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Letter from New York, 3-26: Narratives
A season of stories from City Ballet

New York City Ballet's Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in Balanchine's 'Rubies' from "Jewels." Photo ©Paul Kolnik.

By Harris Green
Copyright 2010 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- The decision by New York City Ballet to devote much of its 2010 winter season (January 5 - February 28) to five evening-length works was deplored in some quarters for being blatantly "commercial." In other quarters, such scheduling was admired as "strategic," the opening campaign in a coming battle for audiences with American Ballet Theatre. The companies' simultaneous spring-summer seasons at Lincoln Center will be the usual low-key rivalry just off the Josie Robertson Plaza: NYCB will do its repertory, laced this time with seven newly commissioned premieres (April 29 - June 27); ABT will celebrate its 70th anniversary season by presenting six evening-length works and four mixed bills (May 17 - July 10). The real hand-to-hand contest begins in December, when Balanchine's 56-year-old "The Nutcracker" will finally face a challenge from a major ballet company at the height of the Christmas season: ABT's resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's new version of "The Nutcracker" plays 16 performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from December 22 to January 2, 2011. ABT has cancelled its regular fall season to gird for the coming battle.

If City Ballet had wanted to attract ABT audiences for its productions of, say, "The Sleeping Beauty" or "Swan Lake," it couldn't have picked a better time than its first season in its newly renovated home. The New York State Theater was a magnetic attraction when it opened in the spring of 1964. If performances of NYCB and the New York Philharmonic ended around the same time, scores of concert goers leaving Philharmonic Hall would hurry across the plaza and elbow their way through departing ballet goers for the opportunity to ogle the stunning new house. (Yes, I participated in one of those spontaneous incursions.) The new interior, which is more impressive than ever after a $200 million renovation, may have exerted its pull on ABT patrons, although they would have been surprised and possibly outraged by Peter Martins's "Romeo + Juliet," "The Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake." More pleasant surprises awaited City Ballet's regular audiences. The present generation of dancers consistently) demonstrated the artistry, authority and daring to make major roles fully their own for years to come.

The season opened with Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (reviewed earlier this year) and closed with his three-act, plotless "Jewels" (February 25 - 28). Martins's ballets, along with five repertory programs, occupied the weeks in between. "Swan Lake," which entered City Ballet's repertory in 1999 after its premiere three years earlier at the Royal Danish Ballet, proved such a box-office smash this winter I was lucky to see even one of its triple casts. Ashley Bouder's Odette proved a creature of enchanted fragility, her Odile a glittering enchantress who generously garnished her fouettés with interpolated pirouettes. Benjamin Millepied's Siegfried was a low-octane affair until his a la seconde turns in the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Martins's consistently inventive divertissements, frequently cast with principals -- Hollywood calls such stellar appearances "cameos" -- would have won him the honors for choreography over ABT's version, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie, but by including Jester, a tedious, Soviet-style clown, Martins earned a major demerit. Corps member Troy Schumacher did well as this pest but lacked the ultimate in virtuosity needed to make him bearable. Daniel Ulbricht can justify Jester's presence, at least in Act I, but does he have to work to do so! He changes a pirouette in process into a one-legged revolving plié (think "corkscrew") and then comes back up out of it to resume his spins. Without a similar showstopping opportunity awaiting him in Act II, not even Ulbricht can prevent Jester from lapsing into nullity. Fortunately the divertissements provided a truly diverting pas de quatre, prodigally cast with Sterling Hyltin, Ana Sophia Scheller, Kathryn Morgan, and Gonzalo Garcia.

Martins's "Romeo + Juliet," its Prokofiev score judiciously nipped and tucked by company pianist Richard Moredock, was also triple cast this season. It was gratifying to see Erica Pereira and Allen Peiffer return to the lead roles they had danced when the ballet premiered in 2007 and see how they have grown in their demanding parts. Pereira's nimble, spunky Juliet proved closer to the definitive ones of Hyltin and Morgan than Peiffer's stalwart Romeo did to their respective partners, Robert Fairchild and Sean Suozzi. Rick Washburn and Nigel Poulton's staging of the fight scenes remained as rousing as ever. Belatedly, I noticed a genuine Shakespearean detail in the dueling when Capulet corps guy Giovanni Villalobos bit his thumb at the Montagues. (Check out Act I, Scene 1, line 42.)

Praise is overdue Georgina Pazcoguin for bringing some genuine emotion to the stock gestures assigned her as the Nurse: the awkward angle at which she cocked her feet during the tedious hazing by Mercutio and Benvolio is truly comic and her shock upon the presumed death of Juliet is actually moving. Continued exposure to Per Kirkeby's garish production has in no way diminished its painful impact. Re-acquaintance with his equally hateful "Swan Lake" was no joy, either. I'd almost forgotten how unattractive costumes and scenery in clashing colors covered in Jackson Pollock-style drippings can be, but now it's all come back, with a rush.

Kathryn Morgan and Tyler Angle in Peter Martins's "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo ©Paul Kolnik.

Martins's streamlined, two-act "Sleeping Beauty" (1991), which returned after a three-year absence for a two-week run (January 23 - February 7), may pain those who feel they haven't seen a 'Beauty' unless there are at least three intermissions and ponderous settings to be changed. While I'm of two minds about Patricia Zipprodt's costumes and I miss the fairies' pleading with Carabosse and the hunting dance, 'Beauty' easily remains the best of Martins's reworkings. He shrewdly retained Petipa's high points, included Balanchine's thickly textured Garland Dance (made for the 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival) and added acceptable choreography of his own, again in the divertissements. David Mitchell's evocative projections are more than diverting entr'actes and an efficient way to shift scenery. The spreading sunburst on the backdrop when Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré assume the throne as Tchaikovsky's glorious score swells in splendor is the grandest of grand finales, worthy of this touchstone of classical ballet.

City Ballet rose to the challenges that 'Beauty' poses a company at every level. The company fielded five Auroras who were all technical marvels, although Megan Fairchild and her steady partner Joaquin De Luz required scrutiny through opera glasses to fully register. Bouder, the company's industrial strength ballerina, came across like someone who's not going to be laid up forever by the prick of some stupid spindle. You're left with the impression she and her partner Andrew Veyette really deserve one another and will live together happily ever after -- or else.

By contrast, Hyltin's entrance was like the arrival of spring. Unfazed by any technical demand, unfailingly gracious, she was equally at home as an incorporeal vision or a shy teenager cautiously checking out exotic suitors, and she possessed the coolness and generosity to continue trusting her partner Jonathan Stafford after he almost fumbled the second fish dive in the pas de deux. (No problem with the third.) Tiler Peck, partnered by Garcia, made an air-tight debut that left astonishingly little to be criticized. Such feats have become common with Ms. Peck. She leaves me feeling grateful and just a little intimidated.

Morgan, the only Aurora of soloist rank, went on despite an accident during rehearsal that had aggravated a previous foot injury. Her coming off pointe during the Rose Adagio -- and pushing back up immediately -- was a fleeting indication of potential trouble that never developed. Her subsequent solo was fearless. The Vision Scene found her distinctive aura operating at full radiance. She has already formed a simpatico partnership with recently promoted principal Tyler Angle, her aristocratic Désiré. Their mutual trust and daring in the pas de deux heralded great things to come throughout the company's teeming repertory.

City Ballet set high standards repeatedly throughout the run. I like to think the orchestra under Faycal Karoui, Andrews Sill, and Clotilde Otranto did justice to Tchaikovsky's resplendent score out of gratitude for being entrusted with such a musical feast. The corps in the Vision scene, a dream-like diaphanous sequence under Martins, maintained the high level of excellence it set in "Swan Lake." Jennie Somogyi, Teresa Reichlen and Sara Mearns were uniformly splendid as the Lilac Fairy, embodying abundant goodness and grace to short circuit the evil spell of the Fairy Carabosse (Merrill Ashley and Jenifer Ringer cast equally wicked ones). Pereira, Pazcoguin, Scheller, Faye Arthurs and Rebecca Krohn particularly shone among the attendant fairies. (Is it just me or doesn't the incessantly pointing Fairy of Courage behave more like the Fairy of Rudeness? In the divertissements, Princess Florine and the Bluebird presented no obvious difficulties for the ever-reliable Peck and Ulbricht, although it always bothers me: Why does something so strenuously demanding give me such limited satisfaction even when danced superbly? I usually fidget throughout the White Cat and Puss in Boots but Martins's ultra-feline version didn't bother me at all (particularly as done by Stephanie Zungre and Suozzi). I wait out anyone's version of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the vain hope he will finally tear her limb from limb.

"Jewels" and the one-act works by Balanchine and Robbins that bobbed up throughout the season offered better opportunities for historic contrasts and perspective. Grieving admirers of Suzanne Farrell who have never accepted the similar -- please note I said "similar" -- satisfaction that Wendy Whelan and Maria Kowroski have brought to their goddess's repertory will now have to adjust to Reichlen and Mearns, just as Patricia McBride fans had to make room for Hyltin, Peck and Megan Fairchild in "Coppélia."

No wholly satisfactory replacement for the perfumed elegance Violette Verdy brought to 'Emeralds' has ever been found (although Bouder, who can muscle her way into just about any ballerina's repertory, was suitably subtle the last time she danced it). Abi Stafford, another mini-ballerina who profits from being observed through opera glasses, had some eloquent moments when partnered by Jared Angle (but not with by Sebastien Marcovici). Using the Hubble Telescope wouldn't have helped Ringer and Ask la Cour as the second couple. Scheller, Pereira and Antonio Carmena would have been ideal in the pas de trois; 'Emeralds' was double cast, however, and he never danced with them in the same performance. Fortunately, the elegiac resignation of the epilogue presented no technical problems so this most elusive act of "Jewels" always subsided satisfactorily. Balanchine's decision to tack Fauré's 'Death of Melisande' onto the original finale nine years after the 1967 premiere was an inspired afterthought.

Hyltin signaled she was making 'Rubies' her own from her very entrance. The jaunty way she cocked her head as Garcia hoisted her up in a one arm lift foretold the joyous confidence she presented throughout. While she struck some McBride admirers as "girlish," I savored Hyltin's unswerving technical assurance, knowing from her Swanilda that her artistry will make what looks like mere personality deepen into a treasurable interpretation. Garcia displaced no memories of Edward Villella but did not disgrace himself, which qualifies as a feat in this ballet. Ellen Bar's demi-soloist made a big leap in confidence and technique once her debut was past but she has a way to go.

I regret to report that 'Diamonds' built to an insufficiently grand finale at the two performances I saw. Admittedly, an extra rehearsal, squeezed in somehow at the end of a grueling season, would have straightened lines and synchronized steps, but I cannot help feeling that the 30 corps and demi-soloists performing increasingly dense contrapuntal maneuvers to Tchaikovsky would have looked anticlimactic, no matter what. Each time they had been upstaged in advance by a breathtaking performance of the pas de deux, made on Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise and now shared by Mearns and Jonathan Stafford and by Kowroski and Charles Askegard. Mearns, eloquent of back and elegant in carriage, dominated the space around her at rest or in motion. Kowroski, taller and blessed with a gorgeous line, unfolded and extended herself into space to conquer it.

Space didn't stand a chance against either ballerina. They and their partners seemed to subdue it without a struggle, but the truth is they were demonstrating an incredible concentration of muscle and mind at every moment, and never more so than during the traveling lifts matched to music marked Andante elegiaco. Each was like a long extended sigh. The ballerina will seem to float if her partner can hold her up at a uniform height while he walks at a slow, steady pace and if she makes her gestures - a recurring one resembles a slow-motion breaststroke - at the same delicate tempo while thus suspended. Both couples achieved this gravity-defying feat with silken precision. As far as I was concerned, 'Diamonds' couldn't get any better than that and, as it so happened, it couldn't.

New York City Ballet's Daniel Ulbricht in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." Photo ©Paul Kolnik.

The repertory programs scattered among the longer ballets held out great promise for future seasons. Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" regained its old power, thanks to Ulbricht's ability to make his mime as touching as his defiant leaps were powerful; Reichlen's coolly imperious Siren and Carmena and Suozzi's insidious servants gave depravity full due. Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering" has rarely been as top-heavy with ballerinas as in a performance cast with Hyltin, Mearns, Kowroski, Morgan and Tiler Peck, all of whom should be around for years. I would welcome this news more if I liked to listen to Chopin played, as Robbins decreed, with a minimum of rubato and matched to actions regularly at odds with the music. (The late company pianist Jerry Zimmerman, who performed Bach the uninflected way Robbins decreed for "Goldberg Variations," once urged me to attend a recital he was giving so I could "hear Bach the way it should be played.")

"Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2," a work with intimations of "Swan Lake" and so vast Balanchine required two ballerinas to do it justice, stretched before us in full splendor this season. Reichlen, partnered by Stephen Hanna, a most welcome guest artist, scrupulously attended to her fleeting, easily overlooked pointework as well as her sensational grand jetés. Morgan's demi-soloist entered with her full authority on display, threading her way through the corps like a top sergeant reviewing the troops. (Bouder and Jonathan Stafford's performance had been blighted by the whorish appearance of their demi, the cumbersome Savannah Lowery, who had dyed her hair a virulent cherry red for the occasion.) When will we again see the demi lean forward during her pas de trois with her male escorts in the first movement and seem to be blessing the floor? Kyra Nichols, who danced both women's roles and said each was equally difficult, was the last to perform those lovely, benevolently unfolding gestures.

Ironically, Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer" and Robbins's "West Side Story Suite," neither in mint condition, unfortunately, were further marred by inadequate singing. 'Walzer' hit its peak in the second section when all four ballerinas, now in pointe shoes and tutus and bathed in moonlight, took to the air at once. Then they and the performance came to earth. Darci Kistler in particular kept it there, despite the most loving partnering by Philip Neal. Somogyi remained a worthy successor to Verdy but with only generic help from fast-rising corps member Justin Peck. Janie Taylor and Marcovici and certainly Whelan and Jared Angle sustained the special spell of this precious masterpiece. Audiences received all of the first part and much of the second without bursting into mood-shattering applause. I hope such reverent silence was a tribute to the dancers and pianists Moredock and Susan Walters, but it might have been a sullen rebuke to the quartet of mismatched singers, too.

Leonard Bernstein's score for 'West Side,' beefed up by Otranto's conducting, had less fragility for an audience to damage. The five heavily miked vocalists did more than enough harm, generally from the safety of the wings. Robert Fairchild as Tony and Pazcoguin as Anita took the dancing honors. His solo to "Something's Coming" was a buoyant Robbins blend of Broadway and ballet. Her fiery domination of the "America" ensemble put show-biz to shame.

All right, I've put it off long enough. There was a world premiere on January 20: "The Lady with the Little Dog" by Alexey Miroshnichenko, resident choreographer of the Maryinsky Theater and chief ballet master of the Perm State Opera. 'Lady' is best described in simple declarative sentences, otherwise you may not believe it. Chekhov's short story "The Lady with a Lapdog" purportedly inspired it. Chekhov didn't mention eight angels but eight corps men in tights and T-shirts so described are all over the place. They keep unrolling and rolling up a long piece of carpeting or something about a yard wide. They also strip Veyette to his shorts. They strip Hyltin to her bra and panties soon after she enters with her silky terrier, Henry, on a leash. An angel leads Henry off before he can steal the show. Rodion Shchedrin's gentle score efficiently squelches any eroticism that could arise during a pas de deux. Hyltin and Veyette put their clothes back on. They strip to their skimpies again after those frisky angels unroll their swatch so they can walk upstage into -- well, is that glowing ball of light a sunset or a sunrise? Either cliché would come as a relief after such unorthodox stupefaction. Henry did not get a curtain call.

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