a footslip that led to a fall, then earned the roaring ovation New Yorkers always bestow upon dancers with the artistic aplomb to continue a marvelous performance as if nothing had happened. Without for a moment downgrading the performances of Rebecca Krohn (Coffee), Ulbricht (Tea), Sean Suozzi (Candy Cane), and the company's newest soloist, Erica Pereira (Marzipan Shepherdess), I am including among the evening's highlights the very gallante Nephew / Nutcracker / Little Prince of Master Lance Chantiles-Wertz. His Act II mime of the battle with the Mouse King included the most explosive froggy jump I have ever seen at this point, but what clinched my admiration for the lad was the dedication, respect and delight he candidly displayed in his interview for Playbill: "It's a lot of fun to do the pantomime and a real honor to be dancing Mr. Balanchine's choreography. I get a bit of an adrenal rush every time I hear the music playing."


Northwest by Northeast

The Little Prince was the first of the many roles Peter Boal performed at City Ballet. He made history by being the first male to have joined the company after studying only at the School of American Ballet and to then rise through the ranks to become a principal. He had retired from dancing and joined the SAB staff full time when he heeded the call to become artistic director of PNB. The company knows what a treasure trove of impacted dance lore it has with Boal; it's signed him on for five more years. He certainly made no false step in planning the repertory or selecting the theater. Programming no Balanchine avoided the appearance of "showing you how we do him in Seattle." Possibly Boal had no option but to book the Joyce at this time of year, but why ever it was chosen, the theater was a better venue for PNB just now than City Center, where the Balanchine satellite sweepstakes are usually run. PNB's previous New York season there was memorable only for Stowell's dash down the aisle in mid-performance to tell the conductor: "Too fast, Stuart!" Not that Boal would ever have lost his cool, but the Joyce has no pit. (The dancers performed to pre-recorded music.)

The shallowness of the stage worked in PNB's favor by leaving no room for the full company. Bringing only 21 of his 48 dancers allowed Boal to select the best of the troupe. They looked well-schooled, with energy and technique to spare, and the men's roster put Miami's, seen last year, to shame. Everyone initially smiled a bit too insistently, as if to melt the hard, cold heart of the big city. If only they knew how much that audience was pulling for them and their fondly remembered artistic director.

Any hostility was limited to those New Yorkers who have never forgiven Boal for taking NYCB's budding ballerina Carla Korbes with him when he left for Seattle. Since she appeared in three of the four works presented, those malcontents must have been thrashing in frustration all night. Korbes is undeniably a world-class ballerina, a creamy vision of technique leavened by a yeasty musicality swathed in a silken line. Strong as City Ballet's women's roster is now -- and it is very strong, indeed -- Korbes's departure looks like the greatest loss to the company since Farrell's break with Balanchine, and she eventually returned.

Unfortunately, something like a Diamond Project is already operating in Seattle, bestowing commissions on well-known choreographers whose inspirations will displace well-worn classics for a season or so. Works by Twyla Tharp and Benjamin Millepied commissioned by Boal in 2008 received their NYC premieres in over-the-top ensemble performances, and I sincerely hope to never see either again, done by any company.

Tharp's "Opus 111" was a preposterous imposition of spunky Tharpisms on a mellow, meditative Brahms string quintet. The score contained occasional lacings of what the Playbill notes called "a vivacious folk flavor." The notes also said Tharp "has choreographed the quintet's four movements for five couples." I counted six couples, and the folksy steps, done like every step in slippers instead of pointe shoes, looked more Russian than German. The major, all-pervasive error was that every move the dancers made, particularly their head- and hip-waggling, was Tharpian to the core, without even of a husk of Brahmsian gravitas. If a woman took to the floor in a supine position, as several occasionally did, she might be topped by a man, braced to perform a set of push-ups atop her, who might decide to embrace her for a roll on the stage instead.

Millepied didn't need to concern himself with creating characteristic steps worthy of a great composer. His "3 Movements" was set to something by that most reliable of minimalist robots, Steve Reich, who can be counted on to weed out anything such as euphony or wit that could interrupt his morbid fixation on relentless, unadorned rhythm. Millepied didn't seem to mind. He possesses an undeniable gift for choreographing for a group, in this case a corps of 14 unflaggingly presided over by Korbes and Batkhurel Bold, and he put them through the most disciplined and intriguingly textured maneuvers I've yet seen from him. Canonic sequence was cannily applied. Double tours en l'air were deftly inserted and unfailingly achieved, particularly by Seth Orza, another NYCB defector. Watching such gallant effort wasted on a score by Reich was sobering indeed.

Fewer people were wasted in PNB's two other offerings. Marco Goecke's "Mopey," a solo Boal commissioned for his gig group in 2004, might have gone over great in Zurich 90 years ago, when hearts of the advanced residents belonged to Dada. These days a lanky, bare-chested young man (James Moore) bouncing about to a movement from C.P.E. Bach's Cello Concerto in A Minor and the Cramps's "Surfin' Bird" is no defiant shocker but a tedious prank. Boal may have included Edwaard Liang's pas de deux "Fur Alina" (2004) as a favor to a NYCB colleague: A skeletal 1976 piano piece by Arvo Part in his dripping-faucet style provided a suitable background for a series of vignettes showing what I presume was a love affair's progress and disintegration. Korbes and Karel Cruz were discovered in spotlights on opposite sides of a darkened stage. A lone piano note sounded. Darkness descended. Another note and they were discovered in the same spotlight. The succession of isolated notes continued. The lights remained up. Intricate, inventive lifts began. The final blackout found them in the same separated positions as before. Okay, okay, I said it was "modest" but it was short and Korbes looked great. I await PNB's return in full force with better rep.

New York City Ballet's Daniel Ulbricht as Puck in George Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Meanwhile, back at City Ballet....

I later caught up with NYCB's opening-night winter repertory program, despite its inclusion of "Naive and Sentimental Music," because it featured a most welcome revival of Balanchine's 1970 Gershwin classic, "Who Cares?" Robbie Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin and Ana Sophia Scheller are off to an excellent start on the great roles created by, respectively, d'Amboise, McBride, Karin von Aroldingen and Marnee Morris. (The demi male roles could have used more energy.) 'Clap Yo' Hands,' the pas de quatre danced to a scratchy recording of Gershwin on piano, has been restored for the principals. The triumph of the opening week was Balanchine's setting of Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," cast to strength with Kowroski (Titania), De Luz (Oberon), Ulbricht (the definitive Puck), Reichlen (Hippolyta) and Pereira (Butterfly), with Whelan and Philip Neal utterly melting in the Act II pas de deux. If Martins can continue to deliver Balanchine casts as solid as these, he needn't pass that torch to anyone else just now.


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