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Letter from New York, 6-17: Landscapes
Arcs & Textures at City Ballet

New York City Ballet's Sara Mearns in Alexei Ratmansky's "Namouna." Paul Kolnik photo courtesy NYCB.

By Harris Green
Copyright 2010 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- After a winter season built around five evening-length works, New York City Ballet returned to trailblazing this spring with "Architecture of Dance -- New Choreography and Music Festival," running through June 27. The statistics are impressive: a $1.9 million budget was apportioned among seven choreographers and four composers (not a record; the 1988 American Music Festival commisioned five) and renowned architect Santiago Calatrava was entrusted with the "scenic designs." The theater itself looks unusually festive for the occasion. A couple of the posters or, as they say in show business, fronts displayed in the arcade have been given over to photos of the 34 repertory works scheduled this season. (If you're keeping score, George Balanchine is credited with 22, Jerome Robbins seven, ballet master in chief Peter Martins three and Christopher Wheeldon and Alexey Miroshnichenko one apiece.) Otherwise, the arcade has been given over to portraits of the septet of festival choreographers: Melissa Barak, Mauro Bigonzetti, Wayne McGregor, Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky, Martins and Wheeldon. Free-standing duplications of the fronts are on display in the promenade and lobby. Balanchine and Robbins were never granted such prominence on the exterior of the old New York State Theater.

Cracks had appeared in the "Architecture of Dance" concept by the time Claudia La Rocco's Sunday feature article on the festival ran in the New York Times on April 25. First to go was the unifying principle of matching choreographers with composers of the same nationality. The English-born Wheeldon selected a score by the late Alberto Ginestera, an Argentinean. McGregor chose a score by Thomas Ades, a fellow Brit, but rejected Calatrava as his designer. The Danish-born Martins remained loyal to Calatrava but joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in commissioning a score from composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, a Finn. Ratmansky not only spurned Calatrava's help but chose to set his ballet to Edouard Lalo's score for "Namouna," an exotic work that premiered at the Paris Opera 128 years ago to near-unanimous disdain, although Debussy had praised the music.

Under the circumstances, it wasn't surprising that Calatrava was not present at the April 27 New York City Ballet Guild seminar where Ratmansky and McGregor pointedly avoided discussing any fusion of architecture and dance. Ratmansky, speaking softly in a decidedly un-Russian manner with a voice that often diminished in volume as he went along, said his introduction to Balanchine's choreography had been "a revelation." McGregor, presently resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet and the tall bald guy with the Cockney accent who made an indelibly negative impression in Frederick Wiseman's documentary, "La Danse," never mentioned Balanchine or NYCB when describing his first visit to New York; he had been impressed instead by some Judson Church survivors and hip-hop artists. Had Calatrava attended, he wouldn't have contributed much, judging from the slim pickings La Rocco brought away from her interview with him: he is honored by the invitation to participate in the festival but doesn't know much about dance. (He has heard of Diaghilev, however.)

La Rocco had no difficulty garnering quotes from the choreographers and NYCB dancers about the urgent need for new ballets to prevent the company from becoming a "museum." I regret to report that even a choreographer as intelligent as Wheeldon used that word as a pejorative. MoMA has some pretty good art works over a hundred years old in its permanent collection, I'm told. To his credit, Wheeldon did add that Balanchine had set "an unattainable benchmark" for everyone. He complimented Martins for gallantly backing the American Music Festival and the various Diamond Projects since 1992, although no one noted that the resulting ballets have been about as successful at entering any company's repertory as "Namouna."

The inevitable video that opened the April 29 gala was devoted to Calatrava. His accent proved close to impenetrable but producer and former NYCB corps member Kristin Sloan had judiciously selected some stunning views of his exteriors. She also included some photographs to remind us that architects had also participated in the company's 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival, when Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed a set of tubing resembling a disassembled pipe organ that was supposed to be hung and lit differently for each ballet. I cannot remember one of those assemblages. According to my sources in the company, the newly molded tubing was memorable for its all-pervasive stench, creating an effect some dancers likened to sniffing glue. Calatrava's contributions will definitely not look generically interchangeable and should well prove unforgettable for one reason or another.

Martins appeared onstage opening night to introduce the architect and his wife, seated in Lincoln Kirstein's First Ring seats, and to invite them to join him in the toast that's traditional on these occasions. In deference to Mrs. Calatrava, a Swede, Martins genially said the quaff was aquavit instead of the usual vodka. Ordinarily, Martins adds that when Mr. B tossed back his toast, he called it "a hooker." [Laughter] On this occasion, Martins did not repeat that delicious bit of company lore. I do hope it will not go unrecalled at future festivities.

New York City Ballet's Abi Stafford, Daniel Ulbricht, and Megan Fairchild in Alexei Ratmansky's "Namouna." Paul Kolnik photo courtesy NYCB.

Millepied's and Ratmansky's ballets premiered this gala evening. Calatrava's scenic design for the former's "Why am I not where you are" earned a burst of applause the instant the curtains opened. Imagine a giant two-dimensional fan with radii of silver wires branching out from a rounded opening at its base through which the dancers flow. Because Thierry Escaich's commissioned score has an occasional phrase lifted from Ravel's "La Valse," Millepied was inspired to create a variation on the masterpiece Balanchine set to it in 1951. The result, more homage than ripoff, is more effective than cheeky. A young man (Sean Suozzi), a loner in white, is ignored by a young woman (Kathryn Morgan), one of 18 revellers dressed in costumes of acrid reds, greens and blues. If it's supposed to be a joke that the layered skirts by the company's costume and wardrobe director Marc Happel seem twice as heavy as the diaphanous ones Karinska designed for Balanchine, the laugh is on Happel. His making each bodice unique was in the Karinska tradition, however.

Morgan can't even see Suozzi until her playful companions begin to dress him in their multicolored garb. Just as romance blossoms, the fickle corps, led by that insidious pair, Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar (an impressive Death figure in "La Valse"), begin ripping away Morgan's costume. Soon, reduced to wearing nothing but white and therefore invisible to Suozzi, she is left a forlorn figure, abandoned by all as the curtain falls. Alastair Macaulay in the Times was correct to spot the influence of Powell and Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" here, but I'd give more credit to Millepied's growing mastery of the corps, Escaich's fearlessly romantic score, Calatrava's ominous "fan" -- which Mark Stanley's lighting continuously transfigures -- and Morgan's ever-potent aura for the darksome appeal of "Why am I not where you are."

Ratmansky's restless choreography for his aptly entitled "Namouna, A Grand Divertissement," would have clashed with any looming permanent structure. Change is a constant in the wings as well as onstage. Its 16 corps women exit in Rustam Khamdamov and Happel's daffodill-yellow Empire-style gowns, only to return in one-piece swimsuits with tiny stiff tutus. To complement the aquatic look, their black wigs are changed for swim caps straight out of an Esther Williams movie, and Stanley's evocative lighting accordingly modulates into a distinctly underwater ambience. The eight corps boys remain in sleek dark-blue space-cadet uniforms topped by bathing caps.

Daniel Ulbricht, very much a land-locked figure in gold, skin-tight, knicker-length bicycle pants, strides on to set what must be a company record for weight lifting by alternately partnering Abi Stafford and Megan Fairchild. He not only repeatedly hoists one partner and sets her down to pick up the other but exits with both women entwined about him. (The ladies later duplicate each other's steps in a sort of sisterly competition which Stafford dominates with her newly enhanced amplitude and clarity.) Ratmansky further tests Ulbricht's strength and technique by assigning him two -- yes, two -- sets of six -- yes, six ? 180-degree full-frontal grand jetés, straight out of the killer solo Balanchine made on Edward Villella in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Ulbricht nails them all.

Only Robert Fairchild in a sailor suit eschews a swim cap of any design. He has his hands full, scrupulously partnering Mearns, Jenifer Ringer and Wendy Whelan. Left to herself, Mearns tears off a tremendous solo tailored for her energy, line and truly gorgeous back. Ringer sets a bad example for the younger generation by strolling about puffing on a "cigarette" while politely waving its nonexistent fumes away. (This deplorable habit spreads to the corps.) Whelan, for whom Ratmansky has yet to create a solo worthy of her special gifts, receives instead several sensational Soviet-style overhead lifts from the tireless Fairchild to transform her into a lofty icon, adored by all.

Now please don't blame me if you can't figure out what all this has to do with "Namouna" or, for that matter, anything else. Wikipedia and "The Oxford University of Dance" supplied nothing relevant about the original ballet. Ratmansky, interviewed in the April Dance Magazine by editor Wendy Perron, did say the cigarette smokers are supposed to be gypsies, if you find that helpful. (I don't.) After a second viewing of this idiosyncratic jollity, I was reconciled to much of its antic, inventive, unfailingly musical use of a long-neglected, worthy score. What Ratmansky has done is to simply say, "Trust me. Enjoy, enjoy." "Namouna, A Grand Divertissement" is going to be around for further scrutiny in seasons to come. Meanwhile, Ratmansky gets another chance to do Whelan justice: He creates a solo for her at the Vail Festival this summer.

One exposure to McGregor's "Outlier," which premiered May 14, was quite enough for me, although I feel I owe composer Ades further hearings out of gratitude. What a relief to encounter a contemporary score that doesn't rely on minimalist echolalia and sustained cacophony. McGregor's choreography is strenuouslyly banal, another twitchfest lousy with Forsythe DNA and bereft of structure, a sustained, arrogant exploitation of spines, joints and sinews.

And what bodies have been offered up for sacrifice: Ashley Bouder, Sterling Hyltin, Maria Kowroski, Tiler Peck and Whelan; Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joaquin De Luz, Robert Fairchild, Gonzalo Garcia, Craig Hall and Ramasar. Whether awash in glare or enshrouded in gloom by lighting designer by Lucy Carter, they look tremendous. I soon came to believe they weren't all onstage at once until the finale so half of them could spend some time in a little massage parlor temporarily set up in the wings to provide ice packs, painkillers and the like before they go back onstage for further torment. I came to feel the need of a little something, myself, realizing that after all the effort put into learning the demanding vocabulary of ballet, these dedicated dancers are condemned to produce the kinetic equivalent of gibberish. Co-concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen was fully up to the agile violin part. The orchestra, propelled by Faycal Karoui's conducting, seemed to welcome the refreshing novelties afforded them by Escaich, Lalo and Ades.

The Balanchine repertory looked in good shape the first three weeks; it was those principals who are retiring this season who looked below par. Yvonne Borree was a decided blotch on "Divertimento No. 15," cast to strength with Hyltin, Bouder, Tiler Peck and Ana Sophia Scheller. Of the men, Tyler Angle set a noble standard unmatched by Andrew Veyette and Ramasar. Albert Evans's shaky Phlegmatic marred what had been a most reassuring "Four Temperaments." Fortunately, Teresa Reichlen charged on as a seething Choleric, bristling with gargouillards, to re-set the high standards established by Sebastian Marcovici's Melancholic, Jennie Somogyi and Tyler Angle's Sanguinic and a razor-sharp sextet of Themes (Faye Arthurs and Christian Tworzanski, Lauren King and Allen Peiffer, Ashley Laracey and Danchig-Waring). "Symphony in Three Movements," conducted by Karoui or Clotilde Otranto, bounced along propelled by those mighty jumpers Hyltin and Ulbricht and steadied by Jared Angle and Abi Stafford in the pas de deux. "Cortege Hongrois," that time trip back to Czarist Russia through the Hungarian excerpts from Glazounov's "Raymonda," found Mearns in truly imperious form, partnered by the ever-reliable Jonathan Stafford. Rebecca Krohn and Sean Suozzi were not the least hampered by dancing in boots and silly headgear. Glazounov wasn't a great composer but he could deliver great ballet music, served here with a gourmet chef's calibrated use of paprika.

Robbins's repertory also looked refreshed. Conductor Maurice Kaplow, who steps down this season, did well by Prokofiev and Morton Gould in, respectively, "Opus 19: The Dreamer," to which Gonzalo Garcia brought enhanced authority, and "I'm Old Fashioned," which found departing Philip Neal looking diminished for the first time in memory. 'Old Fashioned,' a sincere but miscalculated tribute to Fred Astaire, shrinks with every viewing. The Robbins choreography lacks the wit, sophistication and joy compressed into the opening film clip of Fred and Rita Hayworth, lifted from "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942), and Gould's bland, bloated variations on Jerome Kern's lovely eponymous tune are inferior to Conrad Salinger's livelier, briefer orchestration for Columbia Pictures. I will gladly tolerate another viewing, however, just to see that projection of Fred standing four stories high at the finale. Watching such unforced, elegant musicality, you know what Mr. B meant when he urged dancers, "Do it like Fred Astaire."

The much less ambitious "2 & 3 Part Inventions," conscientiously performed here by pianist Nancy McDill, remains a minor masterpiece, Robbins's only setting of Bach blessed with structure and free of pretense. And how about this for Historic Continuity: When 'Inventions' was premiered at the School of American Ballet's 1994 Spring Workshop, young choreographer/principal-to-be Benjamin Millepied danced the male solo. Golden corps boy Chase Finlay dances it now, with such worthy colleagues as soloists Erica Pereira and Morgan and corps members Stephanie Zungre, Daniel Applebaum, Joshua Thew, Laracey and Peiffer. They are going to be around for years, and so is "2 & 3 Part Inventions."

Martins's "Morgen" (2001) was another welcome revival, although I confess I approached it with some trepidation. I knew Martins had selected 10 lushly orchestrated Richard Strauss lieder. I recalled that he had succeeded at translating this treasure chest of Romanticism into nine ardent, daring pas de deux for three ballerinas alternating among three partners, and that the conclusion, a pas de six set to the gorgeous eponymous lied, had left the stage quietly aglow. As expected, the four returning members of the original cast -- Darci Kistler, Ringer, Nilas Martins, Jared Angle -- did not disappoint. And what a special pleasure to find Kistler looking so eloquent, assured and regal in her farewell season.

Predictably, Hyltin and Charles Askegard had no difficulty making roles created by, respectively, Janie Taylor and Jock Soto their own. Taylor's hurtling herself across the stage to land draped upside down over her partner's shoulder was unforgettable. Hyltin fearlessly repeated this feat, and in her second pas de deux, she rushed toward her partner with such headlong energy a mere slip of the foot sent her crashing to the stage. She arose uninjured, secure in the audience's admiration and affection. In a subsequent performance, her sunny courage remained undimmed, and her feet didn't fail her. As expected, Messrs. Angle, Martins and Askegard, surely among the finest partners in ballet, were unfailingly unflappable overseeing ballerinas spinning like a top or bearing down upon them like a lovely juggernaut.

What couldn't be predicted about these performances was whether the singer would be as gifted as the dancers, an all too rare occurrence at New York City Ballet. Soprano Rhoslyn Jones soon set all doubts to rest. She could have been stationed in a more acoustically favorable spot in the orchestra pit, but Jones phrased well with a voice capable of a secure, plush Straussian tone. The free-standing columns designer Alain Vaes had stationed about the dimly lit stage didn't seem incongruous at all in a season dedicated to "Architecture in Dance."

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